My “New” Article with Interpreter

Well, that was interesting.  Following my last post, which expressed some public concerns regarding the recent Interpreter article addressing the Documentary Hypothesis, the editors decided to republish an essay I wrote over a decade ago on temple imagery in Jacob’s Book of Mormon sermons.

I find this interesting because the article was written over a decade ago, and first published in a book dedicated to Mormon studies researcher Matt Brown in 2014, i.e. seven years ago, and I’ve gone through some deep, personal changes since that time.  But I also find this interesting because I was not contacted by anyone from Interpreter regarding republishing the piece, or whether or not ten years later, I would like to add or change anything to the essay prior to republication.

If I had been asked, I would not have given my permission, which is probably why the editors did not contact me.  And if the piece were to reappear in print, I would want to add a new introduction or an addendum to the article.  I wish to state publicly, therefore, that I do not agree with the editors’ decision to publish the piece without seeking my input and minus an addendum that reflects my current views on the essay.  It should have also included an updated biography and picture that reflect my current life and position so that there was no confusion.

That having been said, I wish to also state that despite my disagreement, in the end, I really do not care about the issue.   I’ve moved on to a happier, healthier state, and I feel bad that this trivial matter has caused some negative feelings for individuals engaged in online discussion.  To me, it’s not a big deal, and I truly hope that both sides will extend kindness and empathy towards each other.  Life is far too short to worry about such things, especially with so many important social matters that should occupy our attention.

I do wish, however, to use this opportunity to answer some questions that I receive from time to time.  I’m going to be very open and quite personal with this post with the hope that what I share can promote understanding and healing.   

I suffer from ADHD.    As I child growing up in the 1970’s, this challenge was never addressed.  I struggled in school.  I could hyper focus on whatever attracted my attention at the moment to the point of obsession, but that created challenges for fulfilling my daily-required tasks.  I barely graduated from High School. 

High School: Same Floppy Hippie Hat

I’m also a very free spirit.  I was a teenager in the 1980’s, and I was obsessed with 1960’s Rock N Roll.  I played and performed in Rock and folk bands, wrote my own songs, and spent my days focused upon music, surfing, and girls—probably in that order. 

San Diego news article about my songs from 1989,
right after I graduated from High School

I was raised in a devote LDS home, but I was also a Hippie surfer kid at heart who felt passionately about social justice issues and helping others.  The only car I have ever loved was a 1960’s VW Hippie bus that tragically blew up one day when we skipped school to go to the beach. 

I wasn’t interested in religion until my Senior year of High School, and then my ADHD kicked in.  I served an LDS mission in Brazil, and despite the hard work, I would force myself to wake up at least an hour early so that I could devote myself to studying Mormon Doctrine, The Great Apostasy, Doctrines of Salvation (I read all three volumes both in English and in Portuguese), the Discourses of Brigham Young, the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and other such works.  I loved my mission, but I also looked forward to the day when I could return home and devote hours and hours to my obsession studying Mormon history, scripture, and theology.

When that day came, the passion continued.  By the time I was 23, I had collected a massive LDS library, and had made my way through the entire 26 volumes of the Journal of Discourses.  This commitment eventually led to two graduate degrees and an 18-year career as a professional religious educator for the LDS Church.  To say that I loved Mormonism with all my heart, mind, and soul would be an understatement.  My love drove my studies, my degrees, and my career.   It also drove my publications defending the Book of Mormon’s claims. 

My first publication was twenty-one years ago with the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies through the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).   That article was followed by many others, and even a book co-authored with famous Mormon apologist John Tvedtnes.  I traveled as a speaker for the Know Your Religion circuit, and taught annual adult classes for BYU’s Education Week.  I taught thousands of students about interesting connections between the Book of Mormon, LDS temple worship, and the ancient world.

The year is now 2021, and I no longer attend the LDS Church, and I have been quite vocal on occasion sharing my conviction that despite its power and beauty, the Book of Mormon is not a translation of an ancient text.  And so I am sometimes asked how I could hold such a view and explain the links between the work and the ancient world that I devoted so much attention to exploring.  It is a fair question, and one that I’ll try to answer as openly and honestly as possible. 

I’ll start by quoting the thesis I present in the rereleased essay published by the Interpreter:

“When Book of Mormon prophetic discourse is read through the lens of ancient temple worship, many of these sermons can be shown to reflect imagery and ritual performances directly associated with biblical concepts.”

This essay I wrote a decade ago (first published in 2014) does not claim that the reading I present constitutes evidence that the Book of Mormon is ancient.  It states that it “reflects” those views.   Even my most apologetic work, the book I co-authored with Tvedtnes, states clearly in the introduction that the topics of Hebraisms and other such matters do not prove that the work is ancient. 

I honestly cannot pin point the moment I knew that the Book of Mormon wasn’t ancient.  I don’t know.   But it’s been awhile, even though I wouldn’t admit it to myself.   In fact, a major driver for my publications connecting the Book of Mormon with the ancient world was that I was trying desperately to make the book be something that it wasn’t.  I wanted the Book of Mormon to be an ancient record.  In truth, I still do.  But it is not, and it has taken me many, many years to work through my feelings on that matter.

I sincerely apologize, therefore, to those who have been in my classes or who have read my work.  I wish that I had been stronger.  All I can say is that I loved the LDS Church and its scriptures so deeply that I could not allow myself to face this topic with as much honesty and integrity as I wish I would have.    

The book is not ancient, but that does not mean that it is not inspired, and for many years, I saw the Book of Mormon that way as an active, committed, believing Latter-day Saint. 

The Book of Mormon is a beautiful, powerful, unique 19th century religious work.  And I have published extensively on its fascinating literary, religious, and linguistic connections with the ancient world.   Yet what I have written is only the tip of the iceberg for the insights I once wanted to share with others.  In fact, many years ago, I had a dream that I was dying in the hospital and was visiting with one of my former religion professors at BYU.  I shared with him my lament that I would not be able to publish the many, many exciting connections I had seen between the Book of Mormon and the ancient world.  That dreamed haunted me for quite sometime.  But that is no longer the case.

The year is now 2021. I will never publish anything like that ever again on the Book of Mormon, which is why I wish the editors of Interpreter would have asked about my feelings.  I simply do not have the passion for the topic I once did, and I also never again want to leave anyone with the impression that my observations provide evidence that the Book of Mormon is an ancient work.  For every exciting link I can point out, I can also identify two or three anachronisms, which show that the work is a 19th century religious production.  Let us consider simply a few points that pertain to my own studies:

1. The story of a buried book protected by a guardian spirit that Smith needed to prove himself worthy to unearth is a direct product of his mystical treasure seeking activities.

2. The story of an indigenous white skinned people with connections to the Israelites who were destroyed by the darker skinned natives was a common narrative Smith inherited from his culture.

3. Nearly every single verse of the Book of Mormon either alludes to, echoes, or directly quotes the King James Bible familiar to Smith.

4. The Book of Mormon quotes Hebrew and New Testament texts known to Smith that would have been unavailable to the people of the Book of Mormon time.

5. Many of the narratives in the Book of Mormon derive from the New Testament book of Acts.

6. The Book of Mormon presents Jesus himself delivering the Sermon on the Mount to the indigenous people of America. However, the sermon is an amalgamation of teachings attributed to Jesus by the author of Matthew and much of it would have made absolutely no sense to the people of America given its original historical setting.

7. The sermons in the Book of Mormon reflect the exact same patterns Smith was exposed to along the western frontier. They are not like the sermons we see from the ancient Near East, including the Book of Deuteronomy.

8. The Book of Mormon answers all of the serious religious questions 19th century Christians were debating during Smith’s life.

In the creation of the Book of Mormon, Smith clearly reflected his own understanding of the way God creates. Smith rejected the traditional Christian understanding of creation ex nihilo and instead argued that God created by taking unorganized material and giving it structure. The evidence is clear: this is precisely what Smith himself did in the creation of the Book of Mormon.

So how did he do it?

For those interested in this subject, I would high recommend reading William Davis’ Visions in A Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon

Bill’s study shows how Smith used several techniques that facilitated the process of oral composition, including the semi-extemporaneous amplification of skeletal narrative outlines, the use of formulaic language in biblical and pseudobiblical registers, rhetorical devices common in oral traditions, and various forms of repetition (e.g., recycled narrative patterns) to come up with all those words.

Smith was a product of his time.

And Davis shows that post revolutionary America taught, developed, and encouraged oratorical skills at a level unparalleled in twenty-first-century American practices that Joseph Smith took full advantage of. We have record of people from his era committing lengthy biblical sections to memory for oral performances.

As far as we can tell, Smith began talking about the plates and the book in 1823. He claimed to obtain the record in 1827. That means he spent three or four years telling and developing stories for his account. Four years without TV, electricity, or computers. Four years listening to sermons and reading the Bible. He completed five hundred printed pages within a ninety-day period. But remember, he wasn’t writing. He was simply speaking words out loud and/or reading text from the KJV of the Bible and Adam Clark’s Commentary.

But in addition to this, we know from his mother’s account that Joseph Smith was a great storyteller, and that for years, he would sit around the kitchen with his family telling the most incredible, detailed stories about the ancient inhabitants of America.

Like many 19th century Americans, Smith took the Bible very seriously. He believed it contained a history of the cosmos, the earth, and human origins. Smith assumed that all human beings were descendants of one of Noah’s three sons—Ham, Shem, or Japheth. Yet the problem for Americans who embraced this traditional 19th century perspective was that the indigenous people of America were left without origin.

One of the reasons Smith created the Book of Mormon was to link the indigenous people of America with the Bible’s history of humanity. The Book of Mormon presents the 19th century perspective that darker skin derives from a divine curse for displeasing God. The reason this controversial notion appears in the Book of Mormon is because Smith believed that the Bible contained a record of human origins. It therefore needed to account for racial distinctions. An important part of Smith’s work, therefore, was to fill in what he perceived as the missing biblical data for human origins there were other works that parallel the Book of Mormon from the 19th century that make a similar effort.

Smith was like so many others in his day that believed that the indigenous people of this continent had connections with ancient Israel and he produced a spectacular, unique oral production that addressed these issues, and it’s a book that is totally consistent with his skills, experiences, and the practices and beliefs of his time.

So that’s how he came up with so many words—well, that and he did copy many of them directly out of the KJV of the Bible and Adam Clark’s commentary.

The Book of Mormon is an incredible work, do doubt, unlike anything that has ever been done before, and I can show many, many beautiful connections between it and the ancient world like those addressed in the most recent Interpreter republication, but that doesn’t mean that the Book of Mormon is ancient.  It doesn’t even mean that the book is inspired or came from God.  It simply means that it’s interesting, and despite its impressive links with antiquity, the Book of Mormon is clearly best contextualized in Joseph Smith’s world and via his unique background and skills.

I never wanted this to be the case, but it is, and I must speak out with full honesty on the subject, both as a former religious educator and as a student of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East.

I have said this many, many times over the years, and I will once more.  This fact does not preclude the book from being inspired.  It simply means that those who feel that they access divinity through its pages may need to reconceptualize how they understand the work religiously.

So given that conviction, why do I now no longer attend the church that I devoted my education, my career, and my life to?  I’m going to now be even more open publicly.

There is good in Mormonism, and I celebrate that good.  I am grateful for it.  But what is good is not unique and what is unique is not good.   Ultimately, what makes the LDS Church unique is modern prophetic leadership.  Many other communities teach the importance of families, believe that they will continue in the next life, and embrace the values of honesty, integrity, and perform community service.  What makes Mormonism special is its claim for modern prophetic revelation and authority.

I believe that the LDS church leaders mean well.  But they are not good religious leaders.  It gives me no pleasure to state this; in fact, it causes me considerable pain and angst.  But I must speak out.  Their teachings and policies do tremendous harm to the LGBTQ+ community.  Every six months they instruct their members to doubt their doubts, to only look towards approved sources of information, to never share their doubts or concerns with non-believers.  They say things that divide families and the community, calling those who leave the church lazy learners who cannot exercise even a particle of faith. 

I would honestly feel alright about their leadership, if these men could keep up with the world in terms of its progress in helping those who have been historically marginalized or abused, but tragically this has not been the case.  LDS Church leaders have fought against the extension of basic human rights to minorities and women.  And they continue to collect tithing from the poor and downtrodden, including those suffering in third world countries.  I disagree with this, and so I cannot attend.

And now, it has become an even deeper issue for me personally since I have discovered how much happier and spiritually edified I feel as a person committed to spiritual independence.    I no longer spend eight to ten hours per day in the Mormon scriptures.  I spend an hour per day in the gym.  I no longer spend three hours ever Sunday sitting in meetings.  Instead, I go out hiking in the Utah mountains and spiritually connect with the beauty of the earth.

Today, I am free.  And I am healthier spiritually, physically, and emotionally than I have ever been in my adult life.  I remain grateful for my life as a believing, committed member, but I see that time as training wheels for where I am today.  Now I get to ride the bike myself and take it wherever I long to go.

What a long, strange trip its been. In some ways, I have come full circle.  I’m still that same Hippie surfer kid I once was.  I even play in a bar band those old songs I wrote in High School, and I fill my days trying to make heaven on earth now in the present rather than worrying about an afterlife.  Love is my religion, and I do love humanity (including the LDS church leaders) and am doing my very best to serve others. I sincerely hope that LDS Church leadership will consider the harm that they are doing, and seek to improve–to better follow the example of Jesus and create a community that uplifts the poor and the oppressed. I support and sustain them in their effort to improve.

Me singing my songs with the band Dead Cowboys

But perhaps the best way to conclude my personal essay that gives more background than most readers would find interesting about a republished article that explores temple imagery in the Book of Mormon would be to site one of my favorite songs from the Who.  This really resonates with me:

I’m free, I’m free
And freedom tastes of reality.
If I told you what it takes
To reach the highest high
You’d laugh and say nothing’s that simple
But you’ve been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
and no one had the guts to leave the temple!

But I’m free, I’M FREE!
And I’m waiting for you to follow me!

Freedom!!!

Apologetics and the Documentary Hypothesis: A Response

Since the 19th century, scholars have made exciting discoveries that shed significant light on the Bible. One of these findings is the fact that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) were not composed by a single individual, but instead consist of a redaction of originally independent literary works. This view, known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), challenges traditional religious beliefs that the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is connected with the prophet Moses.

The DH presents unique challenges for Latter-day Saints, who not only revere the Bible, but also possess additional 19th century scriptural works produced by Joseph Smith. These scriptural texts rely upon and often directly cite portions of the Pentateuch. In 2014, I published a book titled Authoring the Old Testament which sought to both introduce a Latter-day Saint audience to the DH and present a way in which believers might make sense of the scholarship and their religious convictions.

It took some time before I agreed to write the book. I had recently faced challenges at Brigham Young University for my commitment to historical critical scholarship, and I was at the time still employed as a professional religious educator for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a result, I had some reservations. I recognized that others in the past had gotten into some trouble with Church authorities for publishing on this topic. I also understood that if I left church employ to take a full-time academic position, a devotional book written for Latter-day Saints on historical scholarship would not help my career. In the end, I decided that the topic was simply too important, and at the time, I felt driven to help my community address this challenge.

I did not (nor do I still) pretend to possess all the answers, nor do I claim the ways in which I understand the DH, and how I once made sense of the scholarship as a committed Latter-day Saint are without error. I often make mistakes in my judgment, and when it comes to the creation of the Pentateuch, we need to constantly refine our understanding to accommodate new scholarly discoveries.

Since 2014, several articles have appeared in the Interpreter journal that have addressed this same topic. Though no doubt well intended, these apologetic efforts to defend a traditional understanding of scripture have unfortunately caused some confusion and misunderstanding. With this essay, I will illustrate the need apologists have to first understand the scholarship they’re addressing before attempting to counter its implications for LDS scripture.

The most recent article from the Interpreter addressing the DH appears in volume 45 and is titled, “The Brass Plates: Can Modern Scholarship Help Identify Their Contents?” The essay was written by A. Keith Thompson, a Law professor and former LDS Mission President. Thompson commences the essay by addressing the DH with these words:

“In simple terms, the Documentary Hypothesis holds that Old Testament scripture has more sophisticated theological and political origins than is apparent to casual readers (p. 85).”

The DH certainly has many complicated elements, and scholars continue to debate some of the significant issues pertaining to the theory. Yet I personally believe that casual readers are quite capable of recognizing that the first five books of the Bible are not the product of a single author and/or tradition. Really, the only thing the casual reader needs to do to see why the DH is necessary is simply open up the Bible and read the first two chapters.

The Bible begins with two creation stories. The first account, contained in Genesis 1, appears neatly organized into three days of preparation followed by three days of actual formation. Each day concludes with the formulaic expression: “and there was X.” By the seventh day, all creation exists in its proper sphere and so, God rests. Then quite dramatically, everything changes. Creation simply starts all over again.

In some ways, these two accounts are duplicative– each telling a story concerning the creation of animals, plants, and man. On several key issues, however, they contradict each other. For example, while the two stories describe the same events, they place the actions in a different sequence. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man and woman were created together on the sixth day, after all the animals. The creation story in Genesis 2, however, states that God created man on the first day before he created the animals. Finally, after everything else was finished, God created the woman from the man’s rib. Thus, in Genesis 1, God creates plants, then animals, and finally man and woman at the same time. In Genesis 2, however, God creates man, plants, animals, and finally woman.

There’s another interesting difference. The creation story in Genesis 1 uses the divine name Elohim (translated “God” in the KJV), and the second story in Genesis 2 uses the divine name Yahweh/Jehovah God (translated as LORD in the KJV). This vocabulary distinction appears consistently throughout the texts. So what is the casual reader to conclude? That these two stories present two distinct views on creation that have been brought together by an editor or “redactor” to open the book of Genesis.

And that’s the Documentary Hypothesis. Well, of course there is more to it, but I think casual readers are quite capable of seeing why the DH has remained the scholarly consensus for understanding the creation of the Pentateuch for nearly two hundred years. In reality, it’s quite difficult for a casual reader to make sense of the books without it.

In his essay, Thompson attempts to expose his readers to the basics of documentary analysis in the Pentateuch with these words:

“The [Documentary] hypothesis claims that the Old Testament was probably compiled after the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity and that the compilation drew its text from four different Hebrew narrative traditions, each of which had its own agenda (p. 85).”

This, however, is an incorrect assertion. And unfortunately, it’s not a trivial mistake. The DH makes no such claims. The DH only pertains to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament). The OT contains 24 books that were written over a thousand-year period from approximately 1200 to 200 BCE. The DH only pertains to the first five books or the Pentateuch, not the entire Hebrew Bible. Yet unfortunately, this is not simply an editorial oversight. Thompson makes this same critical error throughout the essay:

“Scholars who analyze the Hebrew Bible describe four separate sources for all the Old Testament; they label them J, E, D and P” (p. 85).

The sources J, E, D, and P are found throughout the first five books of the Bible, but they do not appear throughout the rest of the Old Testament, which includes a variety of distinct literary compositions and genres. You’re not going to find J or E in Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, or Song of Songs. And of course the Old Testament was compiled long after the Jewish exile. Many of the books hadn’t even been written yet. That’s something that Thompson and the editors over the Interpreter piece could have discovered by simply looking at a Mormon seminary or youth Sunday School manual.

To simply take one example, the book of Ezekiel was written after the Jews left Babylon, so of course the OT, which includes Ezekiel, wasn’t complied before Ezekiel was written.

I believe what Thompson and the Interpreter editors meant to say was that the DH proposes that the Pentateuch, not the entire OT, was “probably compiled after the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity and that the compilation drew its text from four different Hebrew narrative traditions.” But even that statement although better would be incorrect. In reality, the DH is a literary issue, not a historical one. It reflects the fact that the first five books feature a variety of doublets and inconstancies that suggest multiple authors contributed to the book.

The dating of the documents in the Pentateuch and its compilation has no effect upon the literary analysis and should be kept separate from the DH. Joel Baden addresses this issue quite nicely in his book The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis:

“If it could be demonstrated somehow that J is from the tenth century BCE, and that P is from the third century BCE, while E is from the second millennium BCE, and D was written during the Hoover administration, the literary evaluation of the text and the isolation of the sources on the grounds of narrative flow would be precisely the same” (p. 31).

In other words, although important, dating of the composition of the Pentateuchal sources is a separate scholarly issue from the DH itself, and it must be kept that way. Scholars continue to debate when these sources best fit into Israelite history, and they will no doubt continue to do so for many years, but the DH does not help us identify when the sources were composed and edited into their present form, only that they were.

Continuing, Thompson also makes the following assertion regarding the DH:

“[Some] versions of the Documentary Hypothesis focus less on the agenda and foibles of the original traditions and redactors and consider that scripture is cumulative and that prophets interpret what they receive from God in familiar cultural terms” (p. 85).

For a reference, Thompson cites my book Authoring the Old Testament. I feel a need, therefore, to clarify. Authoring does not present another, separate version of the DH that argues that prophets interpret their revelations from God in familiar cultural terms. My book presents a basic, contemporary survey of the DH (what is sometimes called the Neo-Documentary Hypothesis) that reflects my own understanding of the sources and how they relate historically and literarily to one another. Although there are scholars who see some of the issues differently from the way I do, we all rely upon the DH to understand the Pentateuch. I addressed this issue briefly in a 2015 edition of the Biblical Archeology Review, explaining that contrary to some arguments, the DH is not “dead,” but still in various forms represents the scholarly consensus.

What my book does is present the DH and then offer ways in which a believing Latter-day Saint might make sense of the issue. It does not present another, less critical version of the DH. And this is why it is strange that Thompson’s article cites my work and then presents this statement:

“I do not accept the suggestion that faith-based scholars are incapable of objective research in this area. I believe that all research and writing have an inescapable autobiographical element” (footnote 11).

The entire purpose of Authoring the Old Testament was to show that people of faith can produce and accept the conclusions of objective scholarly research on the Bible—that accepting scholarship will often necessitate a shift in paradigms, but it does not require that a person abandon his or her religious beliefs. I still very much adhere to this position. Thompson’s statement suggests that he is either unfamiliar with the work he cites, or he has not understood it.

Additionally, Thompson’s suggestion that all scholarship features “autobiographical elements” or bias is a red herring. It is true that we all have bias, but it is not true that all we have is bias. Here is how scholars Marc Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, and Daniel J. Harrington explain the issue in their book, The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible both Critically and Religiously:

“Historical critics of the Bible argue that we know enough about the world and languages of the Bible (and we hope to know more in the future) that we can offer reasonable explanations of an author’s meaning or a text’s function in the original context, and on that basis, we can certainly disqualify some interpretations of a text as anachronistic, fanciful, and therefore impossible” (p. 6).

Thompson’s view that we can uncover portions of an original book of Moses in the Pentateuch is exactly that—his arguments simply do not accord with the historical record.

In his essay, Thompson provides another reference to my work with this statement:

“David Bokovoy has observed that some faith-based modern scholars have suggested that the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ is dead, while reasserting the inspired unity and inerrancy of the original biblical texts beginning with Moses. . . In relation to the Book of Mormon, Bokovoy suggests that the references to the five books of Moses are “clearly anachronistic” since ‘the concept of five Mosaic books’ did not eventuate until well after the exile. But more recent scholarship has reaffirmed Noel Reynolds’s 1990 view that the Brass Plates may well have contained material related to the Book of Moses which Joseph Smith later translated and which now forms part of the Pearl of Great Price in the Latter-day Saint scriptural canon” (p. 87).

Scholarly consensus holds that the Pentateuch as we know it was not produced until the Persian era (550–330 BCE), and the notion of Mosaic authorship of five books, i.e. what appears in the Book of Mormon, is historically anachronistic, since the idea that Moses wrote five books of Torah dates to the Persian period in Jewish history, and subsequent Jewish writings reveal that the Torah was commonly understood as the book of Moses only in the Hellenistic era—in other words, after the Jewish exile and hundreds of years after Lehi and his family would have left Jerusalem.

So what is this “recent scholarship” that counters the fact that the Book of Mormon’s reference to “five books of Moses” is anachronistic and could not have been made by someone like Lehi prior to the Jewish exile? Thompson cites two articles by LDS scholar Noel Reynolds, one published in Interpreter and the other a presentation given in Provo in 2020. Reynold’s work reaffirms his argument that the Brass Plates contained material related to Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses, published in the Pearl of Great Price. I’m not going to address Reynolds’ argument in detail. Interested readers should consider the Honor’s and subsequent Master’s thesis by Ph.D. student Colby Townsend which address this issue (Here).

Instead, I will simply observe that the LDS Book of Moses combines separate documentary traditions from the Bible into a single literary unit. Those documents were originally composed in Hebrew. If Moses was a historical person (and scholars do not have enough evidence to make that determination) most would assign his dates to sometime during the 14th through 13th centuries BCE. However, the earliest segments in the Bible were produced during the 12th century BCE. They are attested in several poems including the so-called “Song of Moses (Ex. 15), and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. These poems were most likely recited in antiquity, which is why they retain archaic grammatical features unlike the later Hebrew that appears throughout the Pentateuch. The earliest Hebrew writing yet discovered is from Khirbet Qeiyafa and dates to the 10th century BCE. This means that it is impossible to associate any portion of the written Pentateuch with Moses himself.

Moreover, and this seems to me to be quite important, even if Reynolds’ argument was correct that a book of Moses existed that reflects Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses, this would only mean that a book of Moses existed prior to the exile. Hence, the Book of Mormon’s reference to “five books of Moses,” i.e. a Pentateuch would still be anachronistic.

The view of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch that influenced Joseph Smith’s scriptural productions reflects traditional Jewish and Christian assumptions. The Book of Moses, for example, provides a new introduction to the Pentateuch that explicitly presents Moses as the author of Genesis:

“And now, Moses, my son, I will speak unto thee concerning this earth upon which thou standest; and thou shalt write the things which I shall speak. And in a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold, I will raise up another like unto thee; and they shall be had again among the children of men—among as many as shall believe” (Moses 1:40-41).

This revelation from Joseph Smith identifies Moses as the man who wrote a book that depicts the things pertaining to this earth, including its creation as described in Genesis 1 and 2. Yet as we have seen, those two chapters represent two separate views of creation written by different authors. The Book of Moses, therefore, reflects the later Jewish and Christian tradition familiar to Joseph Smith that these two chapters present a unified view of creation authored by Moses himself. And we know where this tradition stems from historically.

The Bible states that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai in the presence of God for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:18, 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 10:10). Later Jewish interpreters concluded that this constituted too long of a period of time for Moses to have only received the laws that the Bible itself identifies as a Mosaic revelation. Traditions, therefore, developed that Moses received the entire written Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy, at this time.

Eventually, Jewish rabbis even expanded this view to include the entire oral tradition that provided an authoritative interpretation of the written Torah. This view, however, does not reflect the way contemporary scholars understand the Pentateuch. In terms of the books themselves, only Deuteronomy contains a possible allusion to Mosaic authorship.

The book appears introduced as “the words which Moses spake unto all Israel beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1). Moses is also attributed as a source for later sections of Deuteronomy (4:44; 31:24; 32:45). However, in the subsequent biblical books of Joshua and Kings, the expression “the torah of Moses” should be taken as a reference to the laws of Deuteronomy rather than the Pentateuchal collection (Josh. 8:31-32; 23:6; 1 Kgs 2:3; 14:6; 23:5). This stems from the fact that historically, the book of Deuteronomy was the law of Moses attached to the Deuteronomic History, which included the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. If Reynolds and his colleagues at Interpreter truly wish to counter this view they have a long way to go.

Thompson’s description of the documents in the Pentateuch shows further confusion. For example, here is the way he presents the J source that begins in Genesis 2:4b, i.e. the second creation story:

“The Yahwist/ Jahwist author from the Southern Kingdom (“J”) wrote a narrative epic story in the tradition of Homer’s Iliad. God was referred to as Jehovah or Yahweh or by some derivative of those names. David, as a descendant of Judah, was the hero of the Jehovists” (p. 85).

Stating that David was the hero of the Jehovists is odd since the J source concludes in the book of Exodus and David does not appear mentioned in the Bible until the book of Samuel. It is true that we see some effort in J to prop up the tribe of Judah, which suggests a pro-Davidic/Solomonic political agenda, so perhaps this is the feature that Thompson alludes to in the source. But his confusion is even more apparent when he addresses the story of Cain and Able. Thompson references a point I made in Authoring:

“Bokovoy’s view that references to Cain and Abel are anachronistic if the Book of Mormon comes only from E sources (ibid., 206) is also rebutted if something like the Pearl of Great Price version of the Book of Moses formed part of the Brass Plates” (p.87-88),

This, however, is a misrepresentation of my position. I wasn’t suggesting that references to Cain and Abel are anachronistic. What I stated was that the story derives from the J source in Genesis. This makes the proposal that the Book of Mormon authors only had access to the E document (something that LDS apologist John Sorenson once argued) impossible. One of the central features of the Elohist account is that it only focuses upon the story of Israel. E does not contain a story of creation or an account of prehistory. Instead, E features a much tighter focus on Israel as a people. From E’s perspective, if a story is not specifically an “Israelite” account (like the stories of creation, Cain, Abel, Noah, etc.) then it was simply not worth addressing. What I suggested was that since the Book of Mormon is aware of the Cain and Abel (as well as Adam and Eve) story, it is quite problematic to assert that the Book of Mormon authors only had access to E.

Following the lead of previous Interpreter contributors such as Reynolds, Bradshaw, and Lindsey, Thompson is suggesting that a hypothetical book of Moses may have predated these documents, and that it included features of each of the documentary strands that appear in Genesis. This is a strange assertion in light of the following point Thompson presents regarding criticisms of the DH raised by traditional believers:

“Skeptics of the Documentary Hypothesis observe that none of these alleged source documents exist except in the minds of their hypothesizers” (p. 86).

The fact is these source documents do exist. They appear in the first five books of the Bible. We can see them there today. Extracting them from the Pentateuch, scholars are able to resolve narrative problems in the account, and in the process, we witness that once identified, the sources feature unique themes and literary styles that flow into beautifully consistent documents. What truly only exists in the minds of hypothesizers is a hypothetical book of Moses that predates these sources and contains features from all of them. There’s obviously nothing even close to that, which has been discovered by archeologists.

If Thompson and others are skeptical of the DH because we have yet to uncover an independent version of P or J outside of the Bible, shouldn’t that skepticism be even greater for a hypothetical book of Moses for which we have zero physical evidence?

Thompson’s article features similar problems in his description of the Elohist or E source:

“The ‘Elohists’ rewrote the ancient history in the Northern Kingdom after the David/Solomon empire split under Rehoboam and Jereboam, and those writers referred to God as Elohim. David is barely referred to in Elohist literature. The heroes of this ‘E’ tradition are older, including Jacob and Joseph in particular” (p. 85-86).

David is never referred to in E. E ends in Exodus, and once again, David does not appear in the Bible until the book of Samuel. Concerning the Priestly source, which begins with Genesis 1, Thompson offers the following summary:

“The ‘Priests’ (the authors of ‘P’) are often said to have written during the Babylonian captivity to keep the captives on the strait and narrow path (‘P’) and to preserve Jewish identity and culture through careful religious observation. (However, others, as noted above, argue for a pre-exilic origin of the material often said to be from ‘P'” (p. 86).

In reality, as I explained in Authoring, P itself is an edited document with separate literary layers (some of which may very well be “pre-exilic). The consensus holds that an early stage of P was probably composed during the sixth century BCE and brought together after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE.

I recognize that the details of the DH in all of its varieties are complex. To understand them, a scholar must devote a significant amount of time and energy to studies that have taken place over the past two hundred years, and which continue to be debated and refined. I also recognize that the implications of this scholarship prove uncomfortable for many traditional religious readers.

Yet before LDS apologists seek to counter this extensive body of research, it would be best if they first sought to understand it. I suspect simply producing apologetic essays such as this, which make fantastic claims about the implications of recent scholarship, and which misrepresent the DH will ultimately do more harm than good for those trying to maintain religious devotion to LDS scripture.

Instead, I would suggest two possible approaches: 1. Believers such as Thompson could simply ignore the implications of mainstream scholarship and just choose to believe. This would never work for me, but it does for some. 2. Believers such as Thompson could accept these historical views about the Bible and shift their belief paradigms to accommodate the implications of scholarship. It is possible to do, and many believers in a variety of faith communities are able to make that approach work.

In my view, either approach would be superior to publishing apologetic work, which shows that the authors have had very little exposure to the topics they’re addressing.

Review: Producing Ancient Scripture

I’ve been intrigued with what seem to be esoteric[1] influences flowing into Joseph Smith, and esoteric elements flowing out of him — into Mormonism.  And as I consider how he fits into the larger scheme of esoteric-Christianity, I see the concepts of an original, powerful language, and the ability to “see” and “translate” ancient scriptural texts — as major manifestations of his esoteric production.  What can we know about the beginnings and subsequent development of a “Pure” language in his revelations and translations, his use of a folk-magic seerstone to see and translate buried texts, his work to develop an “alphabet and grammar” for the yet uncracked[2] Egyptian language, and the general sense of the esoteric as both an influence on Smith, as well what flowed out of him. 

With this in mind, I was happy to see the new book Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity [3] – which takes a scholarly look at the topics related to Joseph’s use of language and translation.

The authors explore questions like:

  • What was the relationship between revelation and translation?
  • How does traditional translation differ from Joseph Smith’s translation?
  • What were the roles of women in the translation process?
  • How does his translations compare to Helen Schuman’s translation: A Course in Miracles?
  • What contemporary sources influenced his translations, and how?
  • How do seerstones, forgeries, magic, and Freemasonry tie into his translations?

Because of my interests, I jumped first to David Golding’s thought-provoking chapter: ‘“Eternal Wisdom Engraven upon the Heavens”: Joseph Smith’s Pure Language Project’. Golding overviews European/American esotericism, focusing on earlier speculations of an original language of God and the idea that the mysterious, untranslated Egyptian language held hidden truths.  Joseph Smith fits nicely within this context with his flirtations with a Pure/Adamic language, his Egyptian translations (Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham), and his Egyptian language project (“Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”).

Secondly, I pursued David Grua and William Smith’s solid treatment of the translation of the buried parchment of John as laid out in D&C 7. However, part way through the chapter, one realizes it may not have been a translation, there may not have been a parchment, and that it is unclear if it had to do with John. Their research incorporates a variety of disciplines including contextualization, textual history, Biblical criticism, Christian history, theological implications, theological influences, publication history, and more.

These are two of seventeen chapters from Producing Ancient Scripture. Nineteen authors address four main areas: the context and beginnings of Smith’s translations; translation of the Book of Mormon; translation of the Bible; and projects that began later (“Pure Language,” the Book of Abraham, and the Kinderhook Plates).

The editors are to be congratulated on pulling together an excellent collection of articles by seasoned historians, laying a new, higher foundation for a thorough understanding of Joseph Smith’s translations. This book is essential reading for those interested in an in-depth exploration of Joseph Smiths language and translation projects.


[1] Esoteric: obscure, private, secret, hidden, inner, mysterious, mystical, mystic, occult, arcane, cryptic, inscrutable, abstruse, recondite, cabbalistic. esoteric. (n.d.) Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. (1995, 2002). Retrieved September 14 2020 from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/esoteric

[2] Initial success in understanding Egyptian characters occurred in the 1820s but a full understanding would not develop until the 1850s.

[3] Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, Michael Hubbard MacKay (Editor), Mark Ashurst-McGee (Editor), Brian M. Hauglid (Editor), University of Utah Press, 2020.

Continue reading “Review: Producing Ancient Scripture” »

Adam Clarke’s Commentary and the Book of Mormon

In his most recent podcast episode, Radio Free Mormon spent an hour and a half exploring the possibility of the influence of Adam Clarke’s early nineteenth century Bible commentary on the Book of Mormon. In the wake of the publication of an important new essay by Thomas Wayment and Haley Wilson-Lemmón, showing that Smith made hundreds of revisions to the New Testament based on his reading of Clarke’s commentary, it is possible now to explore further the breadth and depth of the influence of Clarke’s commentary on Joseph Smith, Jr.’s textual productions.

Radio Free Mormon’s new episode aims to do just that. He explores the possibility that Smith used Clarke’s commentary not only in the production of his revision of the Bible but in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as well. Near the end of the episode he mentions that there is a scholar who is currently working on a paper that explores the extent of the influence of Clarke’s commentary on the Book of Mormon. When I first listened to the episode at the recommendation of a close friend I was surprised to learn this.

Last fall I was working full time as the administrative assistant for a division in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah and taking the introductory course for the PhD program in English there as well (as a non-matriculated student in the hopes of getting accepted to the program). I had finished my master’s degree at Utah State University in the spring and filled out applications for PhD programs in the fall. At some point during the hectic semester I was analyzing the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon based on a critical text that I had created using the 1830 text of the Book of Mormon, of all the lengthy block quotations. The critical text includes an apparatus that brings together in one place all of the variants between the earliest textual sources—O (original manuscript), P (printer’s manuscript), 1830 (the first printing of the Book of Mormon), and S (Skousen’s Yale edition to see what he thinks is the earliest text)—to get a better idea of what Smith might have been dictating to his scribe in 1829.

After creating the text I went through and highlighted in light gray every word or letter that was the exact same as the KJV of the corresponding quotation. This allows the reader to better see where the text of the Book of Mormon varies from its biblical source. I had created this text for a larger project to more closely analyze the way that the Bible is used in the Book of Mormon and understand what makes its appearance in the book unique. I have long thought that the evidence is more than clear that Smith was reading the text of the biblical quotations from a copy of the Bible, a conclusion that Mormon scholars accepted for most of the twentieth century until sometime in the late 1970s, and was preparing my notes for a paper arguing that scholars in Mormon studies should return to the earlier consensus held by Sidney Sperry, H. Grant Vest, Daniel Ludlow, and others. In doing so I started to tally up the variants found in the block quotations in 1 Nephi 20. For example, my first notes went like this:

“1 – Added “Hearken and”/subtracted “ye”
Added “yet they swear” to replace “but” – I
Subtracted “in”

2 – Added “Nevertheless”
Added “but they do not” to replace “and”
Added “which is the Lord of hosts; yea”

A part of the goal of the project was to see if the variants agreed with any of the printed editions of the Bible (a study I have repeated multiple times over the last seven years or so) or available commentaries. At the same time I was keeping these notes I was comparing them with commentaries written by Adam Clarke, Thomas Scott, Matthew Henry, William Lowth, Robert Lowth, John Wesley, and versions of early nineteenth century commentaries where multiple commentators’ notes were combined. One of the commentaries stood out almost immediately: Adam Clarke. The inventory of variants I had compiled increasingly showed that there were clear connections to Clarke’s commentary unlike anything from the other commentators.

Unfortunately the semester was too busy to continue a systematic treatment of the subject and I had to set the project aside for the rest of the semester. Once I had completed my class a few months later I remembered that I had found tentative evidence that Smith likely used Clarke’s commentary in his dictation of at least large sections of the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. I say this because it is probable that Smith did not use Clarke in the Malachi quotation. After finding my notebook I began a full systematic study of the variants and continued to compare them to all of the sources I mentioned above. In the end I discovered roughly sixty or so variants that might have been influenced by Clarke’s commentary, with many clearly coming from that source.

Once I had a list of the strongest connections I went on a search for those specific phrases in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. As outlined in my paper, the evidence supports the argument that the phrases found in many of the variants in the block quotations of the KJV in the Book of Mormon come from Clarke’s commentary. Both the specificity of the phrases and the quantity of the connections makes it just as likely that Smith was using Clarke’s commentary during the dictation process of the Book of Mormon as the evidence found by Wayment and Wilson-Lemmón for Smith’s revision of the New Testament, and it is likewise found in both the quotations from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament.

So, why was I surprised to learn from Radio Free Mormon’s podcast that there was a scholar working on this project? I had only told a small group of close friends and academics about what I had found and planned to only announce the project once the manuscript had been accepted at and published in a journal. I immediately wondered if there was someone else working on the same project that had found some of the same connections I had or if Radio Free Mormon somehow knew about my research. I found out from one of my friends I had spoken with about the project and Radio Free Mormon that Radio Free Mormon had planned on doing an episode on the possibility of Smith’s use of Clarke in the Book of Mormon. My friend mentioned to him that he was aware of my project but didn’t share any details about it or who I was.

At this point in the process I am getting closer to a full draft of the paper but it is not yet ready to be submitted to a journal. It seemed like this was probably the time to more formally announce the discovery and identify myself as the author of the paper Radio Free Mormon had mentioned in his podcast. Like I mentioned earlier, this paper is one piece to the larger puzzle of understanding why the biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon vary from the KJV, and each of those variants need to be closely examined individually. This discovery, though, is one step closer to understanding the larger picture of how Smith dictated the block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. There is far more research to be done and papers to be published.

“Writing Mormon History” is an emotional roller coaster ride

A review of Joseph W. Geisner, ed., Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2020).

Writing Mormon History, edited by Joseph W. Geisner, is a collection of essays by prominent historians of Mormonism about the process of writing some of the field’s most important books. Some of the authors focus on personal narrative, some on writing and research process, and some on the most interesting and important findings from their books. In all cases, I felt that I really got to know the authors—even the ones I’ve never actually met in real life. I was particularly struck by how avocational Mormon history is. It seems that most of us are working on our books as side projects, often on shoestring budgets, frequently with no credentials or acquiring credentials along the way.

Several authors encountered difficulty accessing documents necessary to their research. D. Michael Quinn’s chapter, in particular, reveals that the “Camelot” era of “openness” under Leonard Arrington as Church historian wasn’t actually that open at all. Quinn worked closely with Arrington and saw firsthand how the Church historians systematically censored themselves for fear of a crackdown by Church leaders. Arrington strongly encouraged Quinn to censor his work and resented when Quinn resisted (244).

Several authors also encountered bad-faith resistance to their work from the institutional Church. In addition to the well-known story of Quinn’s excommunication as one of the “September Six,” we also read that a Church representative lied to get access to documents used by Will Bagley (52), and that “unnamed church officials” asked BYU’s Mary Jane Woodger to write a faith-promoting biography of David O. McKay that could be published prior to Greg Prince’s (234-35). For Daniel P. Stone, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), a request not to publish pending apostolic review came from the apostles of that Church (367-78).

Particularly heartbreaking was the story of Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newell, whose work on an Emma Smith biography challenged both their marriages and their Church memberships. Val’s husband was jealous of the project’s success and received secret instructions from a Church leader to control his wife, which he attempted to do. Val eventually left both the Church and the marriage (179-80). Linda’s husband had to overcome some resentment about her becoming a “professional woman,” but ultimately he was more supportive than Val’s husband, and their marriage survived (182). Their Church participation didn’t. Church leaders acted in bad faith and sent “an unmistakable message: to protect the church’s authority and its official interpretation of Joseph Smith, Val and I were expendable” (200). Most of her family quit attending, and book sales boomed due to the publicity generated by the Church’s suppression efforts (205-206).

And then there were those moments that all of us historians live for: the breath-taking moments of discovery, as when Greg Price lifted a blanket off a pallet of books and found dozens of David O. McKay diaries, or when Mike Quinn found a bunch of uncataloged boxes in a dusty corner of the Church archives, or when Daniel Stone discovered the original records of the Bickertonite church in a private archive in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Those of us who love historical research live for these moments, and I felt a deep kinship with these authors as they described their awe.

Writing Mormon history emerges, by the end of this volume, as an extremely difficult but ultimately rewarding process. The LDS authors describe having their faith challenged and in some cases destroyed, and conservative LDS readers should beware: they may experience similar disillusionment as they read this book. Yet these authors have also arrived at profound insights, about life as well as history and writing books. Linda King Newell quotes a sign she saw on Alma Blair’s office wall that sums it up well: “The truth shall make you free, but first it hurts like heck” (178).

Review: The Writings of Oliver H. Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois

The Writings of Oliver H. Olney: April 1842 to February 1843 – Nauvoo, Illinois Edited by: Richard G Moore Published by: Kofford Books, June 2020Genre: Documentary History Pages: 340 Binding: Cloth  ISBN: 978-1-58958-762-5Price: 38.95 In 1981, my parents took me … Continue reading

Book Review: Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church

Title: Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church, by: Lavina Fielding Anderson, Published by: Signature Books, Published in: 2020. Genre: Faith, Personal EssaysPages: 277 Binding: Paper ISBN: 978-1-56085-283-4 Price: 18.95 Jana Riess begins her brief foreword to Mercy Without … Continue reading

Book Review: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon

Title: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon by William Davis, Published by the University of North Carolina PressGenre: HistoryYear Published: 2020Pages: 250Binding: Cloth, Paper, eBook ISBN: Cloth, 978-1-4696-5565-9; Paper, 978-1-4696-5566-6; eBook, … Continue reading

Book Review: Kingdom of Nauvoo

Title: Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier Author: Ben Park Published by: Liveright   Genre: History Year Published: 2020Number of Pages: 324Available in : Cloth & Digital ISBN: 978-1-613149-486-4 Price: Cloth, 28.95; … Continue reading

Mormon Political Trilogy: A Brief Book Review

Utah, the Murder Hornet, err, Beehive State! It was not a planned, coordinated effort (I think), and the books were released out of order, but along with fires, plagues, and murder hornets, the last year has given the world of … Continue reading