Sunday, June 27, 2021

Translating ancient texts

Because I believe Joseph Smith translated the ancient Nephite plates, I've been curious how he could or would have done it. 

Joseph wrote that he had an "intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations." He also once said that the Restoration began about the time he had leg surgery at age 6 or 7. I think his three years of recuperation enabled him to read Christian publications at a young age, a practice he continued throughout his life. The text of the Book of Mormon reflects his "intimate acquaintance" with these writers. The narrative of Joseph as an ignorant, illiterate "blank slate" was created after the fact to bolster they supernatural origin of the Book of Mormon.

His history reports that "By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following." (Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

The specifics in that statement lend credibility and reliability to its veracity. By contrast, those who spoke or wrote about SITH (the stone-in-the-hat) were usually vague or ambiguous, except for David Whitmer's description of the demonstration in the Whitmer family room downstairs.


Joseph said the Title Page was a literal translation from the last leaf of the plates, but he never said the rest of the text was a literal translation. That leads me to infer that the bulk of the translation was not literal, nor was it word-for-word.

Anyone who has studied ancient languages knows there are lots of ways to translate any given passage. Experts have translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into numerous different English editions, even when they use early English translations as a guide for some degree of consistency and continuity.

I have studied Latin and Greek, as well as modern languages. The older the language, the more primitive it is. By that I mean, older languages have smaller vocabularies so they are less descriptive. They communicate by suggesting information rather than by explaining things in detail. This requires active readers who must infer what the text means from the context.

One example familiar to every reader of the King James Bible is the use of italics to indicate words that are not in the original texts.

For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:21)

Hebrew presumably would have provided an original text as specific at the Bible, but Mormon and Moroni didn't write in Hebrew because they didn't have enough space and the metal plates were difficult to create. This means the text was even more basic than a Hebrew text would have been. 

When he abridged the plates, Mormon undoubtedly didn't spend a lot of time and space to elaborate on each topic. Consequently, Joseph had to render the ancient words into understandable English. I assume he  had to expand the text, which is what we learn from Ether 3: "these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write." (Ether 3:24)

Joseph didn't specify which things he dictated were literal and which were inferences, but we can see several times when he offered an alternative translation or an explanation, such as when he dictated "or in other words." That nonbiblical phrase appears 13 times in the Book of Mormon, 23 times in the D&C, and once in the Book of Abraham. 

Here is an example of a "different view" of a translation. Joseph wrote "Now, the nature of this ordinance consists in the power of the priesthood, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, wherein it is granted that whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Or, in other words, taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; 
(Doctrine and Covenants 128:8)

Here is an example of an explanation. "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36)

We could infer that it was Nephi who chose an alternative explanation of what he initially wrote, but it is consistent with his other work to infer it was Joseph who provided "a different view" of the translation, such as here:

"And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision." (1 Nephi 8:2)

There are many other indicia of translation in the text of the Book of Mormon.

Another good example of the challenges of translating ancient languages is the Rosetta stone.

The link below shows the Rosetta stone in detail. It has just the type of primitive, vague language that I think the plates had, where you have to make a lot of inferences to convey it in English.

Go to the image and it will highlight the corresponding passages from each of the 3 languages.

Here's a good example:

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Harper vs Vogel on historians' biases

Steven Harper, currently editor of BYU Studies, had a significant interview with Gospel Tangents in which he discussed the way a historian's worldview affects his/her interpretation of the evidence.

Here's a portion of the transcript from the website:

The conversation involved the way different people interpret the identical facts differently. Original in blue, my comments in red.

GT: So, that’s your biggest issue: you’re a believer. They’re not. We’re going to look at facts differently, just based on our point of view. Is that right?

Steven: Yeah. I wouldn’t call it an issue. That’s just the way it is. 

I infer he means it's not an issue (i.e., an important topic or problem for debate or discussion) because the differences cannot be resolved. People rarely change their points of view. Our mental filters determine the way we perceive the truth, and it's very difficult to change filters. We can and should recognize the different points of view, but there's nothing to debate in the sense of seeking agreement.

The question might be asked, “Well, why do to people who know the same facts and study the same historical records come to such dramatically different conclusions? It’s because historians aren’t endowed with some godlike capability of knowing. They only know the same facts that anyone else can know. Then, they just interpret the facts. 

Here, Harper seems to assume an objective reality about facts, but there is a subjective element to history that goes beyond just interpretation. Whether everyone can know the same facts is not the same as everyone agreeing on what the facts are. The adage that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence always comes into play, as it does here.   

Their interpretations are necessarily dependent on their biases and prejudices and choices, faith commitments, or lack thereof. Some people are under the impression that it’s the facts of the matter that turn the tide. No, it isn’t. 

Here, Harper recognizes the subjective nature of facts. We all see facts through our mental filters.

The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers are believers. They know all the facts. Dan Vogel, Sandra Tanner, they know the facts. Everybody invested in this knows the facts. [We are all] reading the same documents and the same evidence. I’ve had really wonderful exchanges with Ann Taves, who knows the facts well. She studies them really carefully and arrives at different interpretations than I do. 

It’s not that one of us knows the evidence better than the other. It’s that we just make different choices about what the evidence means.

If everyone agreed to all the evidence as a starting point, there would still be different choices about what the evidence means. But as the brief exchange in this comment thread shows, even if Vogel and Harper know the identical facts, they talk past one another. 

In the interview, Harper emphasized that we can't know there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820, only that we have no known record of it. 

Vogel says, "I recognize that Walters was right about the revival." The term "recognize" connotes acknowledging an objective truth, like the speed of light, but that's not the type of fact we're dealing with here. At most, Vogel can only choose to agree with Walters' interpretation of the known facts, but he frames it as "recognizing" to confer a sense of objectivity to his subjective interpretation.  


This brief example illustrates why faith is simply a choice.

27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

(2 Nephi 2:27)

4 Behold, here is wisdom, and let every man choose for himself until I come. Even so. Amen.

(Doctrine and Covenants 37:4)

2 And as for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; and for what cause it seems mysterious, unless I was ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end, or bad, as you may choose to call it. Judge ye for yourselves. God knoweth all these things, whether it be good or bad.
(Doctrine and Covenants 127:2)

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
(Moses 3:17)

33 Say unto this people: Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who made you.
(Moses 6:33)

33 And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;
(Moses 7:33)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

1842 Bernhisel letters released by JSP

The 1842 documents recently released by the Joseph Smith Papers include 3 new Bernhisel letters. One is from Joseph to Dr. Bernhisel. Two are from Bernhisel to Joseph. In all three cases, the salutation is to Brother, not Dear Sir.

This is awesome.

Better than I expected. I didn't know we'd get more Bernhisel letters, and these three confirm the pattern that I previously identified.

The letters are found here:

I realize this is a relatively obscure point of evidence, but it corroborates a very important point in Church history that refutes the basic assumption long held by Church historians that Joseph Smith wrote a November 16, 1841, letter to Dr. Bernhisel.

I'm going to digress here a moment to explain how this relates to Book of Mormon geography.

In addition, it refutes a longstanding argument made by the advocates of the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography.

Mesoamerican advocates frequently cite a November 16, 1841, letter* purporting to be from Joseph Smith to Dr. Bernhisel, a Church leader in New York. The letter is a thank-you note, recognizing the two John Lloyd Stephens books that Bernhisel gave to Wilford Woodruff to deliver to Joseph Smith. Because the note claims the books support the testimony of the Book of Mormon, Mesoamerican advocates argue the note is evidence that Joseph Smith 1) read the Stephens books and 2) embraced them as evidence for the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.

Of course, that assertion is a stretch on its face, but the key point is, there is no evidence that Joseph wrote, dictated, or even saw the letter. No one knows who actually wrote the letter because the handwriting has never been identified.

Those who have read my book The Editors: Joseph, William and Don Carlos Smith have seen my chapter on the November 1841 Bernhisel letter. I take the position that Wilford Woodruff drafted the letter and had the unidentified person write it out in final draft. I reference several categories of evidence.

One category is the salutation. When I wrote the book, I had only 7 letters between Joseph and Dr. Bernhisel. In all but the November 16, 1841, letter, Joseph and Bernhisel address each other as Brother.

The November 16, 1841, letter instead uses the salutation Dear Sir, which is how Woodruff addressed every subsequent letter he wrote to Bernhisel.

IOW, the November 16 letter is an outlier.

The just-released 1842 Bernhisel letters confirm the pattern between Joseph and Bernhisel, as they are addressed "Dear Brother" and "Dr & respected Brother."

I already considered it a high probability that Wilford Woodruff wrote the November 16th letter, but now the probability is even higher.

This is a significant development in understanding Church history that hopefully will be recognized in future papers and books that discuss the Bernhisel letter.

*The relevant portion of the letter reads:

I received your kind present by the hand of Er. [sic] Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes [sic] many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of The Book of Mormon; I have read the volumnes [sic] with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprehensive.—

Saturday, November 5, 2016

1842 Benjamin Winchester letter

Readers of my books know that one of my assertions has been that Benjamin Winchester was mailing articles from Philadelphia to William Smith in Nauvoo, who was editing the Wasp in Nauvoo. I have also proposed that William was editing the Times and Seasons.

Recently the Joseph Smith Papers announced some new material on their website. Among the material was a letter from Benjamin Winchester to the First Presidency, dated August 8, 1842.

Here's the link:

I hadn't seen this before today. This is highly significant because now we know Benjamin mailed at least this letter to Nauvoo exactly in the time frame in which I had proposed he was mailing articles and extracts to Nauvoo. This isn't proof that he wrote the anonymous articles, as I have proposed based on a number of facts itemized in The Lost City of Zarahemla and Brought to Light, but it is a nice confirmation of one of my basic proposals.

I think it's also significant to see the familiarity he has with the First Presidency. He is short and to the point. He is almost demanding that they take the action he wants, supporting his demand with a vote of 500 to 0.

The letter involves George Adams, who is the subject of the August Times and Seasons articles I think Winchester wrote under the pseudonym "Q" as explained in my books. Even in this brief letter, he refers to the "great excitement on the subject of our holy religion," the exact kind of exaggeration ans zeal typical of "Q" and Winchester's other writings.

Of course, I still hope someday we find a cover letter from Winchester to William Smith that accompanies the anonymous articles...


Unfortunately, the Joseph Smith Papers made a mistake (or oversight) in the biographical summary of Benjamin Winchester, here: They say he arrived in Nauvoo by 12 November 1841, but we know he was there at least on October 31, 1841, because of the disciplinary council he faced on that date. I'll send a suggested correction and see if they incorporate it.

Here's Winchester's letter in the original and as transcribed:

 Aug 8th [1842]
To the first presidency of [the churc]h at 
This is to certify that [upon] [conve]ning a vote was called in a congregation of more than five hundred to express their desire that   should [re]turn to this   to preach and there was not, a dissenting voice
For my own part I thought it altogether advisable for him to return immediately for there is now a great excitement on the subject of of our holy religion and a prospect of bringing scores into the kingdom

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


The Juvenile Instructor blog is keeping up with newly digitized sources here. This is a very helpful resource for historians.

BYU has also made the journals of James E. Talmage, from 1879-1911, available here.

11 Documents: Joseph Smith and Book of Mormon geography, Part 1

[cross-posted from]

In 2007, Andrew Hedges published an excellent article in the Mormon Historic Sites journal that discusses the 11 "particularly noteworthy" documents generated during Joseph Smith's lifetime that pertain to Book of Mormon geography. Brother Hedges states that "These are documents that were generated during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and that Joseph at least allowed, in one way or another, to be associated with his name in significant ways." None of these documents are holographic (in Joseph's handwriting) and none bear Joseph's actual signature.

Brother Hedges writes, "In the absence of any holographic material from Joseph, or a clear understanding about how each letter and document was generated and reviewed, the most that we can safely conclude is that Joseph allowed his name to be attached to them without later offering any sort of correction to them. Whether he completely agreed with everything they contained or not is impossible to say."

The idea that Joseph allowed all these articles to be associated with his name has long been the consensus view. However, new evidence made available since 2007, primarily through the Joseph Smith Papers, has given us more understanding about how these letters and documents were generated and reviewed. Based on my research, I think the consensus about Joseph's involvement with many of these items is inaccurate. I think most historians will agree when they examine the evidence. 

Brother Hedges divided the documents into three categories.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

The Plains of the Nephites and the Hill Cumorah

Stephens’ Incidents of Travel and the Times and Seasons

Here I'll briefly discuss the first category. In subsequent posts, I'll explore the remaining two categories, and eventually each item in more detail.

Ambiguous Texts: Indians and the American Continent

1. 1833 letter addressed to N.C. Saxton. This letter describes the Book of Mormon as “a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians. . . . By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians are descendants from that Joseph who was sold into Egypt, and the land of America is a promised land unto them.” [There are debates about what Joseph meant by "our western tribes of Indians" and "the land of America."]

2. 1839 history. Here, Moroni tells Joseph Smith that “there was a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” [Note: In Letter VII, Oliver says Moroni told Joseph the record was "written and deposited" not far from his home, an important clarification. If the record was written near Joseph's home in New York, it obviously wasn't written somewhere else and then hauled to New York.]

3. 1842 Wentworth letter. The letter, written in first person and signed in print by Joseph, claims Moroni visited Joseph and told him about the plates containing "the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent." Moroni also taught Joseph “concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country.” “[T]he history of ancient America” unfolds in the text, and “America in ancient times was inhabited by two distinct races of people,” with the “remnant” constituting “the Indians that now inhabit this country.”

Debates have ensued about what Joseph meant by "continent" and "this country." When we realize that Joseph Smith resided in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Mr. Wentworth resided in Chicago, Illinois, the plain meaning of "this country" would be the United States (or, possibly, the "countryside" the two parties shared). There is nothing in the letter or context that would suggest Joseph used the term "country" to refer to Central or South America. The term "continent" is presumably more expansive, and could refer to the entire hemisphere (North, Central and South America) or just North America. A variety of terms are used in the Times and Seasons, for example, including the “Continent of Europe,” the “Oriental Continent,” and the “Continent of America.” The last reference is in an epistle of the Twelve “to the brethren scattered abroad on the Continent of America,” all of whom were east of the Mississippi. For whatever reason, Joseph left the terms vague here. They are susceptible to multiple interpretations.

Summary: Brother Hedges concludes, "The documents cited above, all of which were associated with Joseph’s name in one way or another, were simply conveying the idea that the events in the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in the New World, and that the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples were still around." That's a fair statement, although I interpret the terms "this country" and "our western tribes of Indians" to be more specific than he does.

End of Part 1

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Bernhisel letter

November 1841 letter to Bernhisel
This post focuses on what I consider one of the best examples of a single document that created the groundwork for an entire historical narrative. I'm writing because I think that narrative is erroneous.

A November 1841 letter written from Nauvoo to Dr. John Bernhisel (an LDS leader in New York City) has created a historical narrative that I think contradicts the facts and has led to considerable confusion.

No one knows who wrote the letter; the handwriting remains unidentified. However, it is written in first person and signed in the name of Joseph Smith, which had led historians to assume Joseph dictated the letter.

The letter (essentially a brief thank-you note) thanks Bernhisel for the gift of a two-book set about ruins in Central America.  The books were written by John Stephens and illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Stephens also discusses North American archaeology.

The note states that the Stephens book "unfolds & developes [sic] many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of The Book of Mormon."

Based on this thank-you note, LDS scholars have concluded that Joseph Smith was enthusiastic about the ruins in Central America and their supposed connection with the Book of Mormon. The note has also contributed to the ideas that 1) Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, 2) he merely speculated about its setting, and 3) he changed his mind on this topic. I think those three ideas are not supported by the historical record.

An explanation in the Joseph Smith papers (JSP) refers to the Stephens books this way: "JS greeted it enthusiastically and church members used it to map Book of Mormon sites in a Central American setting."

That claim, like the others, is based on the Bernhisel letter. I don't think Joseph greeted the letter at all, much less enthusiastically.

Because I think JSP and others are making an erroneous inference. I summarized the historical data in a chapter of my next book titled The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos.

  • Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers project, new information has been brought to light that suggests a different reality. In this article, I offer evidence showing that 1) the thank-you note originated with Wilford Woodruff, 2) Joseph never read the Stephens books, and 3) Joseph had nothing to do with the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons.

I realize there is a lot of institutional inertia behind the standard interpretation of the Bernhisel letter. However, I have a lot of confidence in LDS historians, and I think that sooner or later they will take another look at the events of 1841 and 1842 and revise the historical narrative accordingly.


For those who accept Letter VII, I have a comment on this on that blog here.

Translating ancient texts

Because I believe Joseph Smith translated the ancient Nephite plates, I've been curious how he could or would have done it.  Joseph wrot...