September 12, 2008

Gardner's Book of Mormon Myths: Number 5

Likening With Care, Part 4
In our recent conversations with Gardner he outlined five conceptual myths (or misconceptions) regarding the Book of Mormon he believes potentially hinder a solid understanding of the text. Today is myth 5. Gardner:

"It is a myth that we can properly understand the Book of Mormon in small pieces.

We read the Book of Mormon in the same way we read the Old and New Testaments. We read them for the particular verses that we can apply to a question or situation. Of course, we cannot always read large amounts of the text, nevertheless, our modern assumptions seem to be that we can get all necessary meaning out of a verse or two.

While that is an appropriate use of the text, we miss the fact that Mormon's work was intended to create a message as a whole. We should be reading it for the overall message, not just the nuggets of insight that are also available. 

Of course, I should also note that this applies to other Book of Mormon authors as well. We should understand why Nephi writes two books instead of continuing the material he placed in the second book in his first. We should understand how Jacob's message is very different from Mormon's, even though they are dealing with many of the same issues. Mormon conceived of an entire book, not just the really nifty verses we usually quote."1

For more from the "Likening With Care" series, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3



Gardner, personal email in possession of author (Sept. 1, 2008).

The image is adapted from a photograph by "steph" on

September 10, 2008

Gardner on Ostler's Expansion Theory

Likening With Care, Part 3

In 1987 LDS writer/philosopher Blake Ostler published an article in Dialogue called "The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source."1 Ostler's theory essentially posited that Joseph Smith interacted with the Book of Mormon source material in a way that helped highlight pressing issues of his own day. Over time Ostler adjusted many of his findings, and almost two decades later on the Times & Seasons blog he posted:
It has now been 18 years since the expansion theory was first published and to date not a single critic of the Book of Mormon has attempted to explain the presence of convincing evidence of antiquity that I cited in my 1987 article: viz., ancient prophetic call forms, ancient Israelite covenant renewal rituals and forms and formal Hebrew legal procedures. In my view, the presence of these forms is fairly clear in the text of the BofM and they are very difficult to explain on the assumption that it was written by anyone in the 19th century. To date, the only theory that accounts for these ancient forms and the presence of modern expansions that are fairly evidence is the expansion theory.

I believe that the Book of Mormon is precisely what it claims to be: a book translated by the gift and power of God that tells us about the record of an ancient people. However, translation by the gift and power of God isn’t translation based upon an isomorphic rendering of an underlying text into English based on a knowledge of the ancient textual language; rather, it is a revelation from God which involves necessarily the limitations of vocabulary, conceptuality and horizons of God’s servant chosen to render it into English for us.2
Ostler's belief that Joseph Smith interacted with an actual historical record as he translated, that God inspired Joseph using the language with which he was familiar, is intended to account for (among other things) why the name "Jesus" or title "Christ" would appear in the Book of Mormon text long before "Jesus" appeared in the Greek speaking world where those forms of the name and title would begin. If the Book of Mormon is a translation, however, those exact words didn't appear in the Book of Mormon; they are the translated words of what was originally written there. Similarly, Book of Mormon writer Jacob's sign-off of "adieu," is French, leading some critics to wonder how such a word could appear in an ancient record. Ostler's theory would posit that the word didn't appear on the plates; it is a translation of a concept from the plates using vocabulary to which Joseph had access in his contemporary environment.

Book of Mormon scholar Brant Gardner believes the problem with Ostler's initial paper was that it seemed to give Joseph Smith too much modern input. Ostler wasn't suggesting that the Book of Mormon wasn't ancient, but as Ostler noted in the above-quoted T&S post, some critics and others believed that was his argument by neglecting the rest of the paper's input.

Gardner's new Second Witness series seems to hew somewhere nearer to Ostler's loose translation theory than to Royal Skousen's belief of a tight translation process which left Joseph very little wiggle-room.3 Gardner believes the process was more interactive; a view which is seen throughout the commentary. For example, instead of the name "Jesus" Gardner uses "Yahweh," which would have been in use at the time the Lehites left the Old World. Instead of "Christ," the Hebrew "Messiah" is used. This small decision is intended to set a unique tone throughout the commentary, keeping in the forefront the fact that readers are looking at the translation of an ancient source.

On Ostler's view, Gardner said:
[T]here is much about the way I see the translation process that is parallel to what Blake suggested. I think he is right, but perhaps only in slightly different ways and for different reasons. I am curious to see whether people notice how similar my ideas are to Blake's (or if the differences can be perceived). I am sure that there are many who won't like the idea that there is more humanity in the Book of Mormon than they have previously thought. As a miraculously translated text, we tend to want it to be miraculous. I happen to think that it is still a marvelous work even though God did that work through human instruments.4
Gardner, Ostler, Kevin Christensen and Kevin Barney among others have all posited something between a completely loose or completely tight translation.5 Others, like Royal Skousen, view the translation as tight, where Joseph would have read the exact words and not played a very interactive role, which Barney calls the "teleprompter" theory.6 Taken to the extreme, some might view Joseph Smith's interaction as completely controlling; in other words, that Joseph Smith was somehow inspired to write a "pious fiction," a useful, Christian book, but not actually based on historical events in any way. Shawn McCraney, a former member of the Church-turned Evangelical explained:
Latter-day Saints...must take the time to learn for themselves the enormous amount of material (literally and thematically) that the Book of Mormon borrows from the Bible, as well as the pressing nineteenth-century themes Joseph used as supportive subplots in the construction of his stories. By understanding the Book of Mormon in these terms - magical, familial, cultural, social, and theological - Latter-day Saints who really want to know the truth, no matter how painful it may be, will certainly be more apt to see the Book of Mormon for what it is - a nineteenth-century fictional work which testifies of Jesus Christ in a literary form.7
Does Gardner think it is possible for a Latter-day Saint to believe in the book as inspired fiction?
I don't doubt that there will be some who find a way to believe in the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction. I sincerely doubt that the church will ever formally hold, encourage, or be passive toward that idea. The Book of Mormon stands as an evidence of Joseph's prophetic mission, and without a real connection to antiquity, it has no tie to the miraculous beyond simple hope. With a text that is ancient and appears only through Joseph, no matter how well he made his translation, it is that antiquity that cannot have anything but a miraculous explanation and therefore supports his other claims to divine communication.

That position differs dramatically from saying that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that a human processed through the gift and power of God. While Joseph's humanity allows us to understand that it is unlikely to be the kind of word-for-word translation that we might expect of modern scholars, it is nevertheless inextricably tied to that ancient source text. Joseph may have interacted with the translation and certainly was the source of the KJV quotations and references, but the underlying antiquity of the text has no modern explanation.

More on Gardner's theory of Book of Mormon translation can be found in volume one of Second Witness, and throughout the whole series. For more with Gardner, see "Likening With Care" part 1 and part 2.



Blake Ostler, "The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source," Dialogue 20:1 (Spring 1987) 66-123.

Blake Ostler, "Updating the Expansion Theory," Times & Seasons blog, April 26, 2005 (accessed Sept. 10, 2008).

Royal Skousen, "Joseph Smith's Translation of the Book of Mormon: Evidence for Tight Control of the Text,"
Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7:1 (1998).

Gardner's comments in this series are from personal e-mails in possession of the author unless otherwise noted.

See Kevin Christensen, "Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel's Approach to the Book of Mormon," FARMS Review, 16:1, 287-354; Kevin Barney, "A More Responsible Critique," FARMS Review, 15:1.


See, for example, Royal Skousen, "Joseph Smith's Translation of the Book of Mormon: Evidence for Tight Control of the Text," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7:1; Barney, op cit.

Shawn McCraney, I Was a Born-Again Mormon, 176-177, punctuation corrected. McCraney follows the writing of Dan Vogel, Brent Lee Metcalfe, H. Michael Marquardt, and others who have posited the Book of Mormon as a fiction.

September 8, 2008

"Putting Blood in the Veins of the Text"

Likening With Care, Part 2
Brant Gardner became interested in Mesoamerica in part due to the writings of Thomas Stewart Ferguson.1 He soon discovered that Ferguson's research left something to be desired, but his interest in Mesoamerica was already peaked and he didn't look back. In the early 70s while working as an undergraduate in the manuscripts division of the BYU library, Gardner met his new boss, friend and mentor Dennis Rowley.

[Dennis] knew of my interest in Mesoamerica and obviously the Book of Mormon. During a discussion he noted that we, as Mormons, do not have really good scholarly commentaries on the scriptures. He suggested that we really needed one of the Book of Mormon and maybe I should do it. That seed of suggestion took nearly 30 years to germinate.
In the mid-90's Gardner joined an e-mail list called Scripture-L. The owner wanted a weekly article written to flesh out the interactive conversations and asked Gardner to provide one. Gardner had recently read James Faulconer's Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions, which told of Faulconer's experience with a Jewish professor at Pennsylvania State University. The Professor taught Faulconer of the need for careful, slow, and deep study of the Old Testament. Gardner, in turn, suggested a slow and deep read through the Book of Mormon. "I was fascinated with the depth in which [the professor] would examine his scripture," Gardner said, "and felt we should do the same with our unique book. It was a weekly chore for a while and after time became an addiction. It might even have been fun."2 The discussions on Scripture-L were very fruitful, and despite initially believing the discussions would become a commentary, Gardner eventually made it a solo project.

LoGP: Describe some obstacles you encountered through the proccess.

Gardner: There weren't really any obstacles, but there was an interesting wrinkle in the process. I started the commentary with the proposition that knowing the time and location could provide depth of understanding. I began writing assuming that the text should be enriched when understood inside the time and place of our understanding of the Old and New Worlds. What I didn't do was map it out so that I knew how it was going to play out. Of course, there was a lot of excellent work on the Old World portion, but that is very short and covers relatively little time. In the New World, I took the text as it came, without any effort to know how it was going to line up at different points. I began on a particular vector. If I was wrong, it was going to become very publicly apparent.
I learned that even when I did attempt to picture how future things would work out, I was invariably wrong. I only understood how the text fit into the context as I arrived at certain sections. I remember a couple where I simply had no idea why the text gave certain stories in particular ways. When I finally got to those sections, I finally understood the cultural undercurrents and it made sense--but never in advance.

LoGP: What did you hope to accomplish with the commentary?

Gardner: When I started, I just wanted to fulfill the request [on Scripture-L] for an article per week. It was a good structure. Eventually, the process drew me in. I began to understand the characters as real breathing people. It became a task of putting blood in the veins of the text, so that it became alive again and showed more of the inspired men who wrote it.

LoGP: How has it been received?

Gardner: It has been online for several years3 and published only for months. I don't know a lot about how the published version has been received except in anecdotes where people have taken the time to tell me that they have enjoyed it. One comment that I really appreciated came from a sister at the recent FAIR Conference. She told me that "after all these years, the Book of Mormon has come alive." That told me that someone else had begun to see the text as I have, the product of very real people whose ideas and motives we can understand and appreciate.
To date, I haven't heard anything negative, but I suspect that those who don't like it are also less likely to take the time to email me to say so.

LoGP: How would you compare it to other similar commentaries (like Ridges, Ludlow, etc.)?

Gardner: There are two rough categories of commentaries, those that concentrate on the devotional aspects of religion (and which tend to be ahistorical) and those that attempt to deal with the text in its historical context. The Millet and McConkie commentary is devotional, as is Monte Nyman's recent multi-volume commentary. Reynolds and Sjohdahl's commentary was an early attempt and the more historical commentary, but they suffered from a time period long before the flood of information about Mesoamerica that we have seen since then.
Ludlow's one volume commentary is pretty good, but it is highly selective. It doesn't even pretend to cover the whole text, but there is good commentary as far as it goes, though again written without a real context in mind. Ridges is more a simplification of the reading of the text and less of a commentary on the text.
Most LDS commentaries have been necessarily heavy on the devotional and light on the historical because there is no official geography of the Book of Mormon. I wanted to brave the wilds and use the best current description of where the Book of Mormon took place to see if that cultural background and time could increase our understanding of the events in the text.

A few other items of interest:
Gardner's brother, a graphic artist, helped design the content layout of the book, a more formidable task than might be imagined. Gardner had to negotiate how to include the Book of Mormon text with his interspersed commentary in a way that would not confuse the reader. Commentary notes are split up in categories like "Variant," "Culture," "Geography" etc., and Gardner carefully notes and follows the structure of the originally published text (with the generous help of Royal Skousen's work) despite showing the chapter/verse structure of the 1981 LDS edition. Lavina Fielding Anderson, who helped edit the publication, advised the Book of Mormon text retain the same font size as the commentary in order to demonstrate its prominent place in the commentary. Gardner largely follows John Sorenson's Book of Mormon "limited geography" theory, with a comparison geography by Larry Poulson included. At various points in the commentary Gardner includes an "Excursus," a detailed look at specific important aspects of the Book of Mormon. Kofford Books made a point to release the books in time for the LDS Sunday School curriculum schedule covering the Book of Mormon.

The full series is available for purchase at the FAIR bookstore at a reduced price, or readers can test the commentary out by purchasing the first volume.

For more on Ferguson, see Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper, "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," FARMS Review 16:1.

Gardner's comments are taken from personal e-mails in the author's possession and from phone conversations. See also James E. Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions, pp.2-7.This little book is a valuable tool.

For the time being, a preliminary first draft of the commentary is available at Gardner's website.