Thursday, June 13, 2013

How Not to Do Book of Mormon Studies

I am reading Book of Mormon Book of Lies (hereafter BMBL) by Meredith R. and Kendal M. Sheets.1 The Sheets' primary thesis is that the Book of Mormon is a plagiarization of The Travels of Marco Polo (hereafter Travels).2 Though the description and reviews on amazon.com made me wary, I hoped (in vain, as it turns out) the book would be able to contribute something useful to genre criticism of the Book of Mormon's travel narratives. The Book of Mormon contains a number of travel narratives, beginning with the Lehite party leaving Jerusalem for the promised land. Travels is a travel narrative, so in theory some useful comparisons could be made.



I can't say I'm disappointed, because my hopes weren't that high. But I still would have expected something better from authors claiming to have spent twenty-five years working on the project. Instead, what I got were several factual errors and a conspiracy theory derived from twisting Lucy Mack Smith's Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, and His Progenitors for many Generations.3 And that's before we even get into their methodology for proving the Joseph Smith plagiarized the Travels.



The methodology itself is pretty simple. Open either the Travels or the Book of Mormon to a given page. Find the same relative page in the other. Look around until you find a similarity. Declare plagiarism. For example, if you open Travels to page 119, this will be about 16% through a book of 756 pages. In the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, this comes to page ninety-four (out of 588 pages). Somewhere around this page, you will find something that is similar to the Travels. By “somewhere around this page,” you may actually have to turn more than thirty pages; never mind that. Any similarity will do, even the surface similarity of Manti being similar to Manji (BMBL 35). There is absolutely no reason to pay attention to the context of either book.



It should be obvious, but this kind of methodology has no built-in controls. One could theoretically use it to prove any work is a plagiarism of another. In fact, my response to the reviewers who discussed the process was disbelief. Surely there were some kind of controls to weight the resulting evidence! In this case, I really was disappointed.



Or perhaps I should have known. The Book of Mormon and the Travels are very different kinds of stories. Although the Book of Mormon does contain travel narratives, it is not, on the whole, a travel narrative. Proving the Book of Mormon is a plagiarism of the Travels was bound to be a case of stretching the evidence.



Though I still have not finished BMBL, I can make some preliminary assessments. Of the dozen or so examples I have read so far, there is only one parallel for which a strong case can be made for literary dependence. This is the story of Chinsan Ba-yan's massacre of the inhabitants of Manji:



At the time that Chinsan Ba-yan, or the hundred-eyed, subdued the country of Manji, he dispatched certain Alanian christians, along with a party of his own people, to possess themselves of this city; who as soon as they appeared before it, were suffered to enter without resistance. The place being surrounded by a double wall, one of them within the other, the Alanians occupied the first enclosure, where they found a large quantity of wine, and having previously suffered much from fatigue and privation, they were eager to quench their thirst, and without any consideration proceeded to drink to such excess, that becoming intoxicated, they fell asleep. The people of the city, who were within the second inclosure as soon as they perceived that their enemies lay slumbering on the ground, took the opportunity of murdering them, not suffering one to escape. When Chinsan Ba-yan learned the fate of his detachment, his indignation and anger were raised to the highest pitch, and he sent another army to attack the place. When it was carried, he gave orders for putting to the sword all the inhabitants great and small, without distinction of sex, as an act of retaliation.--Travels p. 503

Compare this story to that in Alma 55:7-24, and one could make a case for literary dependency. Moroni seeks to free Nephite prisoners being held in the city of Gid. He sends people of Lamanite descent to the city with a lot of wine. Fatigued and thirsty, the guards drink enough wine to get drunk and fall asleep. The prisoners are armed and have the opportunity to kill the prisoners. The Lamanites wake up, surrender to the now-armed Nephites, who take possession of the city. The basic outline of the story fits, and so does some of the wording. One could well infer literary dependency in this example.

Note I said “literary dependency” rather than “plagiarism.” There is a reason for this. First, the stories are different enough that this is not a simple case of plagiarism. More important, the basic plot device of getting a captor drunk in order to make good a character's plan goes back at least to the apocryphal/deuterocanonical book of Judith. If storytellers are not allowed to reuse plot devices in their own stories, that would be the end of literature, film, television and every other storytelling medium as we know it.

Moreover, to find the parallel, the authors had to move forward a full sixteen pages in the Travels from the relative point in the Book of Mormon. While this is not as bad as having to move twenty-seven pages in the Travels and thirty-two pages in the Book of Mormon to get the “plagiarism” of engraved writings (BMBL 32-33), it still does not give me much faith in their method. We could have just skipped the math entirely.

The only other interesting possibility I've seen so far is the comparison of the story in 1 Nephi 17:1-4 with a story in the Travels about customs surrounding childbirth, discussed in pages 118-120. Notably, both stories involve childbirth, nursing, and eating raw meat. There are some interesting parallels in the wording, but the contexts are radically different. Still, as the authors ask, “Where in literature are eating raw meat and nursing an infant found in the same paragraph?” (BMBL 119, emphasis theirs). Indeed, how many places in literature can you see that happening on the same page?

I have to admit, that is something that makes me go, “Hmm.” Nevertheless, I think that, on balance, the similarities in those stories are probably just coincidental. If Joseph read the Travels, I do not believe he had it in mind when he wrote 1 Nephi. After all, how many stories can you have one mention both nursing and eating raw meat on the same page and still have it make sense?

And the percentages? The Sheets do not give them, only the page numbers. The Travels story is found on pages 434-435, while the 1 Nephi story in the 1830 edition is on page 42. This is about 57.5% through the former, and 7.14% in the latter.

The rest of the identified examples so far are either surface similarities, require pulling the stories out of context, require complex justification to even make a connection, or have simpler explanations. Out of at least a dozen examples I've seen so far, only two of them are worthy of serious consideration for literary dependency. And for one of them, the math does not even come close to working. If this is the best the authors can do, I have little hope the book will improve.

1McLean, VA: 1811 Press, 2012.
2 Further references to the Travels will be to the edition translated by William Marsden (London: Cox and Baylis, 1818) because this is the edition used by the Sheets.
3 Liverpool: pub. for Orson Pratt by S.W. Richards, 1853.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Environmental Theory of Book of Mormon Interpretation

This is a copy of a paper I wrote a number of years ago. I had intended it as a prolegomena for future studies, but life got in the way. I'm leaving the text as I wrote it except for linking to appropriate sources and minor formatting. Some of the information is probably outdated and there are some things I would change if I were rewriting it today.



            Book of Mormon studies have evolved in two different directions. The historicist approach sees the work as ancient, even if addressed to a modern audience. The environmentalist approach sees the work as modern.1 Over the years, these distinct approaches have evolved as both sides placed the Book of Mormon in their perceived contexts. The basic approaches are irreconcilable. Occasionally, the opposing sides can learn something from the other, but their starting positions force them to look in different places for evidence. Their ideas about what constitutes evidence clash, so borrowing from each other rarely happens. Usually, both sides vigorously argue for the validity of their approach and the inferiority of the other. 
 So, environmentalist scholars produce data they believe points to a modern origin for the Book of Mormon. Historicist scholars take issue with the data and its meaning. They also produce information they believe points to an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon. Environmentalists respond, and the cycle begins again. Convinced the other side is wrong, both sides up the ante. Sometimes it seems Book of Mormon scholars are more interested in destroying their opposition than they are in Book of Mormon studies.
 Environmentalists have a special onus to produce what Todd Compton calls “holistically positive treatment[s] of the environmental Book of Mormon.”2 The environmentalist position is traditionally a position taken by anti-Mormons and used to attack Mormonism. This is why we need to show our “purpose and intent is basically positive.” Religious environmentalists need to display “their reverence and affection for the book.” All environmentalists who do not wish to be classed as anti-Mormons should “address the constructive side of their task.”3 Arguing with historicists may have its place, but mostly it just produces friction. We need a better way to move ahead.
  Historicist Kevin Christensen may have given us a way. He has been invoking Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific paradigms for at least fifteen years. Christensen uses the idea both to describe the authorship war and to defend his position. He argues the divide between environmentalists and historicists is a paradigm debate involving two theories vying for superiority.4 Dan Vogel has questioned Christensen’s application of Kuhn’s work while arguing for the superiority of the environmentalist paradigm.5 However, Christensen’s suggestion does provide an idea for approaching Book of Mormon studies.
   Environmentalists have looked at Joseph Smith’s background, examined the Book of Mormon text, looked at American archaeology, consulted biblical scholarship, surveyed DNA studies, and considered population models. All these studies purport to show a modern origin for the Book of Mormon. However, most studies look at a single aspect of the book or are incidental asides where the focus is on Church history. Linking these studies together will allow us to take stock and act more constructively.
  Systematically synthesizing environmentalist work will help Book of Mormon studies in several ways. The environmentalist position derives from a network of interconnected assumptions, hypotheses, and information; no single argument is essential, and that is a point we must stress. Tit-for-tat argumentation fragments the discussion and requires environmentalists to continually reinvent the wheel. Armed with a synthesis of our work, interested parties can better assess our position.
  Clearly stating our position will also help guide our studies. We might concentrate on areas where our argument is weak. Some conclusions are based on initial studies in a given topic; further study in these areas will ensure the results are not mere anomalies. A stated theory might suggest new avenues and approaches to the Book of Mormon. Our theory will guide us in assessing various critiques, concentrating our responses on those that have some validity. If a critic presses an irrelevant issue, we have good justification for ignoring them.6
           Finally, a positive Book of Mormon theory allows us to move forward with our own agenda and engage the work in a “warm, convincing way.”7 Currently, environmentalist scholarship is focused on showing Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon. Such work has its place, but this is merely the “constant reiteration of fundamentals.”8 Apologetics also move the Book of Mormon away from the spotlight. If we are to do constructive work on the Book of Mormon, then we had better focus on the Book of Mormon. Stating a theory about the Book of Mormon will shift the spotlight where it belongs. We could do more important work while leaving apologists to debate the fundamentals.9
              My goal is to systematically develop the environmentalist position.10 I will state the environmentalists’ assumptions, hypotheses, and data as I understand them. Where possible, I connect the pieces to show how the assumptions, hypotheses, and data fit together. I avoid debating historicist positions as much as possible. Historicists have raised a few issues notably impacting this theory, and necessity demands I respond. Otherwise, I focus on a forward-looking presentation. If the theory is correct, environmentalists are right because they presented a better argument, not because they have refuted the opposition.
  This presentation can only outline the results of different studies. Instead of citing nearly every study supporting those statements, I usually only cite representative examples of a given argument. When discussing the participants, I mostly cite either Joseph Smith – History or History of the Church as convenient sources.11 However, witness accounts about the Book of Mormon can be found throughout Dan Vogel’s impressive primary source collection.12 
 I emphasize this essay is about the Book of Mormon, not Joseph Smith. If Smith wrote the text, consideration of his style and intent is important to interpreting the work. Nevertheless, the text itself holds the central place in my argument. Therefore, consideration of the prophet/fraud dichotomy is beyond the scope of this essay. The goal of Book of Mormon studies should be interpretation, and that is what I am working toward. Nothing in this work implies my disbelief either in Joseph Smith as a prophet or in the Book of Mormon as scripture. Quite the opposite. I believe the Book of Mormon is sacred text, and my passion for Book of Mormon studies stems from that fact.


Environmentalists begin their work with two basic assumptions. We will call the first assumption the Providence Principle. The Providence Principle states no overtly supernatural acts were involved in producing the Book of Mormon. At least one person produced the text, and the result is a natural product. The Providence Principle suggests we can interpret the text like any other document, including the application of normal tests for dating and authorship. God’s involvement is a matter of faith. If we accept God’s influence, divine involvement does not replace either the effort or the mistakes of human beings. We stress that adopting the Providence Principle does not mean denying overt miracles, but it does mean we cannot take recourse to the miraculous without compelling evidence. Adopting the Principle says nothing regarding the ultimate nature of reality. This assumption merely gives everyone a common base to start working without imposing theological baggage on anyone; if the theory works, that will validate the Providence Principle. However, we will avoid rejecting possibilities based solely on the Providence Principle.
The other assumption states that, everything else being equal, the safest course is to read the English text in its normal, natural sense. Some scholars may call this the plain sense or plain meaning of the text. We might also call it the literal sense. When we talk of the plain sense of the text, we do not mean taking each word so literally that no room for idiomatic or metaphorical usage is left. The normal, natural sense of a text adjusts for such usage. To avoid confusion, it might help to have a clear definition of what we mean by the plain sense of the text.
New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown suggested a definition that we might adapt: The normal, natural sense is that which authors intend and convey to their audience through their use of language. Brown unpacked the meaning of his definition; we can only summarize here. When authors write, they intend for their work to be understood. What they actually convey might be different, but usually intent and effect are the same. Writers intend that certain readers receive their message; these intended readers constitute the audience. Usually, both writers and audiences have a similar background. Language usage includes both the content and context, literary and cultural.13
            This kind of reading is approved by the Book of Mormon itself. When we turn to the text, we find it wants us to understand it. The Book of Mormon repeatedly declares that its prophets spoke clearly. Their plainness was occasionally irritating to others (e.g., 2 Ne. 1:26; Alma 14:2). Nephi argued that God himself speaks clearly to people “according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Ne. 31:5). The Book of Mormon came forth to restore lost parts of the gospel so the restored knowledge could settle conflicts (1 Ne. 13:34; 2 Ne. 3:12). The book was written with an eye toward easy understanding.
We have good reason to believe the plain meaning of the English text is sufficient for understanding the Book of Mormon. As we have noted, the plain sense of a text encompasses both the writer and the intended audience. Both must be reckoned with. Though its authorship may be in dispute, the Book of Mormon itself is fairly clear about whom its intended audience is. Though purporting to narrate ancient history, its narrators declare they are writing to an audience living when the text was published (e.g., 2 Ne. 25:8). The material was selected with an eye toward modern readers (e.g., 3 Ne. 23:4). Ideas and trends recorded therein would ring true to its readers (e.g., 2 Ne. 26:16). Occasionally, a narrator directly exhorts his audience, explicitly identified as those living when the work came forth (e.g., Morm. 8:34-41). We have already mentioned the text’s fondness for simple language. According to the Book of Mormon, the original text was written in an extinct tongue (Morm. 9:34), but the interpretation was dictated by God (2 Ne. 27:20), insuring the authenticity of the resulting translation (2 Ne. 3:18-21). Thus, trying to decide what concepts have carried over correctly into English needlessly complicates our task. After recording the English text, the original was to be sealed up again (2 Ne. 27:22). The Book of Mormon expected the world to end shortly afterward (2 Ne. 30; 3 Ne. 21, 29:1-5; Ether 4:15-17). Urgently getting the message out in such a short time seems to preclude translation into other languages; at least, the possibility is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
From this material, we can make some conclusions about the intended audience. Its anticipated readers were living at the time of publication. However, the text did not anticipate that the world would be around several generations after it was revealed. We cannot say how long the text expected the world to last, but we should not give it much more than a generation or two.14 Otherwise, the book’s immediate significance starts getting lost. More tentatively, we might also suggest the intended audience was primarily made up of English speakers.
In practice, knowing the intended audience guides us as we interpret the Book of Mormon. We must understand that those of us living in the twenty-first century are not the primary audience intended by the text. Usually we can take the words in their ordinary sense as suggested by the cultural context and general tenor of the work. But since the book was published nearly two hundred years ago, we must be alert for shifts in usage and meaning. Knowing the historical background at the time of publication will help us understand its “familiar spirit” (2 Ne. 26:16). The central importance and plain meaning of the English text cannot be set aside if we are to understand the Book of Mormon.

With these assumptions in place, environmentalists start asking more questions. One natural question is to ask about the type of writing the Book of Mormon represents. Its overall form is that of a narrative; that is, the book is telling a story. It follows the normal narrative format of developing a storyline from beginning to climax and then resolution. We should also note the Book of Mormon contains other forms, such as poetry, religious discourse, prophecy, letters, midrash, homily, and apocalyptic literature. All these different forms help develop its themes. When we come across these different types of literature, we have to adjust our interpretations according to its category within the narrative framework. For now, it is the apocalyptic form that will most concern us.
The historic apocalypse as a literary genre is a narrative form usually marked by several characteristics. These characteristics include pseudonymity, reports of visions, surveys of history framed as prophecy, and exhortations directed at the audience. Sometimes the revelation is couched as a farewell address. The prophet often prays for answers to his questions. Heavenly guides are often needed to explain the strange symbols the visionary sees. The revelation is astonishingly specific in predicting historical matters. However, the specifics of the prophecy usually start becoming fuzzy, usually saying the current age will end soon. Scholars often date apocalypses at the point where the prophecies start losing their focus. Sometimes, the revelation is said to be sealed until the time of the end is near; this explains why the book only recently became available. In the Bible, this genre is best represented by the books of Daniel and Revelation. Such works were meant to reassure the faithful that God is in control and they need only endure for a little while longer before God decisively intervenes.15
           The Book of Mormon resembles the apocalypse in several respects. It was written for the future, which it predicted with great specificity. We have already noted the narrators sometimes directly exhort its audience. When the narrators’ society collapsed, the book was sealed in the earth, to come forth again when the end of time was near. An angel revealed the existence of the text, and its interpretation was accomplished through the power of God. Finally, the appearance of the Book of Mormon meant that God was already decisively intervening in history. These aspects about the text might cause us to wonder if the Book of Mormon should be considered an apocalypse.
Though tempting, the Book of Mormon probably should not be categorized as a modern apocalypse. In certain passages the apocalyptic form dominates (e.g., 1 Ne. 8:1-16:6), but like the other forms contained within the book, the revelatory portions are integrated into a conventional narrative framework. The primary function of the narrative is not to entertain its readers. As we have seen, the Book of Mormon exists for specific purposes, most especially to restore lost knowledge to the people. The Book of Mormon exists to settle disputes about a variety of subjects. If the narrative also entertains the reader, then that is a special bonus. For the overall literary form, we will identify the Book of Mormon as a didactic narrative.

Recognizing the Book of Mormon is a narrative still leaves us with an important question. Does this narrative have a historical basis? Did the Lehites, Mulekites, and Jaredites really exist? If so, then producing the Book of Mormon would require an overtly supernatural act. To stay consistent with the Providence Principle, we must rule out a historical basis for the narrative. However, we will require additional support.
One way to test for historicity is by attempting to fix the time when the text was written. If a text reflects a time later than that which is claimed for it, we can confidently date the work to the later period. Internally, the text claims it is based on records written by several authors over the span of at least a thousand years. These writers represent civilizations described in the work. The authors of the books of First Nephi through Omni identified themselves. In Words of Mormon, the main narrator identifies himself; his work extends through Mormon 8. Moroni abridges the Jaredite history and completes the Book of Mormon. Later still, Joseph Smith translated the record.
So far, we cannot independently verify the existence of the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon. Book of Mormon scholars have attempted to place these civilizations in the real world. Currently, the dominant theory places them in a limited geographic area centered in Mesoamerica.16 The proponents of such theories rarely claim anything beyond plausibility for their models. Nevertheless, a plausible model is no substitute for independent verification of the claims made by the Book of Mormon. We will not say our inability to independently prove the Nephites existed positively means they did not. But unless such confirmatory evidence appears, we will focus our attention elsewhere.
A similar problem confronts us when we consider the text as a translation. Again, if the English text is a translation, most likely this would involve an overtly supernatural act, violating the Providence Principle. The only evidence we have for a foreign language original is the testimony of the text and a few people. No text in the original language is extant, so we cannot verify their word. Some scholars have discovered Hebraisms in the text that could point to a Hebrew original.17 Usually, they do not claim anything more for their discoveries and have not shown the Hebraisms are anything more than either imitation of the King James Version or bad English grammar. Again, our inability to confirm the translation does not prove the English text is the original. But until such confirmatory evidence appears, we will focus our attention elsewhere.
The earliest verifiable evidence suggests the Book of Mormon did not exist until the 1820s. Joseph Smith learned about the Book of Mormon through visions he experienced in 1823. His accounts strongly suggest he was the first person to learn about its existence (e.g., JS-H 1:27-54). None of the other witnesses dispute this. One theory proposed the base text was plagiarized from a novel written by Solomon Spaulding, but this theory lost credibility years ago.18 So far, no other external evidence suggests the text existed before Smith dictated it.
Indeed, the Book of Mormon is comfortable in an early nineteenth-century environment. This is to be expected from a text translated using nineteenth-century English and addressing a nineteenth-century audience. Nevertheless, in some respects the Book of Mormon is too comfortable in this environment. The best example is the use of evangelical revivalist patterns of preaching and conversion.
Revivalism began in the early eighteenth century; by Joseph Smith’s time, the basic pattern and the accompanying biblical hermeneutic were well established. Typically revival sermons were delivered by itinerant preachers, and were meant to convince sinners of the need to repent. Revival meetings were highly emotional affairs. Evangelists described sinners with a variety of metaphors, including being blinded by a cloud of darkness; the preachers intended to pierce the souls of his listeners and produce intense feelings of guilt and fear. Under such pressure, sinners might call out “What shall we do?” For the sinner, it might seem as if the ground were shaking. They may tremble or simply be frozen with fear. Sinners would cry out for mercy praying for prolonged periods until their spiritual darkness was lifted. Conversion meant coming into the light, and sometimes the converted would see light encircling themselves and others. Profound feelings of peace and joy replaced their terror. Conversion might be accompanied by divine manifestations pronouncing forgiveness and calling the converted to spread the word.
Helaman 5:20-52 provides an exemplary example of the process. Nephi and Lehi are itinerant preachers who come to the land of Nephi to preach to the Lamanites. The prophets are thrown in jail, but God protects the two from execution by surrounding them with fire. When the Lamanites saw this, they were frozen with fear. An earthquake followed, and a cloud of darkness fell upon them. A voice from above, presumably God’s voice, preached repentance to the Lamanites. One person in the crowd, Aminadab, noticed Nephi and Lehi conversing with angels. The Lamanites ask “What shall we do?” Aminadab answers they should pray to the voice until their faith allowed the cloud to dissipate. Darkness was replaced with pillars of fire similar to the ones surrounding Nephi and Lehi. The converted Lamanites were filled with joy, and the voice whispered peace to them. After angels ministered to them, they went forth preaching to their own people.
Revivalist language pervades much of the Book of Mormon.19 Unlike other nineteenth century language patterns, evangelical expressions in the Book of Mormon cannot easily be explained as translation language. If Joseph Smith had recast the conversion stories in the Book of Mormon into revivalist language, we would expect more literary seams alerting us to that fact. However, the narrative flows too smoothly. Moreover, Helaman 5:20-52 literalizes the metaphorical terminology used in typical revivalist conversion stories.
Nor can the use of revivalist terminology be easily explained by appeals to the universality of conversion or the use of biblical language. Conversions are universal, and the conversion stories found in the Book of Mormon do use biblical language. These points are not contested. The problem is the particular revivalist methodology and the particular biblical hermeneutic undergirding the pattern. These patterns did not exist much more than a hundred years before the Book of Mormon was published, and thus point to a modern origin for the work.
A modern origin for the Book of Mormon is also suggested by current biblical scholarship. The sermon Jesus gave at the temple (3 Ne. 12-14) follows the format of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). This fact would seem strange to mainstream biblical scholars. They believe the author of Matthew drew upon already existing sources for the sayings contained on the Sermon on the Mount.20 It was Matthew that put these sayings together in the order found in the Sermon on the Mount. Though Jesus may have taught the points contained in the Sermon, he probably did not give this Sermon as Matthew presents it. We leave it to the reader to compare the placement of similar sayings in the gospels of Mark and Luke. For the Book of Mormon we should therefore expect the sayings would be presented in a much different form and order.21
Mainstream scholars also believe much of Isaiah was written during or after the Babylonian exile, while Lehi and his company left before the conquest of Jerusalem. If these scholars are correct, then the Book of Mormon could not quote anything from Isaiah 40-66.[note] Yet the Book of Mormon fully quotes Isaiah 48-51 and 53 (1 Ne. 20-21; 2 Ne. 7-8; Mosiah 14). Jesus quoted Isaiah 54 (3 Ne. 22), which would have been available to him, but it may seem strange the Nephites showed no confusion.
Modern biblical scholarship may be dismissed, but block quotations of the Bible in the Book of Mormon present another problem. Book of Mormon scholars generally concede the quotations come from the King James Version (KJV), though the excerpts have been modified. The modifications follow some general patterns. A disproportionate number of the changes occur where the KJV italicizes words, sometimes at the expense of clarity. The Book of Mormon retains errors found in the KJV, and its modifications often do violence to the underlying languages. Even when adapting to a different setting, the modified readings are most easily explained as reactions to the King James Version. All these patterns suggest dependency on the King James Version rather than adaptation to an underlying language, requiring a minimum dating of the KJV’s appearance.22
           The prophecies concerning its publication provide the best evidence for dating the Book of Mormon. Nephi predicted Columbus’ voyage to the New World, to be followed by other Gentiles who would displace the natives, and then the American Revolution (1 Ne. 13). Lehi predicts the appearance of Joseph Smith, who was named after his father, and his connection to the Book of Mormon (2 Ne. 3). Drawing on wording from Isaiah 29, Nephi further predicts the Anthon incident in February 1828 (2 Ne. 27, cf. JS-H 62-65). At the time the Book of Mormon is published, many different churches would be competing with each other (2 Ne. 28, cf. JS-H 5-6). These prophecies are so specific and detailed it is hard not to think of them as prophecies made after the fact. Indeed, unlike ancient apocalyptic literature, we have indisputable evidence the text was created after the events it foretells.
These points also suggest the narrative is ahistorical. Since the best dating for the Book of Mormon is after February 1828, we can safely discount the narrators’ claims that they were writing in an ancient period. In turn, this probably means its narrators did not exist and the events they narrate did not happen. Most likely, the real author claimed an ancient basis for the text as a literary device establishing the setting of the narrative. Unless we find independent verification for the claims made by the narrators, we have little choice but to conclude the narrative is fictitious. We now modify our hypothesis to say the Book of Mormon is a fictitious narrative written after February 1828.

Much of the information gleaned from dating the text also points to Joseph Smith as the sole author. The biographical information about Smith in the text shows that if the author is not Smith himself, very few other candidates are possible. Participants producing the work all agree Joseph Smith dictated the words written by scribes (JS–H 1:67). Oliver Cowdery apparently attempted to contribute to the text, but failed (D&C 9). As far as we can tell from the external evidence, Smith is the only person responsible for the text. Smith’s dictation is the only constant in the text’s production; different scribes wrote his words, as shown by witness accounts and handwriting analysis.23 Available evidence provides little opportunity for another human agent to direct Smith’s work. Most notably, once Oliver Cowdery began acting as Smith’s scribe, the work was finished with little time to spare. Introducing another human agent defies the rule of parsimony. No one else has claimed credit for helping with the plot or the ideas expressed in the Book of Mormon. If Smith collaborated with others, it did not affect the actual writing of the text.24
          Some literary structures in the Book of Mormon may point to a single author. For example, John W. Welch contended that the book of Mosiah follows a chiastic structure.25 This is despite the fact Mosiah can claim four to six authors26 and features two extended, extemporaneous sermons.27 It seems unlikely the individual units can follow their own logical progression and still fit the chiasm correctly. Mosiah, despite its own claims, was probably composed by one author.28
         Several attempts have been made to establish the number and identity author(s) through computerized stylometry (i.e., wordprints). Not surprisingly, the results have lined up with the positions taken by the people doing the tests. Stylometry may prove useful for identifying the authors of the Federalist papers, where the issues at stake are not so sensitive.29 When it comes to the Book of Mormon, I doubt computerized stylometry will do anything besides prove the GIGO principle–garbage in, garbage out.
Another type of study gauges the frequency in usage of otherwise interchangeable terms. When lined up with the dictation sequence, we find changes in the frequency these terms are used. Preferences in usage cut across the lines of internal authorship, suggesting the predilections for the given word do not reflect any underlying text. These studies also suggest the entire text has only one author; at least, nothing other than the Bible has been copied into the text. In at least one case, a preference for certain words links the Book of Mormon to Smith’s other revelations dating to the dictation period.30 Only a few word preferences have been studied so far; additional studies are needed. However, we may tentatively say the Book of Mormon is linked to Smith through these preferences.
More generally, we also note that when Smith recorded material coming directly from a divine source, he adopted a King James style. His other writings except recorded prayers drop this style. Even when he mixes the two styles in the same document, the different styles usually distinguish Smith’s voice from God’s. These characteristics mark Smith’s works with remarkable though not ironclad consistency. Like many writers trying to imitate a certain style, Smith’s revelations are marked by phrases used excessively compared with the King James Version. He also had trouble distinguishing singular and plural forms of the second person pronoun, along with its nominative and accusative cases.31
            We can also see that Smith continued these patterns with his narrative expansions of Genesis (i.e., the book of Moses). Smith started working on our present book of Moses soon after he published the Book of Mormon.32 When we compare the two, we see similarities in style and thought. King James style language is overdone. Some of Smith’s modifications usually make little sense in Hebrew, and seem to be reactions to the King James text. Italicized words become a focus for the modifications throughout the Inspired Version.33 In the Book of Moses, prophets possess and preach explicit, detailed information about Christ long before Jesus was born. Both identify Jesus as the model for human bodies (Ether 3:14-16, Moses 2:27). The Fall, explicitly set up by the devil,34 was a necessary step for humanity’s progress (2 Nephi 2:18-25, Moses 4:6, 5:9-12). “Secret combinations” started with Cain (Ether 8:15, Moses 5:51). Continuing this exercise is unnecessary; we may conclude both narratives have the same author, Joseph Smith being the common link.
The internal links of common authorship and the external evidence provided by the participants give us good reason to believe Joseph Smith is the author of the Book of Mormon.

Recognizing the Book of Mormon is a didactic narrative and postulating Joseph Smith as the author, we would expect to find the author’s environment has influenced the work. In other words, we can expect to find Joseph Smith’s “sources.” Our expectation also comes from the text itself. Its purpose is to address the concerns of the intended audience and solve their disputes (e.g., 3 Ne. 11:28). The reader is invited to apply the scriptures to their world (e.g., 1 Ne. 19:23; 2 Ne. 11:8). We might say the book fulfills its purpose only if the intended audience understands it within their cultural context.35 Thus, we can probably identify the background of the Book of Mormon.
Knowing the intended audience and purpose gives us another reason to search for sources. We propose that if knowing the background of the text is essential to interpret it, the text’s background also suggests the identity of its author. However, we have to invoke a couple assumptions to make this connection. Our first assumption is that the background of both the author and the audience have enough in common that the readers can understand the work. However, the author’s environment is peculiar enough to narrow the search for his or her identity. The first part of the assumption seems sound; as we have seen, the author wants the audience to understand the work. Defending the second assumption is not as easy. If the author’s background is too peculiar, the work would cease to make sense to anyone else. Identifying the author is impossible if we are unable to make sense of the text.
We take this risk because our proposition suggests another test for Book of Mormon authorship. Our proposition first predicts we can find background sources for the text. It also predicts the author knows the sources well enough to use them in his or her work. By combining these predictions, we may say the author’s environment will provide the sources for the text. The more sources we find, the greater the probability a given candidate wrote the Book of Mormon. We test these predictions by examining the life and times of a potential author. Since Joseph Smith is already our prime candidate, we will test his environment for the text’s sources.
Proposing a test is one thing, determining how we should conduct the test is another. Sources for the Book of Mormon may or may not be written works. Even strictly searching for written sources poses some uncertainties unless the author has cited or obviously copied the source. Proposed parallels between the given text and other possible phenomena may be coincidental. Identifying potential sources requires interpreting both text and background material, which partially makes the process subjective. Authors adapt their material to suit their own purpose, even distorting their source when necessary; this fact means we might misidentify or overlook potential sources.
Luckily, the task is not hopeless. We can test a proposed source using certain criteria. Establishing the author knew or could have known about the source is essential. A parallel becomes more convincing with the likelihood the author knew the source. Convincingly establishing the author could hardly avoid contact with the source is a reasonable approach. Source and text should resemble each other as closely as possible. If the intended audience makes a connection, it would favorably point to the proposed source. Explaining how the author may have used the proposed source suggests the significance of the text and strengthens the argument. In short, we can judge the best proposals by asking three questions. What is the likelihood the author knew about the source? How closely does the source coincide with phenomena described in the text? How does the source suggest the meaning of the text? These criteria do not eliminate subjective judgments, but peer review can eliminate the wildest proposals.
Environmentalists have identified many potential sources. Unfortunately, they have identified too many to list. Among environmentalists, the King James Version of the Bible is the only undisputed source. However, they have achieved a great deal of consensus on the anti-Masonic movement, the Mound Builder myth, and revivalist culture. Ethan Smith’s View to the Hebrews remains a favorite possibility for environmentalists.36 Environmentalists have noted parallels between the text and biographical information about Smith. Environmentalists continue to see sources and argue over them, both with other environmentalists and with historicists. We need to evaluate each proposal individually.
Whatever the merits of any single argument, it is clear Joseph Smith’s environment provides enough sources for the Book of Mormon. The information we have gleaned so far continues to point toward Joseph Smith’s authorship.

Knowing how much planning Smith put into the text could have some interpretive value. Some scholars have suggested the Book of Mormon is the product of some form of automatic writing.37 Others have suggested Smith poured out the words as they came to him in a stream-of-consciousness.38 Yet others believe that with careful planning and the use of stock formulae, Smith could have easily dictated the text in a short time.39 Some even believe Smith somehow used notes.40 Closer study of the text, including its literary structures, the presence of any seams, and other features may prove helpful in establishing the level of planning. However, we need not know the methodology Smith used to begin interpreting the result.

Though more work needs to be done, we can confidently say environmentalists have fashioned a comprehensive theory explaining the Book of Mormon. The Environmental Theory states the Book of Mormon is a fictitious work written by Joseph Smith. This theory is the result of formulating and testing hypotheses initially suggested by two basic assumptions. Testing these hypotheses yielded data that separately and collectively point to the Environmental Theory. We can now consider the strengths and weaknesses of the theory. Our criteria are adequacy, internal coherence, external consistency, and fruitfulness.41
          Adequacy. The Environmental Theory answers some very significant questions. It primarily answers questions regarding who wrote the Book of Mormon, when it was written, and what type of narrative it is. Issues relating to the work’s purpose need more work, but the Theory does answer the basic question of intent. The theory provides a basis to look for Smith’s sources and has uncovered some. Smith’s writing method needs further examination. We require more textual and literary studies to nail down some environmentalist conclusions. Unfortunately, the Environmental Theory does not adequately account for the plates; however, their importance to Book of Mormon interpretation is an open question.
Internal coherence. The assumptions, hypotheses, and data connect with each other rationally. None of the components contradict each other, even where those factors are weak. We made very few assumptions. Of these assumptions, we need to take only the Providence Paradigm on faith; the others are reasonable, defensible, and necessary. We rejected no possibility solely based on these assumptions. Hypotheses flow naturally from the assumptions. Subsequent testing pointed to the validity of the hypotheses and suggested new avenues for research. Inadequately answered questions pose no significant challenge to the theory. The Environmental Theory is simple while connecting and explaining a broad range of data.
External consistency. The Environmental Theory poses no conflict with other relevant theories. It is consistent with biblical scholarship regarding the authorship, date, and redaction of the quoted biblical passages. Archaeology poses no problem for the Theory; in fact, the Theory explains why text does not match what we currently know about ancient American civilizations. Likewise, the Theory does not conflict with known DNA evidence regarding the origins of the American continents’ aboriginal inhabitants. We used methodology borrowed from other scholarly fields, and the Theory confirmed the utility of those methods by producing useful results. External consistency is the theory’s greatest strength.
Fruitfulness. The search for sources has already proven the most fruitful aspect of the Environmental Theory. Further work will produce more sources and pare the list down to the most striking ones. Studying the text’s literary structures will help provide information about Joseph Smith’s methods and goals for the text. More textual analysis will have the same result. Environmentalists have done more work analyzing quoted biblical texts than interpreting their function within the text; this situation needs correction. More work has been done about Joseph Smith’s role than in interpreting the text itself; the Theory suggests certain directions for Book of Mormon interpretation. Finally, the Environmental Theory links the Book of Mormon with Joseph Smith’s other works, suggesting even more new avenues for research.

Constructive environmentalist approaches to the Book of Mormon are possible. However, if Book of Mormon studies remain mired in debates about its origin, such work is unlikely. Environmentalists need to move beyond continued debate over these first principles. The Environmental Theory provides a framework that allows us to move forward from a position we can take for granted. We can now focus on Book of Mormon interpretation, which in turn will give the Theory more articulation and depth.42 As environmentalists continue their studies, the Environmental Theory will continue to bear ever more fruit.


1 I am borrowing Todd Compton’s terms because they are relatively neutral. Todd Compton, “Christian Scholarship and the Book of Mormon,” review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, ed. by Brent Lee Metcalfe and Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 1, Sunstone (Sept. 1996): 74-81.
2 Compton, “Christian Scholarship,” 77.
3 Ibid., 75.
4 For a recent example, see Kevin Christensen, “Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel’s Approach to the Book of Mormon,” The FARMS Review 16:1 (2004): 287-354. See also Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
5 For example, see Dan Vogel, “Is a ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Book of Mormon Studies Possible?Sunstone, March 2005, 69-74.
6 See Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 19.
7 Compton, “Christian Scholarship,” 75.
8 Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 18.
9 Cf. ibid., 19-20.
10 For an overview of historicist approaches, see Benjamin N. Judkins, “Recent Trends in Book of Mormon Apologetics: A Critical Assessment of Methodological Diversity and Academic Viability,” The FARMS Review 16, no. 1 (2004): 75-97. As far as I know, there is no systematic statement synthesizing their work.
11 Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B. H. Roberts, ed., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), hereafter HC.
12 Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003).
13 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, Anchor Bible Reference Library, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 35-40.
14 In 1842, Parley P. Pratt was convinced the existing order would be overthrown within ten years. Parley P. Pratt, Mormonism Unveiled: Zion’s Watchman Unmasked, and Its Editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, Exposed; Truth Vindicated; The Devil Mad, and Priestcraft in Danger! 4th ed., (New York: Joseph W. Harrison, 1842), 14.
15 Wilhem Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, Trans. ed. R. McL. Wilson (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. and Westminster John Knox Press): 542-549; David Noel Freedman, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), s.v., “Apocalypses and Apocalypticism,” 1:279-292. Grant Underwood surveys the history of Judeo-Christian apocalypticism to Joseph Smith’s time in The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993): 11-23.
16 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Company and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985).
17 For example, see John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co. and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 77-91.
18 For an overview, see Lester E. Bush, Jr., “The Spaulding Theory Then and Now,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10, no. 4 (Autumn 1977): 40-69.
19 For in-depth coverage of this topic, see Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 95-133; B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, ed. Brigham D. Madsen, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 284-316; Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 52-56, 123-147; Mark D. Thomas, “Revival Language in the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone (May-June 1983): 19-25.
20 For this discussion, I am setting aside questions regarding what Jesus historically said and what later church tradition put in his mouth.
21 For a summary of the “Synoptic Problem” and its solution, see Brown, 111-122. For the application to the Book of Mormon, see Ronald V. Huggins, “Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Matthew?Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 137-148.
22 Stan Larson, “The Historicity of the Matthean Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 115-163; David P. Wright, “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon: Or Joseph Smith in Isaiah,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 157-234. For responses, see Kevin L. Barney, “Isaiah Interwoven,” The FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 388-395; John W. Welch, “Approaching New Approaches,” Review of Book on the Book of Mormon 6, no 1 (1994): 152-168.
23 On the handwriting, see Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, no 3 (Spring 1970): 259-278.
24 That is, if Smith collaborated with anyone, it did not go beyond discussing ideas. Smith did admit discussing the text with Cowdery (JS-H 1:68, 74). However, in these cases, they had already written the texts under discussion.
25 John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10, no. 1 (Autumn 1969): 82.
26 Mormon, Zeniff, Isaiah, and Mosiah are the minimum number of authors. We may add Benjamin and Alma1 to this list.
27 Benjamin’s final address (Mosiah 1-5) and Abinadi’s defense (Mosiah 12-15) are presented as extemporaneous communications. Abinadi quotes Isaiah 53 in chapter fourteen.
28 Of course, this would not preclude using multiple written sources. Welch argues chiasmus points to multiple authorship and a Hebrew original for the Book of Mormon. John W. Welch, “What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove?” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, 199-224.
29 John L. Hilton argues for multiple authorship in “On Verifying Wordprint Studies: Book of Mormon Authorship,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 225-253. Ernest H. Taves argues for Joseph Smith as the sole author in Trouble Enough: Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984), 225-266.
30 Brent Lee Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 408-414.
31 Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, Religion in America Series, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991): 27-28.
32 HC 1:98.
33 Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 51-53.
34 The book of Genesis does not identify the serpent with the devil. Identifying the serpent with Satan was a later development. John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, The International Critical Commentary (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 72-73.
35 This does not mean background only influences writers when their purpose is didactic. The point is that the Book of Mormon itself raises the issue.
36 Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews, 1825, 2nd ed., ed. Charles D. Tate, Jr., (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1996). The editor’s introduction gives a fair survey of the history of the argument.
37 Scott C. Dunn, “Automaticity and the Dictation of the Book of Mormon,” in American Apocrypha, 17-46.
38 Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), xix.
39 Palmer, Insider’s View, 66-67, 118.
40 David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed., (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2000), 74-75.
41 See Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 185. I use criteria as explained by Patrick J. Hurley for this application. Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 4th ed., (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991), 534-537.
42 See Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 19, 27-30.