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 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.