This post is longer than I anticipated, but along with the previous post it lays important groundwork for understanding how to handle difficult issues regarding the Book of Mormon text as they crop up from time to time. So I think it’s worth the work now.

In the last post I took a break from considering the specifics of the Book of Mormon text to think about what translation meant to Joseph Smith. This post is a continuation of the last post and in it I will outline a couple of possible theories for how Joseph may have translated the Book of Mormon. (In order for these translation theories to make sense you probably need to read the last post first.) But before I outline those theories, I want to make an aside (an aside to the longer aside!) about my approach to secular learning and wisdom.

I think at times we have been guilty of eyeing secular knowledge with some scepticism, especially when that knowledge has seemingly been in conflict with the teachings of a Church leader. However, Joseph Smith said that “one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”1 He himself didn’t consider revelation as the only source of truth. He applied himself to the study of languages, especially Hebrew, that he might render better translations of the scriptures. He apparently didn’t believe that the revelations he had received excused him from applying himself to learning via the hard work of study.

To give some concrete examples, what do we do if scientific evidence and theory contradicts what we think we know about the age of the earth or the creation of human life? What do we do if biblical scholarship contradicts what we think we know about the literalness of a favourite scriptural story, or, to the example that triggered these latest posts, the authorship of Isaiah?

One approach would be to assume the science/scholarship is wrong. But I think this kind of approach is to take an overly defensive position with respect to secular learning, or what the scriptures call “learning, even by study” (see D&C 88:118). I have found that when truth conflicts arise, it can be more productive to accept that my current thinking may be flawed or incomplete, and to modify my beliefs in light of the best secular learning. Essentially, I believe in an ongoing, unfolding restoration of truth and that part of the fulness of that restoration will come from secular learning. That’s not to say that the latest science/scholarship is always right – of course it is always subject to revision – and future evidence may support previously held beliefs, but I think there is virtue in constantly trying to learn and in subjecting our beliefs to new light and knowledge.

The Church itself has shown that it is willing to modify generally widely held beliefs according to secular learning. For example, in light of American Indian DNA evidence, the Church has changed the introductory text of the Book of Mormon. Previously, the introduction described the Lamanites as “the principal ancestors of the American Indians”, whereas the current introduction describes them as being “among the ancestors of the American Indians.” This may seem like a subtle change, but it actually represents a significant shift in thinking regarding whether or not the land that Lehi’s family discovered was already populated, an idea I’ll pick up again in a subsequent post.

All of this is an aside to basically say that I don’t think we have to be scared if biblical scholarship regarding Isaiah contradicts what we think we know about how the Book of Mormon was originally written and subsequently translated. I think there are productive ways we can incorporate such scholarship into our understanding regarding these processes.

So with all that said, what are we to do with the Book of Mormon’s Isaiah problem? Simply stated, how do we account for the presence of Isaiah writings in 1 & 2 Nephi that scholars believe wouldn’t have been available to Nephi when he left Jerusalem ~600 BC? While considering this question, Roger Terry has also provided a good list of other translation puzzles that anyone who wants to work on a potential translation theory ought to at least be aware of:2

  • The presence of grammatical errors in the translated text
  • Second- and third-hand accounts of the translation from scribes and observers who report that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to read text with his face buried in a hat
  • Joseph correcting the scribe’s spelling while looking in the hat
  • Historical anachronisms in the text
  • Whole chapters of text repeated almost verbatim from the KJV Bible, despite the fact that witnesses, including Emma, insisted that Joseph never referred to outside sources
  • Specific terms and quotations from Protestant clergy and publications
  • Royal Skousen’s numerous discoveries from a quarter century of studying the original and printer’s manuscripts, as well as various printed editions
  • Claims regarding the presence of Hebraisms in the English translation
  • Intertextual quotations
  • Modern vocabulary and idioms
  • Inconsistent usage of second-person pronouns and third-person verb conjugations
  • A vocabulary apparently far beyond Joseph’s at that point in his life (an unlettered young man who, according to his wife, could not even pronounce names such as Sarah)
  • Complex sentence and textual structures in a dictated document
  • New Testament–influenced text

So, finally, to the translation theories. The first theory is one that I’ve had in mind for some time now. The second is one that I’ve come across over the last couple of weeks as I’ve written these posts.

As I outlined in the last post, the first theory is a model in which Joseph would have been given concepts via spiritual impressions, which he then had to clothe in familiar and appropriate language. The power of this idea is that it can be used to explain the presence of both ancient elements in the text as well as 19th century features and idioms, e.g. it has power to explain why the book contains ancient prophetic call forms, ancient Israelite covenant renewal rituals and forms and formal Hebrew legal procedures, and at the same time explain why a Book of Mormon sermon contains language typical of 19th century Protestant preachers.

So in practice, how might this theory be used to resolve the Deutero-Isaiah challenge described above? This is complete speculation, but I imagine something like the following is possible:

  • Something like a first edition of Isaiah is in circulation in Jerusalem ~600 BC and is contained on Laban’s brass plates. This first edition would have corresponded roughly with Isaiah 2–55, i.e. Proto- and Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 56–66 is thought to be an even later edition to the book than Deutero-Isaiah, as is Isaiah 1, but these chapters aren’t found in the Book of Mormon). It is this first edition Isaiah that Nephi would have used when writing his records.
  • Following the destruction of Jerusalem and Babylonian exile post the Lehite departure, the Deutero-Isaiah portion of the first edition (i.e. Isaiah 40–55) is updated to make sense of this national tragedy, e.g. prophecies in the first edition could have been updated with specific interpretations referencing the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. It is this updated version of Isaiah that makes its way into the KJV Bible.
  • In translating Nephi’s writings, Joseph is impressed that Nephi is quoting and interpreting Isaiah. But he uses the KJV language of Isaiah to give voice to these impressions.

There are some problems with this theory of translation, not least of which is that the explanation above for the presence of Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon is somewhat strained. But also, according to this theory, Joseph would have used the language he was familiar with to describe the impressions he was receiving. Yet some of the Book of Mormon’s vocabulary seems beyond Joseph’s education and comprehension; words like abhorrence, abridgment, affrighted, arraigned, and they’re just the ‘A’s. (Bear in mind Emma said he couldn’t dictate a coherent letter and had trouble pronouncing a name even as simple as Sarah and had to spell it out.) Finally, this theory doesn’t account for the fact that witnesses, including Emma, insisted that Joseph never referred to outside sources during the translation process.

So if there are too many errors and human artifacts for God to be the author of the translation, and if the text is too complex for it to be Joseph, who was the translator? Perhaps there was a third party, which brings me to a second translation theory.

While reading around this topic I came across two papers that seemingly independently propose Moroni as being responsible for the English-language translation.2,3 According to this theory, Moroni would have used the gold plates as the basis for his translation. And he would have used the Isaiah as written on the gold plates as the basis for the Isaiah passages but could well have supplemented them with Isaiah from the KJV Bible, which we know he was familiar with as he quoted it to Joseph when he first appeared to him in his bedroom. By this account from Joseph Smith-History we also know that the post-mortal Moroni learned English, perhaps simply so that he could communicate with Joseph, but perhaps also so that he could translate the gold plates himself. Intriguingly, the D&C say that Moroni was given the keys of the Book of Mormon (see D&C 27:5). Perhaps these keys also entailed the responsibility of creating the English-language translation of the gold plates, which he then communicated to Joseph via the Urim and Thummim/seer stone.

In support of this theory, there is an interesting incident that happened during the translation process as described by Sarah (Sally) Heller Conrad (recorded by Oliver B. Huntington in 1897):

I conversed with one old lady 88 years old who lived with David Whitmer when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were translating the Book of Mormon in the upper room of the house, and she, only a girl, saw them come down from translating room several times when they looked so exceedingly white and strange that she inquired of Mrs. Whitmer the cause of their unusual appearance, but Mr. Whitmer was unwilling to tell the hired girl, the true cause as it was a sacred holy event connected with a holy sacred work which was opposed and persecuted by nearly every one who heard of it. The girl felt so strangely at seeing so strange and unusual appearance, she finally told Mrs. Whitmer that she would not stay with her until she knew the cause of the strange looks of these men. Sister Whitmer then told her what the men were doing in the room above and that the power of God was so great in the room that they could hardly endure it; at times angels were in the room in their glory which nearly consumed them.3     

Of this theory Roger Terry says:

I find that the Moroni-as-translator theory explains many of the difficult problems regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon that other theories struggle with, and there may be something quintessentially Mormon about imagining an angel wrestling with the concrete situation of learning a foreign language and struggling to express ideas in that language. Of course, this model may also fall short, but it may also fit together a few more pieces of the puzzle.2

And from Joe Spencer:

To suggest that a resurrected person from the ancient world might be given the task of both learning the intricacies of nineteenth-century American frontier English and attempting to wrestle ancient words into that form of English, still largely foreign, while worrying about how it’ll be received—what an idea!4

Well this post is already much longer than usual so I won’t go into the pros and cons of the Moroni-as-translator theory, or how either of the two theories might be used to explain the cryptic hints in the Book of Mormon text re. the lost 116 pages (I’ll probably pick that up when we get to Words of Mormon). But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and/or any questions you have about either of the last two posts, especially concerning Moroni-as-translator as that is a brand new idea to me and it’s one that I confess I find appealing. Next week I’ll get back to the text and the hard work of making sense of what Nephi is doing with Isaiah.

Next week’s reading: 1 Nephi 19:22 – 1 Nephi 20:22

  1. Joseph Smith, history of the Church, 5:499