Pseudepigrapha & Historicity: A Book of Mormon Conversation

Recently, I’ve noticed a considerable amount of discussion centered around the historicity of scripture—specifically Mormon scripture—and whether or not these texts represent literal history or inspired, yet pseudepigraphic narratives [1]. In most cases, the arguments exist in an either-or dichotomy: “Either the Book of Mormon contains literal history or it does not.”

The following post will explore two important considerations resulting from this debate: first, what would cause a Latter-day Saint to view the Book of Mormon as inspired, but not historical? Second, does the Book of Mormon need to be a literal, historical record to be spiritually meaningful?

The first reviews of the Book of Mormon published by non-Mormons in the 1830s quickly dismissed it as a fraudulent work of superstition. Critics leveraged Joseph Smith’s history in “magical treasure hunting” and scrying to argue that his work sounded too much like the stories told by money diggers, and therefore, it wasn’t Divine [2]. Ad hominem appeals are still somewhat present in the historicity debate, but the discussion has shifted far away from relying on conjecture, circumstantial arguments, and “well poisoning“, and now focuses primarily on developments in objective science. In addition, the debate participants have also shifted, moving away from a forum of non-Mormon critics vs. believing Mormons, to a forum of believing Mormons vs. believing Mormons. While a myriad of arguments rotate throughout the discussion [3], I’ve decided to focus on two that are frequently discussed: anachronisms and 19th century literary parallels.

ANACHRONISMS AND ARCHAEOLOGY

In layman terms, an anachronism occurs when an author’s writing mentions something from a future time period which couldn’t realistically exist in the time period they’re depicting. For example, if you read an account of Paul Revere taking his famous “Midnight Ride” on a Harley Davidson, you could reasonably conclude that this depiction contradicts the historical record. The first Harley prototype wasn’t finished until 1904—130 years after Mr. Revere’s famous 1774 ride—so how could he shout “The Red Coats are coming!” from a motorbike? The same principal is frequently applied in the context of the Book of Mormon.

In recent decades, as archaeology and anthropology developed into more established scientific practices, Mormon researchers started to realize that evidence was significantly lacking for the presence of some animals, plants, and technologies existing in ancient America from 3100 BC to 400 AD [4]. Mainstream archaeologists such as National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institute have stated publicly that the archaeological record contradicts the claims of the Book of Mormon. In addition, the vast majority of non-LDS archaeologists have concluded that cattle, horses, oxen, asses, domesticated sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheat, barley, silk, seven-day weeks, steel, swords and scimitars, bellows, gold and silver currency, chariots, and many other items mentioned in the Book of Mormon weren’t present in pre-Columbian America during the times depicted in scripture.

The most noticeable anachronism in the Book of Mormon describes two separate large scale wars that occurred at the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York, where millions of people fought and died with swords. Archaeologists have never found any steel, swords, chariots, or breastplates to corroborate these battles, contending that this is because these steel technologies—along with steel production and metallurgy—were not introduced to this continent prior to Columbus. The idea of a Nephite riding a chariot with a steel sword is seemingly just as anachronistic as Paul Revere riding a motorcycle to warn Americans about a British invasion. Prominent archaeologist Michael Coe wrote the following in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought: “The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.” [5]

Having thoroughly studied the apologetic responses to anachronisms and archaeology in the historicity case and—while I respect and appreciate some of their investigative approaches—it is understandable why most apologetic arguments, evidence, and conclusions are considered largely unpersuasive. For instance, the most prominent apologetic model used to explain the absence of archaeological evidence is the Limited Geography Theory, which claims that the entire Nephite and Lamanite civilizations existed on a small stretch of land in Central America (a detailed summary can be found here). If that’s the case, why were the gold plates discovered in upstate New York? Shouldn’t the model include the area where the plates were buried, visited year after year, and retrieved by Joseph Smith? It’s a 6000 mile walk from the proposed “limited geography” to Palmyra and traveling with gold plates, the sword of Laban, and what Oliver Cowdery described as a “wagon load” of ancient records, is no easy task. Especially for a man traveling alone. Some apologists apply the “Two Cumorahs” theory to reconcile the problems in the first theory, but this is equally problematic. A Mesoamerican Cumorah implies that Joseph Smith either: (1) misunderstood the Angel (2) retrieved the plates in Mesoamerica and then returned to New York or (3) didn’t retrieve the plates at all.

While I agree that absence of archaeological evidence doesn’t conclude it’s non-existence (an “argument from ignorance” fallacy), many mistranslation petitions aimed at justifying scriptural anachronisms—such as suggesting the word “horse” was intended to be “tapir” or “deer”—are disingenuous.

There are plenty of intelligent Latter-day Saints who view everything found in the scriptures as a literal, verbatim translation—or a “tight control” translation. There are also many intelligent Latter-day Saints who view aspects of scripture as figurative, yet spiritually meaningful. Perhaps future excavations and research may reveal new developments in the matter of historicity. Maybe there are developments underway that can solve these puzzles. Nevertheless, anachronisms and limited archaeological evidence alone provide a decent case for someone to assume an unorthodox view of scripture; that being, scripture can still be meaningful if not always literal.

TEXTUAL & LITERARY PARALLELS

In October of 2013, two statisticians conducted a data analysis comparing unique Book of Mormon phrasings with over 100,000 books from the pre-1830’s era. Although the author’s conclusions and methodology are disputed within the Mormon studies community, their research has revealed some very interesting textual similarities and parallels between Mormon scripture and other popular 19th century works [6].

Google has digitized the text of every pre-1830’s era book available and in doing so, the text data of these books can be computed and tested for patterns, textual relationships, and statistical significance. Using 4-word phrasings known as N-grams (or 4-grams), the authors used an algorithm to see if any of the available 100,000 books shared similar phrasing with the Book of Mormon. For example, “it came to pass” is a weak N-gram due to it’s common use, occurring 390 times in the KJV alone. Conversely, “the fourth day of the seventh month, which is” is a significantly more rare N-gram as it appears in only 2 of the 100,000 books tested, The Book of Mormon and The Late War. There were a total of 3 books that were discovered that revealed a literary connection to the Book of Mormon—The Late War, The First War of Napoleon, and The KJV—and each book shares sequential (verse for verse) similarities. Here’s one example:

The First Book of Napoleon

Condemn not the (writing)…an account…the First Book of Napoleon…upon the face of the earth…it came to pass…the land…their inheritances their gold and silver and…the commandments of the Lord…the foolish imaginations of their hearts…small in stature…Jerusalem…because of the perverse wickedness of the people.

The Book of Mormon

Condemn not the (writing)…an account…the First Book of Nephi…upon the face of the earth…it came to pass…the land…his inheritance and his gold and his silver and…the commandments of the Lord…the foolish imaginations of his heart…large in stature…Jerusalem…because of the wickedness of the people.

Having thoroughly examined these texts—especially the Late War, KJV, and The Book of Mormon—I find the textual and literary similarities shared to be neither a coincidence nor a deception. Unique biblical-style phrasing from a book Joseph was probably very familiar with that describes 2000 stripling warriors, a rod of iron, a device of curious workmanship, and three Indian prophets (to name a few), share a striking resemblance to the Book of Mormon [9], but that doesn’t diminish the spiritual meaning the book conveys.

This study also demonstrated the close—nearly identical—relationship that parts of the Book of Mormon share with parts of the KJV. Roughly 20% of the Book of Mormon contains nearly identical KJV wording, but what many don’t realize is that the Book of Mormon also includes numerous 1611 KJV translation errors. These errors were unique only to that edition and follow under one of three categories: technical terms, variant readings, and direct translation errors. The New Testament’s Matthean Sermon on the Plain [7] and the Book of Mormon’s Sermon at the Temple [8] were written by two different authors who spoke two different languages who lived on two different sides of the planet, yet both sermons contain numerous 1611 KJV translation errors. Does this mean the Book of Mormon isn’t true? No, it doesn’t. However, it does shed light on how midrashic and pseudepigraphic aspects can exist in the Book of Mormon.

The authors of the study attempt to make a case for plagiarism, but I disagree. In part because they fail to offer any level of statistical significance (“we can conclude that with .90 [or any level] certainty that these books are statistically related”) [10]. Nonetheless, it is important to note that this study does reveal how Joseph Smith—the translator—was heavily influenced by the popular works of his time. So much so, that he included language and phrasing that he was familiar with into the translation process.

A False DIlemma

The dichotomy encompassing the historicity discussion (“Either the Book of Mormon contains literal history or it does not.”) presents only two opposing views in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities, and therefore, arguments on either side of the discussion are rendered jointly exhaustive. This discussion has evolved into a false dichotomy. A reasonable, yet rarely considered alternative is the possibility that the Book of Mormon can be both historical and pseudepigrapha. In this scenario, the existence of anachronisms and borrowed literary phrasing are seemingly moot points. Just as in the Old Testament and the New Testament, this alternative allows Mormon scripture to have human errors, embellishments, and inconsistencies on the part of the original authors, the translators, or the scribes.

Historicity is not the measuring stick of spiritual value. In contrast, spiritual value does not denote historicity. To a certain extent, these variables are neither dependent on each other, nor mutually exclusive. In Diggin in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives, Mark Thomas reminds us of the following: “We have fought for so long over the age of the book that it’s messages have accidental casualties. In the end, a book’s authority lies less in its origin than in its messages. I believe that the origin of the Book of Mormon is not the most important question that it compels us to ask. The real question is: ‘Is the Book of Mormon worth reading?” [11] The existence or absence of evidence for Book of Mormon historicity will neither prove nor disprove the powerful message it conveys. Although I keep an open mind toward any new archaeological or scientific developments to come out of the Mormon studies community, whether or not they come doesn’t change the role scripture plays in my life.

— Thomas J. Blasucci


[1] Pseudepigrapha: spurious or pseudonymous writings, especially Jewish writings ascribed to various biblical patriarchs and prophets but composed within approximately 200 years of the birth of Jesus Christ. More can be found here.

[2] Note: From approximately 1820 to 1827, Joseph Smith Jr., Joseph Smith Sr., and Hyrum Smith solicited money from various parties for their treasure hunting business. They were hired by many, including Josiah Stowell, to find buried Indian or Pirate treasure but never found success. In 1826, Joseph was arrested and brought to court in Bainbridge, New York, and was tried as a fraud by Stowell’s nephew who accused Joseph of being a “disorderly person and an imposter.

[3] [4] Durrfy, John-Charles. 2011. MAPPING BOOK OF MORMON HISTORICITY DEBATES: A GUIDE FOR THE OVERWHELMED–PART I. https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/mapping-book-of-mormon-historicity-debates-a-guide-for-the-overwhelmed-part-i/

[5] Coe, Michael. MORMONS & ARCHAEOLOGY. Dialogue Magazine. http://mormonstories.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Dialogue_V08N02_42-1.pdf

[6] [9] Johnson, Chris. 2014. A Comparison of The Book of Mormon and The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain.

[7] Gospel of Luke, 6:17–49

[8] The Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 11–18

[10] Statistical Significance: “To determine whether a result is statistically significant, a researcher would have to calculate a p-value, which is the probability of observing an effect given that the null hypothesis is true. The null hypothesis is rejected if the p-value is less than the significance or α level.” More can be found here.

[11] Thomas, Mark. 1999. In Diggin in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives. http://signaturebookslibrary.org/digging-in-cumorah/

Pseudepigrapha & Historicity: A Book of Mormon Conversation

One thought on “Pseudepigrapha & Historicity: A Book of Mormon Conversation

  1. justinaiken says:

    > most cases, the arguments exist in an either-or dichotomy: “Either the Book of Mormon contains literal history or it does not.”

    “Each of us has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”

    I tend to think the latter now, both for some of the points you mentioned above and other issues with the BoM, but primarily because of the BoA… but I’ll wait for you write a blog on that before I say anything 😉

    Like

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