Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Are Divine Translations "Perfect"?

[The following was written by LDS professor N. L. Nelson in 1913 and was published in the Deseret Evening News. It was part of a lengthy response to the pamphlet written by the Reverend Franklin S. Spalding's, entitled Joseph Smith Jr., as a Translator and addresses the issue of imperfections in Scripture].

Is it not about time, my dear fellow worker, that we gave up that foolish proposition, which forms the backbone of your inquiry, viz., that any document put forward as a divine revelation must be "flawless" by all the human standards that happen to be in vogue at the time?

Suppose a given revelation, touching upon controversial matters, were in fact pronounced flawless by the best human learning of the day; would it not still be full of "inaccuracies" to  advanced intelligences, like the angels, or even to earth-people who are to live a century in the future?

Again, if God's perfection must be mirrored in every document which his voice proclaims to be "true;" then we should have a revelation utterly meaningless to man till such time as he shall attain to the same perfection. To make this plain, we have only to suppose the modern geological explanation of creation to have been given to the ancients instead of the account in Genesis. What meaning could it possibly have had for them? Such a bit of modern truth injected out of relation with all the rest of the thoughts and experiences of the race for several thousand years to come? But could God not have revealed a sufficient arc of creation, as modern science now understands it, so as to bring- the ancients nearer to truth?

The answer is no. First, because to do so would violate the fundamental principle of divine education, the absolute need of self-effort to psychic development; and, second, because the more truth he would reveal, as moderns see truth, the more would the mental life of the ancients have been confused; just as the truths now known to intelligences a million ages in advance of us, would, were they imposed upon our intellects by divine fiat, serve only to blight our spiritual development. For though we might hold such "truths" reverently, they would not be "true" to us, any more than a stone would be digestible, because held in the stomach. That only is true to any one which can be felt to be true; i. e., which can be assimilated, and incorporated  with the body of his experiences. Man may and should hold reverently many things, because of the authority that utters them; but they will become true to him only when the time comes that they can be woven into the tapestry of his soul-life.

In the third place, any considerable revelation of modern science, could not have been made to the ancients, out of sheer failure of being able to voice it. Nay, even the symbols necessary to convey the thought were not in existence.

Consider as an illustration the case of the Prophet Mormon himself. Suppose, after God had commanded him to make, from the tomes of Nephite records at hand, the abridgment now known by his name — suppose, I repeat the divine Spirit guiding him, had held him up, whenever there came into his mind an aspect of botany, zoology, geography, astronomy, or any other such Nephite experience, the expression of which would not be up-to-date with what the Spirit might foresee would be known of these things in the twentieth century. Would not his pen have been paralyzed every little while? Suppose the Spirit of Inspiration had then, against his will, seized his hand and written those passages wherein his knowledge failed to measure up to what would be the exactions of modern truth — would he, Mormon, have stood for such passages? Would they not have seemed unintelligible, not to say false, to him? And would they not have been essentially false as a portrayal of the life of an ancient people?

Now, such a supposition is foolish, from the fact that divine inspiration could not thus have seized the ancient writer's hand, for that would have been violating man's free agency. The Book of Mormon may thus be "true," both as reflecting truly, by its very inaccuracies, an imperfect people, and as being fitted, even by its very short-comings, for assimilation by the poor and lowly of another people 1,500 years in the future.

That is true for us which is fitted to awaken and keep growing our soul-life, however incorrect it may be as measured by a more perfect standard. Genesis was therefore the "truest" document concerning the creation that could have been revealed to the ancient world: and considering the class of souls God meant to draw together for the foundation of his Church in this dispensation, the Book of Mormon is also "true" — truer, indeed, than a more perfect revelation — a revelation classic in diction and flawless as to scientific concepts — could possibly have been.

[N. L. Nelson, “An Open Letter to Bishop Spalding,” Deseret Evening News, February 15, 1913].

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Testimony of the Witnesses and the Testimony of Scholars: Some Important Distinctions (John A. Widtsoe 1913)

[In 1913 scientist John A. Widtsoe, who would later become an Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published several articles responding to criticisms of LDS scriptures which had been raised by the Reverend F. S. Spalding in a pamphlet entitled Joseph Smith Jr. as a Translator. The Rev. Spalding had published statements of eight scholars of the day who dismissed the Book of Abraham as a fraud. He then argued that the combined testimony of these eight scholars had more weight than those of the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The relevant part of Widtsoe's response to this argument is as follows].

The loose spirit of your methods of inquiry is well shown in your summary disposition of my first charge, that you secured the opinions of only eight scholars in the somewhat inexact  field of Egyptology, when many more were available. To this you simply answer that eleven men of Egyptian learning have labeled approximately alike, the main figures in Plates 1 and 2; eleven witnesses, only, testified publicly to having seen and handled the plates from which the Book of  Mormon was translated — hence your jury is large enough. Certainly, it is an unexpected tribute that you pay to the authority of Joseph Smith. I should be interested to know just how far you are willing to submit to the example of the "Mormon" prophet. The witnesses to the Book of Mormon testify that they saw and handled the golden plates. Your jury testify to the accepted inferences concerning matters submerged in the twilight of antiquity, into which new light is daily being thrown, often to the destruction of former inferences. Assuming, if you will permit me, that the two sets of men are equally honest, which evidence possesses the higher degree of credibility? Eleven men could scarcely disagree on the big fact that they saw and handled a series of metallic plates covered with inscriptions, though they might vitally disagree on the minor matters of the exact size of the plates, the nature of the inscriptions or the quality of the metal.  On the other hand, eleven or eleven hundred men might disagree fundamentally on inferences concerning things and conditions of the past which never may be known directly by the present — unless indeed they slavishly follow some high authority, to which they should be subjected for examination. The only big agreement among your jury is with respect to the general meaning of Plates 1 and 2 and the use of Plate 3— and this agreement is not based on tangible facts like the  handling of material things or the connected logical steps of thought that lead to certainty.

Much as I dislike to disagree with you, I must insist that eleven witnesses, especially since they admit their examination is cursory, and are unwilling to make it extensive, are not  sufficient to settle this question that roots in the uncertain past. I will predict that if your jury be enlarged, freed from prejudice and asked to go into the whole question of figures, script and names, in the light of the Book of Abraham, you will be greatly surprised. If such a thorough examination should point to the correctness of Joseph Smith's work, would you be as willing to enter the "Mormon" Church as you suggest I should be to leave it should the examination turn  against the prophet's correctness?

Moreover, the use you make of your eleven testimonies is vastly different from that made by the Prophet or the Church, of the eleven testimonies for the Book of Mormon. You rest your whole case on your eleven lightly written reports. No more can be said. Your childlike reverence of pointed authority is sublime! I envy you: for life has fastened upon me the habit of analyzing, for myself, every vital matter, irrespective of the authority from which it proceeds.

To the "Mormon" the testimonies of the eleven witnesses are important but only partial evidences of the genuineness of the Book of Mormon. In fact, in ''Mormon" literature you will find a whole host of other evidences, held of equal value with the testimonies of the witnesses. The book itself gives the supreme test. Have you read it? Have you tried it? It can do no harm:

 "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost." (Book of Mormon, Moroni: 10: 4).

I received and read your book on "Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator" with the love of truth in my heart. After giving the matter considerable thought I wrote you as I had promised, my candid opinion of it, and pointed out the great flaw which to my mind invalidated your conclusion — that of careless superficiality. I specified 12 reasons, as above summarized, for my  view, and 12 others are waiting to be presented when the first lot have been disposed of. In reply you ignore 10 of my reasons by insisting that your book is not and does not pretend to be a  thoroughgoing search after truth. You again present letters from three scholars — how you must revel and riot in the effulgence of letter writing authorities—to support your contention that the jury of Egyptologists is fully agreed. You have added very little to your contention. You then proceed to meet my criticism that your jury, in view of the great importance of the subject and the uncertain and growing field of Egyptology, should have been larger, by saying that there are  11 men in your jury and only 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and all that in face of the common knowledge that although the Book of Mormon witnesses actually saw and handled the  plates, their testimonies are only one of many in establishing the truth of the Book of Mormon, whereas you base everything upon your 11 unwilling or prejudiced witnesses. You have chosen  the wrong comparison, and my first charge stands intact.

[John A. Widtsoe, “Dr. Widtsoe's Reply to Rev. Spalding,” Deseret Evening News, March 8, 1913].

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Kish in Ancient Mesopotamia and the Book of Mormon

Kish was an important Sumerian city from an early time in ancient Mesopotamia. As one historian notes:

"After the great flood, kingship was re-established by the gods and given to the rulers of the city of Kish, at which time we move from legend into the very beginning of the proto-historical period. . . . According to Summerian legend, the period scholars now call Early Dynastic I was dominated by then hegemony of the kings of Kish. Throughout the Sumerian period the title `king of Kish' (lugal Kish) meant hegemon of Summer, and every warlord claiming universal domination of Mesopotamia adopted `king of Kish' as one of his titles" (William J. Hamblin, Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 42. See also Tohru Maeda, “`King of Kish’ in Pre-Sargonic Sumer,” Orient 17 [1981]: 1-17).

Yigal Levin notes:

“The mid-third millennium BCE was a time of great change in Mesopotamia. After several centuries of rivalry between various Sumerian city-states such as Ur, Uruk, Lagash and Umma, the rulers of the city of Kish managed to establish a sort of priority over much of Mesopotamia. The primacy of one Sumerian city over the others was an innovation. In successive generations the title `King of Kish’ would come to mean a divinely authorized ruler over all of Sumer and would be claimed at different times by the rulers of various cities. Use of the title `King of Kish’ implied such qualities as being victorious at war, a righteous judge and a builder of cities” (Yigal Levin, “Nimrod the Mighty, King of Kish, King of Sumer and Akkad,” Vetus Testamentum 52/3 [2002]: 359).

“According to the Sumerian King List, which is the very document that supplies us with most of the `hard’ information about the Sargonic period (such as names and reigns of kings), it was to the city of Kish that kinship itself was lowered from heaven after the flood. Like the biblical Nimrod, the ancient kings of Kish were the very embodiment of human kingship in the postdiluvian era. Over a thousand years later, the Neo-Assyrian kings would use Sargon’s royal title sar-kissati, taking it to mean quote literally, `King of the Universe’” (Levin, 361-62).

In addition to the name of the Sumerian city, and the honorary royal title “King of Kish” there are also attested personal names such as Kishibgal (Jerrold S. Cooper, Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1986, 1:25), and Iphur-Kish (Douglas Frayne, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia. Early Periods Volume 2. Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2334-2113) Toronto, Buffalo, Longdon: University of Toronto Press, 1993, 103-109).

While we cannot say precisely when the Jaredites came out from the great tower (presumably somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia), and while we do not know precisely where in that region they came from, it is noteworthy that there are four “Kish” names in the Book of Mormon. We have three Jaredite kings, Akish (Ether 9:6), after whom was named the wilderness of Akish (Ether 14:14), Riplakish (Ether 10:4), and Kish the father of the good king Lib in whose reign, “they built a great city by the narrow neck of land” (Ether 10:18-20). Then we have the later Nephite conspirator Kishkumen (Helaman 1:9), who was associated with those seeking for political power and after whom a later city was named (3 Nephi 9:10). In addition to the early Mesopotamian connection it is interesting, given the background discussed by historians that the only people with Kish names in the Book of Mormon would be kings and or individuals who were seeking political power.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Testimony of the Book of Abraham: Susa Young Gates 1913

Said my father Brigham Young to me on a certain occasion when I had been storm tossed and longed for the haven of sure belief: “Daughter, there is only one way by which you can find out whether this gospel be true or not; that is the way your mother and I took. Go down upon your knees and ask your Father in heaven to reveal it to you, as he did to Peter.”

Upon that rock–the rock of revelation to my own heart, I have builded my testimonies, many and various, of the truths of the gospel. The whole is true; so must all of its parts harmonize. I may not be able always to discern the co-relation, but again father said: “Put things you do not understand on the shelf, until you obtain more light.” And that is just what our children should be taught to do.

Shall we not then investigate, prove all things, hold fast to that which is good?  Of a surety. But let us anchor our souls, and help our children so to fasten their on anchor chains to the rock of personal revelation. Then we may bring in all the cohorts of reason to strengthen our position and to secure our arsenal . . . .

I know by the spirit of revelation that the Book of Abraham is true, and that its contents, from cover to cover, are revelations. As to the accepted revelations of the Church, I know they are true, and no power, but my own failure, can take that knowledge from me.

[Susa Young Gates, “Phase of discussion as to Book of Abraham,” Deseret Evening News, April 1, 1913].

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Miscellany of Book of Mormon Word Usage

Loren Spendlove recently published an article entitled "Understanding Nephi with the Help of Noal Webster," It contains notes on a number of word usages in the Book of Mormon. Included are (in alphabetical order not necessarily the order in the article or in the Book of Mormon):

abode (as a verb)
at Jerusalem
big with child
broken up
breathe out
brought down
carried up
caught away
choice (as an adjective)
compass (as a noun)
cunning arts
fell down
foolish imaginations
have place
in one
like unto
made mention
must needs
no more
partook of
pass away
put forth
raise up
rebel (as a verb)
record (as a noun)
rent (as a verb)
set at naught
standard (as a noun)
stumbling blocks
suck (as a noun)
swallowed up
the which
trample under
turned aside
turn away
visionary man

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Heber J. Grant 1930: An Incidental Testimony of the Book of Mormon

One often encounters rare treasures in unexpected places. On July 15, 2014, a dear friend and relative, Sister Leola Tarwater Sims passed away in Colonia Juarez, Mexico. Our family had an opportunity to visit her home and settle some family business associated with her passing. While perusing some of her books on an old dusty shelf in a small back room of her her house, I found a much worn, and well used, black leather covered copy of the 1921 edition of the Book of Mormon. Pasted to the inside cover page, immediately preceding the Book of Mormon title page was the following brief, signed letter addressed to a young lady who would become Leola's mother. It reads as follows:

January 25, 1930
Miss Iola Whetten
Juarez Stake Academy
Colonia Juarez
Chihuahua, Mexico

Dear Sister:

In recognition of your success in the oratorical context on "Why Observe the Law of Tithing", I take pleasure in presenting you this copy of the Book of Mormon.

As a boy of fifteen I read carefully and prayerfully the Book of Mormon, and there came into my heart an abiding and firm testimony of its divinity. From that day to this its wonderful teachings have been a comfort, a blessing, and a guide to me.

I thank God from the bottom of my heart that I read the life of Nephi in my youth. I fell in love with him then, and his life has influenced mine for good more than that of any other character in ancient history, sacred or profane--save only the Redeemer of the world.

Wishing you success in the battle of life,

Sincerely your friend and brother,

Heber J. Grant.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Another Article on Book of Mormon Geography

Neal Rappleye has some thoughts on the use of statements by Joseph Smith on Book of Mormon geography.