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)

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...