Category Archives: Book of Mormon

Nephi’s Jerusalem

“And thus Laman and Lemuel, being the eldest, did murmur against their father. And they did murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them. Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father.” First Nephi 2:12-13

In 598 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem, which surrendered to him on March 16th 597 BC.[1]

Cuniform tablet in the British Museum documenting Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597 BC.

Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem’s king hostage, along with his royal court.

2 Kings 24:10 At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it, 11 and Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. 12 Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him. In the eighth year of the reign of the king of Babylon, he took Jehoiachin prisoner.

The armies of Babylon pillaged the city and plundered the Temple and palace.

2 Kings 24:13 As the Lord had declared, Nebuchadnezzar removed the treasures from the temple of the Lord and from the royal palace, and cut up the gold articles that Solomon king of Israel had made for the temple of the Lord.

Nebuchadnezzar took captive to Babylon all the wealthy, skilled and able-bodied men (~10,000 in all), leaving only the poor.[2]

2 Kings 24:14 He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left. 15 Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive to Babylon. He also took from Jerusalem to Babylon the king’s mother, his wives, his officials and the prominent people of the land. 16 The king of Babylon also deported to Babylon the entire force of seven thousand fighting men, strong and fit for war, and a thousand skilled workers and artisans.

To consolidate power and establish control, Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as a puppet-king of Judah, whose job it was to ensure that tribute was paid on time.

2 Kings 24:17 He made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place and changed his name to Zedekiah.

This was by far the largest of the three deportations of the Jewish Diaspora. The prophet Ezekiel and the ostensible author of the Book of Daniel were carried hostage to Babylon at this time. According to Jeremiah, who counted only men, 3,023 Judeans were deported in 597 BC (52:28), 832 inhabitants in 586 BC (52:29), and 745 Jews in 582 BC (52:30). Thus, this first deportation was ~4 times larger than the second and third deportations.

Nephi begins his story “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah” as Nebuchadnezzar is hauling away his slaves and treasure. With this historical background in mind, here are eleven questions for Sunday school class:

1. Were the families of Lehi, Ishmael, and “Laban and his fifty” among “the poorest people of the land”, such that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t notice them?

2. Why, after the city had already fallen, did “many prophets” show up and prophesy that the people must repent or the city would fall?

3. Why did the Lord tell Lehi that “many should be carried away captive into Babylon” when most of them were already gone?

4. Why did Lehi condemn the few remaining “poorest people of the land” for their wickedness and why did they “mock him” for saying the already fallen city must fall?

5. How did the Babylonian army miss Lehi’s “gold, and his silver, and his precious things” and “all manner of riches” along with the plates of brass, Laban’s sword, armor, treasury, servants etc.?

6. Why didn’t the plates of brass, which contained “a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” mention anything about the surrender of Jerusalem or Nebuchadnezzar’s plundering and hostage taking?

7. Why were Laman and Lemuel et al. “desirous to return unto the land of Jerusalem” if only a few poor people were left?

8. Why did neither Laman nor Lemuel “believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed” when the city had already surrendered?

9. Why was Nephi grateful to be delivered “out of the hands of Laban” but apparently ambivalent about their delivery out of the hands of Nebuchadnezzar?

10. Why did Nephi boldly prophesy to his brethren that the already fallen Jerusalem should fall “at some future period”?

11. Was the author of First Nephi aware of the manner in which Zedekiah came to power?


[1] “In the seventh year [of Nebuchadnezzar-599 BC.] in the month Chislev [Nov/Dec] the king of Babylon assembled his army, and after he had invaded the land of Hatti (Syria/Palestine) he laid siege to the city of Judah. On the second day of the month of Adar [16 March] he conquered the city and took the king [Jeconiah] prisoner. He installed in his place a king [Zedekiah] of his own choice, and after he had received rich tribute, he sent forth to Babylon.” — Babylonian Chronicles, No 24 WA21946.

[2] The observation in 2 Kings 24:14 that “only the poorest people of the land were left” after the first deportation is supported by Jeremiah’s description of the second deportation (586 BC) where some of these remaining poor were rounded up. Jeremiah 52:15 Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile some of the poorest people and those who remained in the city, along with the rest of the craftsmen and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon.

Crawling Over the Book of Mormon

“If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages… then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit.”Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, October 2009 General Conference

Probably the number one argument for the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon is the presence of numerous alleged Hebraisms in the text. These Hebraisms are asserted to come in such wide varieties and to appear so frequently that some apostles and Hebrew-speaking apologists see the book “teeming” with “Semitic complexity”. Other Hebrew scholars however, see things differently.[1] How can we objectively determine what constitutes actual evidence for Semitic authorship of the text?

That we should expect any Hebraisms at all in the Book of Mormon requires the following crucial assumptions:

  1. Reformed Egyptian is merely a shorthand script (not a language itself) for writing Hebrew.
  2. The condensed script somehow preserves Hebrew grammar, syntax, logography, morphology etc.
  3. The Nephite’s alteration of Hebrew (Mormon 9:32-33) did not change the grammar, syntax etc.
  4. Joseph dictated a tight word-for-word translation of the Reformed-Egyptian Altered-Hebrew to Oliver Cowdery.[2]

If any of these assumptions are invalid then there is no reason to expect any genuine Hebraisms to have made it onto the original manuscript. Although there is no evidence to suggest any of the above assumptions are valid (other than perhaps Joseph’s spelling out of certain names, suggesting tight translation), let’s assume for the moment that they are all true, and hence that the text should reflect Classical Hebrew style and grammar. We can then choose one of two approaches for evaluating the Hebraisms on a case by case basis.

The first (most common) approach is to scour the text to find some parallel with biblical poetry or other language pattern, then announce the discovery of a subtle literary ploy, proclaim the highly sophisticated understanding of the Nephite author, and declare victory.

A second (less common) approach is to (a) establish controls for discerning between actual Hebraisms and normal/acceptable English, and (b) determine quantitatively if the Hebraisms appear with significantly greater frequency in the BoM than in the D&C or other non-Nephite writings.[3]

To illustrate the differences between these two methodologies, let’s look at cognate accusatives as a test case. Cognate accusatives consists of a verb immediately followed by a noun derived from the same root; for example: “cursed with a sore cursing”, “work all manner of fine work”, “judge righteous judgments” etc. These types of expressions occur in the Bible and are thought to constitute genuine Semitic constructs. Hence, it may be cause for excitement to read that Lehi “dreamed a dream” or that the abominable church “yoketh them with a yoke” and so forth. Our enthusiasm may be dampened however, when we learn that the very first cognate accusative to occur in the BoM, “handle with our hands”, occurs not in the Nephite text but in The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.[4] We might be further discouraged to read in the D&C that the Lord will “work a marvelous work” (18:44), that He “cursed them with a very sore and grievous curse” (104:4), that Joseph “desired, with exceedingly great desire” (127:10) etc. What does it mean when cognate accusatives flow freely not only from the mouths of Nephites but also from Joseph Smith when speaking either for himself or for the Lord?

Perhaps the most popular Hebraism is the chiasmus, a rhetorical form characterized by reversal of structure, such that clauses display inverted parallelism; e.g.,

A: But many that are first
     B: shall be last;
     B: and the last
A: shall be first. (Matthew 19:30).

Short chiasmi occur naturally and unintentionally in virtually all writing; e.g.,

A: Old King Cole
     B: was a merry old soul,
     B: and a merry old soul
A: was he.

Much longer chiastic structures appear to occur in the Book of Mormon; e.g., Mosiah 3:18-19, Alma 36 and many others. It has been asserted that chiasmi of more than two elements are almost unknown outside of ancient writings.[5] The D&C however, contains many examples of lengthy chiastic structures; e.g., 88:34-39:

A: And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same. That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.
B: All kingdoms have a law given;
       C: And there are many kingdoms;
          D: for there is no space
             E: in the which there is no kingdom,
             E: and there is no kingdom
          D: in which there is no space,
       C: either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
    B: And unto every kingdom is given a law;
A: and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.

Other examples are: 5:1-23, 11:1-30, 29:30-33, 60:1-14, 61:23-30, 63:17-49, 88:51-61, 93:23-38, 101:44-53, 104:68-69, 107:8-18, 107:72-76 and 109:29-50.[6]

The trouble with chiasmus is that parallel elements cannot be precisely defined. With sufficiently loose tolerances, such that any word or idea in a clause can be matched to any similar word or vaguely related idea in a parallel clause, chiastic structures of almost any size can be found in almost any text.

What apologists really need is a definitive construction, common in biblical Hebrew, that is found in the Book of Mormon and nowhere else in Joseph’s writings. Such is the hope attached to if-and conditional sentences.

Conditional sentences typically contain two clauses: a condition clause called the protasis, and a result clause called the apodosis; e.g., “If you build it, they will come.” The if-and conditional sentence, “If you build it and they will come.” constitutes improper English. According to Royal Skousen, the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon contains at least fourteen instances where “and” occurs in place of “then”, or a comma, as a bridge between the protasis and apodosis in various conditional sentences, suggesting that “and” was specifically controlled for.[7]

Skousen’s claim is remarkable not only because if-and conditionals are extremely awkward English but also because they appear nowhere in the KJV Bible. Hence, unlike other Hebraisms, these phrases cannot be explained by Joseph trying to imitate Bible language. According to Daniel Peterson, if-and conditionals constitute “language contamination,” i.e., leakage from the text’s original language into the translation language.[8] But do such phrases constitute “a subtle divine hint that the original language of the Book of Mormon wasn’t English,” as Peterson alleges?

It is important to realize that the Hebrew letter ו (waw) in a conditional sentence serves more as a marker than an actual word. Ancient languages like Arabic and Classical Hebrew lacked punctuation; hence, words/letters like waw were used as vehicles for marking, similar to the modern comma, semicolon etc. The meaning of waw therefore depends on context. It often means “and” but when linking protases to apodoses it should be translated as “then” or a comma. The Masoretes were aware of this and treated the waw conjunction as a vehicular (rather than linguistic) device. Nevertheless, let us suppose that Joseph, upon seeing the Reformed Egyptian equivalent of waw in his seer stone, was given “and” as its English equivalent, regardless of context. Does this actually show up in the original translation manuscript?

Skousen and Peterson trumpet Helaman 12:13-21 as containing the most impressive examples of if-and conditional expressions:

13 yea and if he sayeth unto the earth move and it is moved
14 yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done . . .
16 and behold also if he sayeth unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done
17 behold if he sayeth unto this mountain be thou raised up and come over and fall upon that city that it be buried up and behold it is done . . .
19 and if the Lord shall say be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever and behold no man getteth it henceforth and forever
20 and behold if the Lord shall say unto a man because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever and it shall be done
21 and if the Lord shall say because of thine iniquities thou shalt be cut off from my presence and he will cause that it shall be so[9]

They present these seven cases as if they were complete sentences, each with its own protasis and apodosis, but this is not in fact the case.

Printer’s Manuscript of Helaman 12:7-13:3

Joseph did not indicate sentence structure in his dictations. The original manuscript (pre editing) is entirely devoid of punctuation.[10] John Gilbert had to guess at punctuation when they divided the text into sentences for printing.[11] This was no easy task because Joseph was master of the run-on sentence (e.g., the sacrament prayers). His revelations are saturated with strings of “and…” clauses. For example, consider his lengthy “jaws of hell” conditional sentence in D&C 122:5-7. (The multi-part protasis is green and the apodosis is purple.)

If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

Helaman 12:13-22 is actually comprised of three complete sentences, in which the “and”s in question are all part of the protases (changes to punctuation and capitalization are in red):

yea, and if he saith unto the earth, Move, and it is moved; yea, if he saith unto the earth, Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours, and it is done; and thus according to his word, the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for sure it is the earth that moveth, and not the sun.

And behold, also, if he saith unto the waters of the great deep, Be thou dried up, and it is done; Behold, if he saith unto this mountain, Be thou raised up, and come over and fall upon that city, that it be buried up, and behold it is done; and behold, if a man hideth up a treasure in the earth, and the Lord shall say, Let it be accursed, because of the iniquity of him that hath hid it up, behold, it shall be accursed.

And if the Lord shall say, Be thou accursed, that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever, and behold, no man getteth it henceforth and forever; and behold, if the Lord shall say unto a man, Because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever, and it shall be done; and if the Lord shall say, Because of thine iniquities, thou shalt be cut off from my presence, and he will cause that it shall be so; and wo unto whom he shall say this, for it shall be unto him that will do iniquity, and he cannot be saved; therefore, for this cause, that men might be saved, hath repentance been declared.

In punctuating Joseph’s translations, Cowdery, Gilbert et al. were occasionally compelled to sneak in periods to put interminable protases out of their misery. Skousen and Peterson make the same mistake in jumping to the apodosis before Joseph is finished with the protasis. The Helaman examples are all of the form:

If [God says something]
and [something happens and God says something else and something else happens…]
[then you finally get the apodosis].

Joseph’s stream-of-consciousness dictation style, in the cadence and rhythm of a frontier sermon, appears to explain all fourteen of Skousen’s alleged if-and conditional constructs in the 1830 BoM. According to Skousen, Oliver Cowdery mistakenly removed the if-and conditional in 1 Nephi 17:50 in the printer’s manuscript and Joseph erroneously edited out the remaining thirteen if-and Hebraisms in the 1837 publication. Since these alleged Hebraisms were never really there in the first place, it rather appears that Skousen has, in essence, edited the Hebraisms into the original manuscript.

So what happens if we embark on an apologetic hunt for Hebraisms in some other book of known authorship? Robert Patterson has applied the same methodologies to Green Eggs & Ham as apologists have applied to the Book of Mormon and found Dr. Seuss’ text to be packed full of Hebraisms and teeming with literary and Semitic complexity.[12] We could conclude from his results that Elder Holland et al. would be foolish to reject 72 pages of text without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages. However anyone making such a conclusion, elect or otherwise, would be misled and deceived. Elder Holland is free to reject the ancient authorship of Green Eggs & Ham for perfectly obvious reasons. No crawling is necessary.

References:

[1] David P. Wright, “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon …and Joseph Smith in Isaiah, Part 4: Disparities with Hebrew Language, Text, and Style,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, by eds. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, 157-234. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002.

[2] Many apologists shun the tight translation model since it cannot explain the verbatim copying of many chapters from the KJV Bible. These apologists favor a loose translation model, whereby Joseph was free to render ideas in his own words and borrow extensively from the KJV text. — Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987): 66-124.

[3] Edward H. Ashment, “‘A Record in the Language of My Father’: Evidence of Ancient Egyptian and Hebrew in the Book of Mormon” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed.

[4] We also might note that the curious phrase “curious workmanship” in the witness statement was a favorite expression of the Nephites and Jaredites as well (1 Nephi 16:10, 18:1, Alma 37:39, Ether 10:27).

[6] Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” BYU Studies 43:2.

[7] Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origens by Noel B. Reynolds.

[8] Daniel C. Peterson, “Poor English, but good Hebrew — a divine hint of Book of Mormon truth?Mormon Times, 28 October 2010.

[9] The original manuscript of Helaman 12 is not extant. — Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, 259-78 (1970).

[10] The only textual divisions in the original manuscript are the occasional word “chapter”.

[11] John Gilbert, the compositor for the 1830 edition, added punctuation, paragraphing, and other printing marks to about one-third of the pages of the printer’s manuscript. These same marks appear on one fragment of the original, indicating that it was used at least once in typesetting the 1830 edition. Gilbert described the process as follows: “After working a few days, I said to [Hyrum] Smith on his handing me the manuscript in the morning, ‘Mr. [Hyrum] Smith, if you would leave this manuscript with me, I would take it home with me at night and read and punctuate it, and I could get along faster in the daytime, for now I have frequently to stop and read half a page to find how to punctuate it.’  His reply was, ‘We are commanded not to leave it.’  A few mornings after this, when [Hyrum] Smith handed me the manuscript, he said to me, ‘If you will give your word that this manuscript shall be returned to us when you get through with it, I will leave it with you.’  I assured Smith that it should be returned all right when I got through with it.  For two or three nights I took it home with me and read it, and punctuated it with a lead pencil. This will account for the punctuation marks in pencil, which is referred to in the Mormon Report, an extract from which will be found below.     …     Every chapter, if I remember correctly, was one solid paragraph, without a punctuation mark, from beginning to end. Names of persons and places were generally capitalized, but sentences had no end.  The character or short ‘&’ was used almost invariably where the word ‘and’ occurred, except at the end of a chapter.  I punctuated it to make it read as I supposed the author intended, and but very little punctuation was altered in proofreading.     …     [Oliver] Cowdery held and looked over the manuscript when most of the proofs were read.  Martin Harris once or twice, and Hyrum Smith once, Grandin supposing these men could read their own writing as well, if not better, than anyone else; and if there are any discrepancies between the Palmyra edition and the manuscript these men should be held responsible. Joseph Smith, Jr., had nothing to do whatever with the printing or furnishing copy for the printers, being but once in the office during the printing of the Bible [Book of Mormon], and then not over fifteen or twenty minutes.” — RECOLLECTIONS OF JOHN H. GILBERT, 8 September 1892, Palmyra, New York, typescript, BYU.

[12] Robert Patterson, “Hebraicisms, Chiasmus and Other Internal Evidence for ancient Authorship in Green Eggs and Ham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 173-178.

Confounding the Wise

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;”1 Corinthians 1:27

I. Setting the Stage:

According to Joseph Smith’s History, on the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, the angel Moroni appeared in his bedroom and told him about the Golden Plates. The angel quoted Isaiah and other prophets, saying that their prophecies were about to be fulfilled. Oliver Cowdery wrote about this visit in a letter to W. W. Phelps, wherein he related that the angel declared he had come “that the scriptures might be fulfilled, which say —‘God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty’“. The angel, quoting Isaiah 29:14, proclaimed that the Lord “will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; the wisdom, of their wise shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid”. The angel went on to explain that “this cannot be brought about until first certain preparatory things are accomplished,” then he invoked Isaiah 29:13 to warn that “those who draw near to God with their mouths, and honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far from him, will seek its overthrow”. The angel instructed Joseph that “the scripture must be fulfilled before it is translated, which says that the words of a book, which were sealed, were presented to the learned” (Isaiah 29:11). Finally, the angel made clear to Joseph that he was to be the Lord’s instrument in fulfilling Isaiah 29:12, “for thus has God determined to leave men without excuse, and show to the meek that his arm is not shortened that it cannot save.”[1]

The following day, Joseph walked to the hill Cumorah and dug up the plates. When he reached into the box to grab them he received a shock. The angel then reappeared and admonished him to remember what he had told him the previous night. In another letter to Phelps, Cowdery explained that “in an instant, all the former instructions, the great intelligence concerning Israel and the last days, were brought to his mind”. The angel declared that before the record could be translated the promise of the Lord (i.e., the Isaiah 29 verses) must first be fulfilled. He explained that the record on the plates “cannot be interpreted by the learning of this generation;” but rather, “they are to be translated by the gift and power of God” and that “by them will the Lord work a great and a marvelous work: the wisdom of the wise shall become as nought, and the understanding of the prudent shall be hid”.[2]

II. Preparing the Script:

In January 1827, Joseph told Emily M. Austin (a friend of Joseph and Emma at Colesville) of “that which Isaiah the prophet had spoken of; a vision which should become as the words of a book that is sealed; which was delivered to one that was learned, saying ‘Read this, I pray thee;’ and he said, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed;’ and the book is delivered to one that is unlearned, saying: ‘Read this, I pray thee;’ and he said, ‘I cannot, for I am unlearned; moreover, inasmuch as this people draw near me, with their mouths and with their lips do honor me, therefore I will proceed to do a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.’” According to Emily, Joseph “brought up many prophecies to show that the Lord was about to do a marvelous work” and such rumors “circulated throughout the country”.[3]

For Joseph, Isaiah 29:11 dictated a clear set of requirements, which had to be accomplished before he “that is not learned” could begin translating; otherwise the opportunity to fulfill this prophecy would be missed. The “words of a book” had to first be delivered by “men” to “one that is learned”.[4] Then, when the learned man was asked to read the words, he had to reply to the effect that he could not read a sealed book. The script thus called for three actors, a learned man, an unlearned man and a delivery man. In December 1827, Joseph cast Martin Harris for a leading role in his drama.

Joseph could not have picked a better man for the delivery job. According to Pomeroy Tucker, Martin “could probably repeat from memory nearly every text of the Bible from beginning to end, giving the chapter and verse in each case.” Harris was fond of “proving the lack of wisdom” of “the rejecters” and always relied on “his favorite quotation, that ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise’” as a “self-convincing argument in reply to similar adversity in his fanatical pursuit.”[5] It is a remarkable coincidence that Martin’s favorite saying was spoken repeatedly to Joseph by the angel Moroni. With Harris itching to put the scholars to shame, it was a simple matter for Joseph to create a document that no linguist could possibly read. And with the failure of their translation-efforts guaranteed, the success of the mission was assured.

A copy of the characters on the Anthon transcript

III. Playing the Part:

Martin set off from Harmony in Feb. 1828 with transcript in hand. Before heading east, he stopped to see John A. Clark in Palmyra and showed him the transcript. Clark thought that the “H”-like character might be Hebrew but otherwise considered the whole thing a fraud. Clark reports that his “ignorance of the characters in which the pretended ancient record was written, was to Martin Harris new proof that Smith’s whole account of the divine revelation made to him was entirely to be relied on.”[6] Martin next went to Albany to see Luther Bradish and then journeyed on to New York City to see Samuel Latham Mitchill. When Mitchill failed to speak the words of Isaiah 29:11, Martin sought out Prof. Charles Anthon of Columbia College.

Martin told the professor that “a young man” had given him the transcript with instructions to “submit it to the learned”[7] and thus “he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles.” Anthon identified some of the characters as “Greek”, “Hebrew” and “Roman” and specifically denied the presence of “Egyptian Hieroglyphics.“[8] After some further discussion, Martin gave the Professor a little prompting by mentioning, completely out of context, that “part of the plates were sealed” (even though Martin had not yet seen the plates). This paid off handsomely as Anthon replied with the golden words, “I cannot read a sealed book.”[9]

After procuring the requisite quote from the learned man, Harris returned to his friend John Clark and told him “that among others he had consulted Professor Anthon, who thought the characters in which the book was written very remarkable, but he could not decide exactly what language they belonged to.” Clark relates that “Martin had now become a perfect believer. He said he had no more doubt of Smith’s divine commission, than of the divine commission of the apostles. The very fact that Smith was an obscure and illiterate man, showed that he must be acting under divine impulses: — ‘God had chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things to confound the mighty’”.[10] Later, John Gilbert, Book of Mormon typesetter, wrote that “Martin returned from his trip satisfied that Joseph was a ‘little smarter than Professor Anthon.’”[11]

IV. Charming the Patrons:

Sixteen months after Martin’s triumphant return from New York (and with Mosiah-Moroni plus 1 Nephi safely completed)[12] Joseph dictated the Anthon affair to Oliver Cowdery in an excruciatingly detailed nineteen-verse midrash of Isaiah 29:11-12.

2 Nephi 27:
6 And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.
7 And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.
8 Wherefore, because of the things which are sealed up, the things which are sealed shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people. Wherefore the book shall be kept from them.
9 But the book shall be delivered unto a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book, which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust, and he shall deliver these words unto another;
10 But the words which are sealed he shall not deliver; neither shall he deliver the book. For the book shall be sealed by the power of God, and the revelation which was sealed shall be kept in the book until the own due time of the Lord, that they may come forth; for behold, they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof.
11 And the day cometh that the words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the house tops; and they shall be read by the power of Christ; and all things shall be revealed unto the children of men which ever have been among the children of men, and which ever will be even unto the end of the earth.
12 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
13 And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead.
14 Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God!
15 But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them.
16 And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God.
17 And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed.
18 Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it.
19 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned.
20 Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
21 Touch not the things which are sealed, for I will bring them forth in mine own due time; for I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work.
22 Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.
23 For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.
24 And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him:

At last, Martin had his reward for undertaking his journey; not to mention an exceedingly strong incentive to foot the printer’s bill. There he was, clear as crystal, in verses 15 & 17, which all but listed his shoe size and blood type. Furthermore, he had the marvelous opportunity to lay claim on verses 12, 14 and 22 as one of the three or so privileged witnesses, for which honor he aggressively lobbied, along with David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery.[13]

V. Taking a Bow:

From June 1830 to July 1833, Joseph spent much of his time translating the Bible (JST). This effort was necessary “to restore truths to the Bible text that had become lost or changed since the original words were written” and to recover “certain truths that the original authors had once recorded”.[14] As further proof of the monumental importance of Martin’s encounter with Prof. Anthon, Joseph restored the plain and precious details of the visit in his inspired translation of Isaiah 29:

11 And it shall come to pass, that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book; and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.
12 And behold, the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.
13 Wherefore because of the things which are sealed up, the things which are sealed shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people. Wherefore, the book shall be kept from them.
14 But the book shall be delivered unto a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book, which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust; and he shall deliver these words unto another, but the words that are sealed he shall not deliver, neither shall he deliver the book.
15 For the book shall be sealed by the power of God, and the revelation which was sealed shall be kept in the book until the own due time of the Lord, that they may come forth; for behold, they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof.
16 And the day cometh, that the words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the housetops; and they shall be read by the power of Christ; and all things shall be revealed unto the children of men which ever have been among the children of men, and which ever will be, even unto the end of the earth.
17 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it, save it be that three witnesses shall behold it by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
18 And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said, that the words of the faithful should speak as it were from the dead.
19 Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and woe be unto him that rejecteth the word of God.
20 But, behold, it shall come to pass, that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book, Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee.
21 And the learned shall say, Bring hither the book and I will read them; and now because of the glory of the world, and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God. And the man shall say, I cannot bring the book for it is sealed. Then shall the learned say, I cannot read it.
22 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say, I am not learned. Then shall the Lord God say unto him, The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
23 Touch not the things which are sealed, for I will bring them forth in mine own due time; for I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work.
24 Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.
25 For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men, save it be according to their faith.
26 And again it shall come to pass, that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him, Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precepts of men, therefore I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people; yea, a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.

Except for the combination of a few verses, to clean up some choppy sentences, the extra JST verses are identical to those in 2 Nephi 27. Thus, in addition to the brouhaha concerning whether Joseph used a Bible in translating the Book of Mormon, we have the highly ironic likelihood that he used a Book of Mormon in translating the Bible![15]

Joseph gloried in the notion that Isaiah had prophesied his life. In an unfinished history he began in 1832, he took the pen in his own hand and recorded that Martin Harris “took his Journy to the Eastern Cittys and to the Learned saying read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the plates they would read it but the Lord had forbit it and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate and I said cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters and thus the Prophicy of Isaiaah was fulfilled which is writen in the 29 chapter concerning the book.”[16]

VI. Leaving a Mess:

LDS scholars have recently come to realize that Isaiah’s sealed book is not the Golden Plates, but rather the voice of Jerusalem that was to symbolically whisper from the dust; i.e., Isaiah was referring to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, circa 701 BC, when the armies of Assyrian-king Sennacherib layed siege to the city.[17] Joseph Smith’s expanded version of Isaiah 29 is not attested in either the Septuagint or the Qumran Great Isaiah Scroll. The extra verses do not appear in the Codex Sinaiticus, the Latin Vulgate nor any other pre-1829 text. By any reasonable standard of textual criticism (lectio brevior in particular) the JST verses depend on the Nephi verses, which depend on the KJV verses, which derive from the Masoretic Text. In recognition of these difficulties, Cloward, Tvedtnes and others allege that the extra verses belong to Nephi, rather than Isaiah. In their scenario, Nephi reinterpreted Isaiah’s sealed book as his own gold plates and co-opted Isaiah’s dust of death as the hill Cumorah. According to Cloward, prophets are entitled to liken the scriptures unto themselves and “there is no impropriety in their giving old scripture new meaning for their lives.”

The trouble with assigning the extraneous verses to Nephi is that it creates more problems than it solves. Firstly, Nephi’s habit of likening the scriptures unto himself offers no support for this thesis, since neither the learned nor unlearned man refer to him or anyone else in his spatial or temporal locality. If anyone was likening the scriptures unto himself, it was Joseph Smith. Secondly, if Nephi could assign unprecedented new meaning to scripture, then why couldn’t Joseph? What purpose does the middle-man serve? Thirdly, since the Brass Plates served as the basic scriptures of the Nephite nation, and were passed down by all the major prophets from Nephi to Mormon, any alteration of the words of Isaiah could not have gone unnoticed; i.e., metal engravings are not easily erased. Fourthly, Joseph Smith never attributed the extra verses to Nephi. In all of his writings, translations and oral communications he credited the prophesy to Isaiah. If the prophecy was Nephi’s, then why did Moroni attribute it to Isaiah and why did the Lord mislead JS in translating the Bible?

In addition to the above considerations there is the textual evidence. Chapter XI in the 1830 BoM quotes virtually all of KJV-Isaiah 29, except for the first two “Ariel” verses, which clearly address Jerusalem (not New York). The 2 Nephi 27/28 chapter break in the printer’s manuscript, 1830 edition and modern edition coincides with the Isaiah 29/30 chapter break in the KJV Bible.

Printer’s Manuscript with Chapter XII inserted at end of KJV-Isaiah 29

Chapter break in 1830 ed. coinciding with end of Isaiah 29

Chapter breaks did not exist in the Bible until Archbishop Stephen Langton put them there in the 13th century. The most that could have existed on the Brass Plates, were setumah or petuhah demarcating much shorter text units.

Dead-Sea Great Isaiah Scroll with minor petuhah at end of chapter 29

Whereas, the Isaiah-29 quotations in 2 Nephi 26 (modern ed.) are followed by obvious commentary, 2 Nephi 27:2-35 flows forth in a single unbroken voice. (e.g., there is no, “And now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words of Isaiah…”) The embellishment in 6-24 is bracketed by verses 10 and 13 in Isaiah 29, with no transitions whatsoever between the direct quotations and the midrash; in fact, the transition to direct quotation at 24-25 occurs mid-sentence.

It is also apparent that the author of 2 Nephi 27 was averse to “Ariel” since he skips 4 instances of it in Isaiah 29:1-2 and changes it to “Zion” in verse 7.  “Ariel” is a Hebrew name, which, through its connection with Ezekiel 43, appears to suggest that Jerusalem is going to burn. Nephi would have been very familiar with this name for his home town, just as New Yorkers are familiar with “The Big Apple”. “Zion” on the other hand, is probably not a Hebrew word. Nephi would have understood it to mean “Mount Zion” (Isaiah 29:8 ); i.e., a specific place in Jerusalem. Joseph Smith however, used “Zion” in much broader terms; i.e., the gathering place of the saints, which is how the word is used in 2 Nephi 27:3. Additionally, the author of 2 Nephi 27 copied the KJV mistranslations: “Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay”, in verse 27, and “offender for a word”, in verse 32.[18]

The difficulties surrounding JST Isaiah 29 and 2 Nephi 27 are compounded by the exaggerated claims and internal inconsistencies in the official account of the Anthon affair. From 1828 to 1838 the story evolved to meet the expectations of new converts. At first, Anthon could not read the characters, then later he could authenticate but not translate the characters and eventually he could identify the languages and translate the characters.[19] In 1835, Martin Harris and the “Caractors” transcript got conflated with Michael Chandler and the papyri in the rush to prove that “there was one language Professor Anthon could not translate which the Prophet did.”[20]

Although Anthon owned a copy of Champollion’s Précis du système Hiéroglyphique des Anciens Égyptiens (Paris 1824), it is doubtful that this would have enabled him to discern “that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian” or to confidently proclaim that “they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct.” Just how many translations of Reformed Egyptian had the Professor previously encountered? Moroni wrote that “none other people knoweth our language” because the characters were “handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech” (Mormon 9:32-34).

In 1838 Smith stayed with his future wife Lucinda Morgan Harris, widow of Royal Arch Mason William Morgan. Morgan’s 1826 disappearance had prompted David Bernard, in 1829, to add the Royal Arch degree to his reprint of Morgan’s exposé of Masonry’s first three degrees.[21] In the 1830 oath or obligation of a Royal Arch Mason, the grand omnific word, ‘long lost but now found,’ is JAH-BUH-LUN. “Candidates are instructed to understand that this word signifies God, in three different languages, (i. e.) Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Syriac, and that it is the true word of a mason.”[22] Thus, by changing Anthon’s “Greek” and “Roman” letters to “Chaldaic” and “Assyriac”, Joseph appealed to converts with Masonic backgrounds.

In the end, it appears that Martin Harris was right about the foolish things of the world confounding the wise. It has taken scholars many decades to apprehend that the surest words of prophecy are written by less-learned men after the fact.

References:

[1] Cowdery, Oliver. “Letter to W. W. Phelps, Esq.” Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 27, 1835: 77-80.

[2] Cowdery, Oliver. “Letter to W. W. Phelps.” Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835: 195-202.

[3] Austin, Emily M. [Colburn]. Life Among the Mormons. Madison: M. J. Cantrell Book and Job Printer, 1882: 33-35.

[4] Joseph mistrusted italicized words in the KJV Bible. — Wright, David P. “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon …and Joseph Smith in Isaiah.” In American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, by eds. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, 157-234. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002. Hence, it would not have been hard for him to replace “men” with “man” (Martin Harris) in Isaiah 29:11.

[5] Tucker, Pomeroy. Origin, rise, and progress of Mormonism. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1867: 40-42.

[6] Clark, John A. Gleanings by the Way. Philadelphia: W. J. & J. K. Simmon, 1842: 228. Clark misremembers the date of Martin’s first visit as autumn 1827.

[7] Charles Anthon’s April 3rd, 1841 letter from New York, printed in Clark: 233-238. According to Joseph’s mother, “It soon became necessary to take some measure to accomplish the translation of the record into English but he was instructed to take off a fac simile of the  characters <composing the alphabet which were called reformed Egyptian> Alphabetically and send them to all the learned men that he could find and ask them for the translation of the same. Joseph was very solicitous about the work but as yet no means had come into his hands of accomplishing  it.” — Lucy Mack Smith Preliminary History Manuscript, p. 108 (EMD 1:343). According to Joseph’s father, “…the remaining pages [of the gold plates] were closely written over in characters of some unknown tongue, the last containing the alphabet of this unknown language. …[S]ome of them, …[Joseph] showed to the learned…” — Joseph Smith, Sr. 1830 interview (EMD 1:462-63).

[8] Charles Anthon’s Feb. 17, 1834 letter from New York, printed in Howe, Eber D. Mormonism Unvailed. Painesville Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834: 270-272.

[9] Kimball, Stanley B. “The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems.” BYU Studies Vol 10, No. 3, Spring 1970: 325-352. According to Kimball, Harris may have been so intent on fulfilling a scriptural prophecy that he heard only what he wanted to hear. It is unclear whether Anthon actually made the “sealed book” remark, since his comment is not attested in the historical record until 1838.

[10] Clark: 229-230.

[11] Memorandum of John H. Gilbert, 8 Sept. 1892, Palmyra, New York.

[12] Metcalfe, Brent Lee. “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis.” In New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, by editor Brent Lee Metcalfe. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993.

[13] Dean C. Jessee editor, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company; vol 1, 1989:295. In Joseph’s words, “Almost immediately after we had made this discovery; it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and the aforementioned Martin Harris (who had came to enquire after our progress in the work) that they would have me enquire of the Lord, to know if they might not obtain of him to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and teased me so much, that at length I complied, and through the Urim and Thummim, I obtained of the Lord for them the following revelation.”

[14] These verses were deleted from the church website not long after this essay appeared on the Mormon Apologetics & Discussion Board (now renamed).

[15] It also appears that JST-Genesis 50:24-35, which contains extra-biblical details regarding Joseph of Egypt, was copied directly from 2 Nephi 3:5-17, with some minor alterations and additions.

[16] Paul R. Cheesman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating to Joseph Smith’s Early Vision,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965. Dean C. Jessee “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 275-94.

[17] Cloward, Robert A. “Isaiah 29 and the Book of Mormon.” In Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, by Welch & Parry. Provo: FARMS, 1998. and Tvedtnes, John A. “Sealed Books.” In The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness Unto Light. Maxwell Institute.

[18] David P. Wright. “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 31, No. 4, p. 181-206 (Winter 1988).

[19] Hullinger, Robert N. “Isaiah, Buried and Sealed.” In Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism, by Robert N. Hullinger. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992.

[20] John Riggs quoted by Edward W. Tullidge in “History of Provo City.” Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine 3 no.3 (July 1884):283.

[21] Bernard, David. Light on Masonry. Utica: William Williams, 1829: 126.

[22] “Report of Seceding Masons.” The Proceedings of the United States Anti-Masonic Convention. Philadelphia: New York: Skinner and Dewey, 1830, 11 Sept. 1830. 58-59.