September 4, 2009

G. L. Smith's Experiences While Researching Plural Marriage

"Consecrate Your Brain," part 5
Continuing series with Greg Smith.
See also the Introduction, and parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7.

LifeOnGoldPlates: Talk a little more about your experiences researching the subject of plural marriage in Mormonism.

Greg Smith: Well, as I began to dive in, the experience was almost immediately more positive than I had thought.  I went in thinking I'd probably conclude that it was all a mistake or disaster.  That wasn't the case at all.

The area I thought was most problematic was the hiding the truth or even lying about it.  This is a good example of one of those things that John Lynch called a shift from an "Uh oh," to "Ah ha!" moment.1 The tipping point for me was reading a book by Terryl Givens called Viper on the Hearth.  He quoted Wilford Woodruff about the "Gentiles" keeping up their "warfare."2  That was an image I had not yet encountered, but suddenly a light went on.  From the standpoint of moral philosophy, there are some things that would be inappropriate in normal day-to-day life, but in a war they become excusable, maybe even duties, maybe even laudable.

The question for me then became two-fold:

a) Was this an isolated metaphor used by Pres. Woodruff?  Or, did the Saints really conceptualize of things in that way?

b) If this was a common view (and I soon found that it was), was it a legitimate or defensible view, or was it mainly a persecution complex or over-blown rhetoric?

I soon found that (b) was certainly defensible; I came to have difficulty seeing it in any other way, for the most part.  Obviously there were a variety of motives on the part of individuals opposed to the Saints (some of which were laudable and some were despicable, with everything in between), but it was a war by any means necessary short of violence. And the threat of using military power was often bruited in Congress, so even that wasn't off the table.  (And, given the Saints' experiences in Missouri, Illinois, and the Utah war, I'm sure it seemed even more a live issue to them.)

This was, of course, not a perspective which the critics went out of their way to give their readers.  But, I also eventually found that it wasn't unique to me; some other LDS authors had certainly appreciated it, though they seemed to have simply taken it for granted, rather than explore it from "first principles" and make a rigorous case for the implications.

So, that sent me into things like the Nuremberg defense of acts carried out in war, and moral philosophy generally, which led to readings on civil disobedience, which required a close exegesis of LDS scripture and our duties to civil law and government.  There's also a fair amount of legal commentary and philosophy based on the supreme court decisions about plural marriage, because they were the first time religious belief and action been parsed out.  Subsequent legal commentators have not gone easy on the court; in retrospect, there is much about their decision and conduct that is indefensible.

(At this point, I also learned—quite by accident—that my brother, who was working on his Masters in Law at Harvard, had chosen to examine the legal attacks on plural marriage, and then coupled that with an analysis of where current supreme court jurisprudence would lead if applied to such a case today.  So, that was a completely unplanned confluence of interest—I can't remember our family ever sitting around talking about plural marriage, though we did have some ancestors who were polygamists.  So my mother mentioned one day that he was working on this, and I said, "What??? Does he have anything done?"  So, I fired off an e-mail, and he sent me his draft and pointed me to some more articles, and that all dovetailed beautifully with what I had already done on my own, so I knew I was on to something worthwhile.)3

LoGP: So your attitude going into it was that plural marriage was a well-intentioned error at best, but you started getting into all this other stuff and a different view was emerging?

GS: After a while I became firmly convinced—far beyond what I would have thought possible—that not only were the Saints as a group not morally condemned for the choices they had made, I was amazed and humbled at the grace with which they had, in the main, confronted a host of competing obligations.  (There were individual slips and the like, of course--but fewer than I would have expected.)  I don't know how they could have done better.  I was a little irritated--but only because we didn't know this story better, because I think it's one of the most inspiring, moving stories of American history.  Real grace under fire.  I think the day may well come when we have to, as a people, return to the lessons and challenges of that period, and I think we'll draw inspiration and strength from the choices they made and their efforts to navigate the clash of duties and loyalties that arose then.  (I don't think those issues will come up in the context of polygamy, but in the context of living one's faith under hostile secular circumstances.)

LoGP: Now, where does the rubber meet road for the average Church member who might be wondering about polygamy, or any particular troubling issue? 

GS: You can consider my work in this area as something of a self-directed course in research methodology and critical judgment.  At the FAIR conference, I laid out the distortion of sources that I found in Van Wagoner's Mormon Polygamy: A History on Joseph's supposed womanizing.4  Sorting that out was my first real experience with source checking, but once I did that, I was a changed man.  My innocence was gone, and I realized that on something like this you simply couldn't trust that authors were giving you the whole story.  I also quickly became convinced that sometimes the distortion was pre-meditated, because some of the omissions or distortions which I found dealing with this topic could not have been anything but intentional.  They required too much work to be accidental.  I also quickly began to detect an unmistakable bias among certain authors and publishers--especially Signature Books.5  That too was a new idea for me; I hadn't really considered a press or editor having an agenda pursued over the long-term.  (I found later that others had long noted this tendency before me, so I realized I was re-plowing ground already well-worked.)

But, I wouldn't have figured any of this out if I hadn't been willing to kind of dive in deep and not care what I found.  So, as it turned out, that was the best thing for the answers I had wanted.  But, I had to go in assuming those answers weren't there.

LoGP: How does this personal experience and knowledge through research become embodied in the work you do, in articles or presentations you have created on the subject of plural marriage? 

GS: When I write now, I take as my audience someone who has written or believed some of the critical accounts that I found to be not so reliable.  That keeps me (I hope) as rigorous and honest as I can be.  I assume that any countering bit of data will be dredged up and thrown my way, so I'd rather raise it myself and integrate it into the picture I'm assembling—I've lost any illusions I had about this discussion being just about history or some neutral issue.  The wider subtext of a broader debate is always there. So, at the least, I hope that whatever audience I have will concede that I'm being as thorough and honest as I can, even if I'm dead wrong.  I don't want people to read me as I've read some others, and saying, "Man, he's trying to pull a fast one there.  I can't believe I almost fell for that."

This explains why I am too wordy, too long, and too many sources.  (Just ask my editors!)  Why?  Because the absence of those things destroyed my trust in many authors, since I was left to rely on their summary of the data, which trust they abused.  So I don't feel to expect the trust of my reader(s)—I assume that he or she has been burned before, as I was (even if they don't know yet that they've been burned!).

So dealing with the information myself has not been hard at all, just a lot of work.  As I've indicated, my initial worry was that whatever I found or discovered might be beyond me to deal with in a healthy, constructive way.  Having been assured that I'd be okay, whatever I found or concluded, I could just sort of dive in.  My repeated experience was that the more I learned, the better Joseph and the Saints generally looked.  There's always more to the story than those who are critical let on.  That started as a great surprise to me, but after it happened a few times, I've almost come to expect it.  Now, when I hear something new, my first thought is, "I wonder what else there is there?"

LoGP: Readers are, as always, invited to join the conversation. Questions or comments for Greg can be added in the comments section. In the next installment of the series (the last installment dealing directly with plural marriage) Greg Smith will approach some of the reasons he believes plural marriage can be so troubling for some strong members of the Church. He will also talk briefly about formulating responses to criticism from sectarians and secularists, respectively. Part 7, the concluding installment, returns to the overall theme of consecrating your brain and individual relationships with God. 

See John Lynch, '"Uh oh!' to 'Ah ha!' in Apologetics: 20/20 Foresight for a Faithful Future in Defending the Church," 2009 FAIR Conference, transcript here. The image is adapted from Wilhelm Braune (anatomist, 1831-1892) and C. Schmiedel (artist, fl. mid-1800s), "Topographisch-anatomischer atlas nach durchschnitten an gefrorenen cadavern," Leipzig, 1872. Chromolithograph. National Library of Medicine,

Terryl L. Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Religion in America), Oxford University Press (1997), p. 39. Excerpts can be read at Google Books

Greg is referring to Stephen Eliot Smith, “The ‘Mormon Question’ Revisited: Anti-polygamy Laws and the Free Exercise Clause” (2005), unpublished LL.M. thesis, Harvard Law School.

Richard Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, Signature Books (1992). Smith discussed the book in his FAIR presentation, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)."

There has been no love lost between Signature and some writers from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS). See Louis Midgley, "The Signature Books Saga," FARMS Review: Vol. 16:1, pp. 361-406. From Signature's side, affronts have been less up front, more from the back. The Signature website "news and events" section periodically ridicules FARMS or tries to hold them to account. A host of FARMS disparagement can be found in the footnotes of Signature's second edition of D. Michael Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview. Reviewers for BYU Studies and the FARMS Review panned the book.

September 2, 2009

Review: Bob Bennett's "Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon"

Author: Bob Bennett
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Religion/Apologetics
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 318 plus preface
ISBN13: 9781606410530
Price: 29.99

I read about it in the Salt Lake Tribune: a senatorial campaign is upon Utahns and one of the candidates happens to release a book on the Book of Mormon.1 I thought to myself: "A book about the Book of Mormon by Bob Bennett? He's not an expert on the subject. What can he possibly say that will either be new or helpful?" Actually, my thoughts weren't so well-formulated; that is a direct quote from Bennett's opening line of the book (see p. ix). By drawing upon personal experience and his own " understand and weigh the arguments" of different critics and believers, Bennett investigates the Book of Mormon to determine the likelihood that it is a forgery (p. ix, 19).

But wait, the author is a prominent fellow who has served as one of Utah's Senators since 1992 and rumor has it he faces a difficult upcoming election.2 Isn't this a "fishy time" for Bennett to release the book? 

Perhaps, but according to the Bennett campaign the publishing date was determined by Deseret Book, not Bennett. Moreover, the book itself makes it clear that Bennett has been working on it long before this upcoming election.3

Fair enough, but shouldn't we consider Bennett's political position in general? It doesn't matter that he didn't foresee the current tough election, he could desire to share a mix of politics and religion with his constituents any time, right? 

Quite the contrary in this case. The book is nearly silent on political matters and in some cases is clearly not simply a butterbath for believers. For instance, he doesn't flinch in asserting that readers of the Book of Mormon should not find a "reflection of American democracy in any way" in the complex Nephite political systems (p. 143). Also, he's clearly friendly with the scholars he interacts with, be they Republican, Democrat, or none of the above. No electioneering here, no political point-scoring attempted.4

So what is this book trying to do? As noted, Bennett sought to analyze the Book of Mormon as a potential forgery. Citing his own experience with past forgeries—directly with various Howard Hughes controversies and indirectly with other forgeries including the Hofmann "salamander letter" fiasco—Bennett holds the Book of Mormon to "the most rigorous tests for forgery" (p. 9).

Why would Bennett wish to do so? The Book of Mormon has played an important part in Bennett's spiritual life and he was bothered by many "shallow treatments" of the work, so by page eight I was almost cheering him on when he called both critics and believers to task for not paying enough responsible attention to the Book of Mormon:
Inside the Church, too many members treat the book as something of a theological version of Bartlett's Favorite Quotations—a source for inspirational snippets that can be used to make various points in speeches and sermons but not a book to be read and pondered at length. Those Latter-day Saints who go no farther than that in their study of the book do not really understand it, and some make claims for it that go well beyond what the book itself maintains (p. 8).
Critics who sneer at what they see as a silly romance full of anachronisms and other contemporary commentators who feel the book is something of an embarrassment that should not be prominently featured by the Church, are also invited to give stricter heed. Bennett wants these readers to take the book seriously because for him, the book came from someone, and our obligation to the book depends largely upon who that "someone" is.

Bennett quickly lays his own cards out on the table,5 wanting the reader to know he is a believer in the claims Joseph Smith made for the book, namely: that an angel delivered a set of golden plates from which he translated an ancient record of scripture by the gift and power of God. His argument is that he can discover no definitive empirical evidence for that claim. At the same time, he feels that no smoking gun has been discovered showing the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Thus, a decision either way requires a "leap of faith," hence the title. Also, given current (and for Bennett, understandable) skepticism about angels and miraculous translations, Bennett seeks to explore various possibilities for authorship. The rest of the book reads like a thoroughly reasoned investigation, a careful weighing of evidence and counter-evidence, to clarify the relevant issues. After describing the situation surrounding the publication of the Book of Mormon Bennett identifies three main suspects: God (through revelation to prophets like Mormon and Joseph Smith), Joseph Smith himself, or "Third Party," which could include Solomon Spaulding, Sidney Rigdon, or other unknown candidates (p. 40-42).

Bennett employs three standard tests for forgery and a fourth test unique to the Book of Mormon. The first test evaluates "internal issues" regarding consistency in the narrative, length, internal details and so forth. The second test regarding "external issues" looks for anachronisms original readers might have missed, corroborative evidence, and other things outside of the text itself. (In both cases, Bennett says, readers must "be careful to separate what the Book of Mormon [itself] says from what it does not say [because t]he work cannot be held accountable for the errors of its more enthusiastic backers," see p. 10, emphasis in original.) The third test addresses "motive." Be it fame, money, thrill, inspiration, psychosis, or whatever else, this question is important when considering a possible forgery. The fourth test which Bennett says applies specifically to the Book of Mormon is that of "relevance." Because the book claims to be revelation from God, Bennett expects its contents to reflect what God might want to reveal to readers today. Or does it speak mostly to the past to contemporaries of Joseph Smith? (see pp. 9-11).

Using these four tests, Bennett proceeds to analyze the Book of Mormon, first by exploring story lines and then by looking at more specific sermons and doctrines. Bennett is familiar with different theories of authorship and interacts with theories from Fawn Brodie, Alexander Campbell, Hugh Nibley, Jack Welch and other prominent Book of Mormon analysts. It is an even report, not an apologetic whitewashing or covering up of sticky details; Bennett frankly admits some of the more difficult puzzles readers have discovered in the Book of Mormon. For instance, he calls Mormon's seeming quotation of Paul a "golden nugget of forgery evidence" (p. 189). He also draws attention to some of the strong evidence in favor of historical authenticity, calling on critics to take more seriously the impressive geographical parallels Nephi incorporates into the small plates (see pp. 88-99). His tone is even and he does not always grant his own perspective the rhetorical advantage of having the last word, which a few faithful readers may find uncomfortable. Occasionally he raises problems he has found no good solution for, but he also emphasizes evidences of which he has found no convincing refutation. When he uncovers a seeming "draw" he notes the need for critic and believer alike to make a "leap of faith."

In a few cases I believe Bennett actually grants a little too much to critics, perhaps overlooking some of the more relevant and recent scholarship on the Book of Mormon. While he responsibly qualifies wordprint studies said to prove different authorship for sections of the Book of Mormon (p. 83) he still lends them a little more weight than I would (p. 142).6 In his discussion on archaeology (p. 146) he could use some advice on the trouble of toponyms in Mesoamerica and other considerations.7 He makes a few other minor blunders, like describing the Nephite monetary system as using "coins,"8 and claiming Mark Hofmann planted a bomb in his own trunk to throw off police when eyewitness testimony make it clear the explosion occurred in Hofmann's front seat (p. 30). While it is likely not Bennett's fault, the index is pretty weak (several important discussions on "Reformed Egyptian" don't find a reference point there for example) and the footnotes are much too sparse for my taste. I chalk these last two complaints up to publisher's decisions, however. The book is clearly written for general readership, but the picky reader should take that into consideration while reading.9 

Despite these problems, the book is an enjoyable and easy read which provides a sensible introduction to many of the controversies surrounding the Book of Mormon. He includes large excerpts from the Book of Mormon interspersed with summaries and commentary in order to give the reader more experience with the Book of Mormon itself. He accurately describes the complex inner structure of the Book of Mormon, including the different authors and records claimed to be used as sources. After outlining and examining several Book of Mormon stories Bennett's final section discusses specific doctrines he believes God would want readers to consider today. He believes the doctrinal discussions on agency, sin, repentance, responsibility, theodicy, and the reality of Christ and His atonement all make the book truly relevant for our time; an indication of authenticity. He then shows how the stories and the doctrine intertwine to make the doctrines play out in actual experiences; the book preaches while it demonstrates.

This balanced treatment is a thoughtful study that provides a fruitful example of how one should weigh claims about the Book of Mormon, whether or not the reader agrees with the particular points Bennett makes. As the title suggests, Bennett believes that whether a person is friend or foe, believer or critic, everyone must ultimately make a "leap of faith" in their decision as to the authenticity of the book. He hopes sincere investigators will invite God to help them make the leap by reading it carefully and asking God if it is true, as the final Book of Mormon chapter urges. This, Bennett says, is what sustained his own leap of faith.

3 1/2 out of 5 plates

*Worth the read
*Balanced candor
*Unique analysis 
*Nothing entirely new data-wise 

Excerpts of Bennett's book can be read here at


See Thomas Burr, "With tough election ahead, Bennett pens LDS book," The Salt Lake Tribune, 27 August 2009. The news article itself seems to tilt ever so slightly to the side of believing Bennett had ulterior motives about the timing of the release of the book, namely: that of gaining more street-cred with Mormons in Utah.

Burr, ibid.: "The three-term senator faces three GOP competitors in his 2010 re-election bid, all of them portraying themselves as more conservative alternatives to the incumbent."See also See Robert Gehrke, "Senate race already getting testy eight months out," The Salt Lake Tribune, 27 August 2009.

According to senator Bennett's campaign manager/son, Jim Bennett: "This book is in the works for something around seven years....This has been going through the editing process at Deseret Book for quite some time. No one anticipated one way or another what the political climate would be when this was released," see Burr, opt. cit. It seems the editor who created the headline for the article ("With tough election ahead, Bennett pens LDS book") missed this quote, disbelieves it, or believes Bennett can see the future. (Still, I have great sympathy for the reporter who is frustrated by an editor's unfortunate choice for a headline.) Bennett talks about his frustration with media treatment of the Book of Mormon which became a writing project which turned into a book since 2002 (see pp. ix-x). His research for the book indicates it is not a hashed-together attempt to curry political favor.

Bennett, a Republican, specifically goes to bat in behalf of Hugh Nibley, a prolific Mormon scholar, social critic and Democrat. Bennett acknowledges a few terse dismissals of some of Nibley's work by various critics and notes: "I took issue with [Nibley] myself, on his political beliefs--but on the items I cite here, I cannot find any articles or books that challenge" the particular evidence Bennett refers to (p. 94). Other references to current politics (and they are very few!) are incidental to the book. For example, he very briefly describes how bias at CBS News might have led some folks to accept fraudulent memos painting George W. Bush in a negative light during the 2004 presidential campaign. Bennett is silent in terms of Bush's presidency either way (see pp. 30, 32).

Since Bennett quickly lays his own cards out on table in regards to his belief in the Book of Mormon, I'll follow suit: I was initially completely skeptical of Bennett's book because I didn't know what to expect and I don't always agree with his political views. Now that I have read the book, I regret the timing of the release if only because it is an easy way for critics to dismiss or poke some fun at a book that deserves a responsible hearing.

See BHodges, "A New Book of Mormon Wordprint Analysis,", 8 December 2008.

See, for instance, William J. Hamblin's "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 2:1, pp. 161-97.

The word "coins" is not original to the Book of Mormon text, but was decades later to a chapter heading discussing the Nephite monetary system. See John W. Welch, "Weighing & Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 8:2, pp. 36–46.

It is ironic that Bennett quotes Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, two Evangelical scholars who stated that Evangelical scholarship on Mormonism suffers from virtually ignoring all of the more recent and sophisticated scholarship, and at the same time overlooks many excellent resources himself (see p. 215-26). There are a few other specific cases wherein I think Bennett could have cited more recent research much to his advantage, including information on the early Israelite pantheon, changing views of the Godhead, Isaiah inclusions in the Book of Mormon text, and a few other areas. (Bonus points for discussing the problem of Deutero-Isaiah nonetheless! For a clearer view see Kevin L. Barney, "Isaiah Interwoven," FARMS Review Vol.15:1, pp. 353-402.) I also believe he drastically undersells the statements of the witnesses who said they saw and handled the golden plates. See Richard Lloyd Anderson's Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Deseret Book 1981) and "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 14:1, pp. 18—31. Of course, critics of the Book of Mormon could likewise claim Bennett does not provide their best arguments (though I believe he does a fairly good job of representing a variety of critical views). Aside from this, readers can benefit from Bennett's approach and continue applying a similar method to the various evidences they feel Bennett overlooked.

August 31, 2009

Hardy says Skousen Project "on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship”

Grant Hardy has written the Introduction for Royal Skousen's forthcoming work, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text1, commending Skousen for bringing  "the textual analysis of the Book of Mormon to a professional level on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship."2 In an earlier blog post  I described Skousen's work on the Book of Mormon and gave some suggestions for further reading.3 In this post Hardy briefly discusses Skousen's project and clarifies why he believes it is "on par":

Not everyone appreciates the years of sustained, sometime tedious, labor that go into producing a scholarly volume, so it is a gratifying to discover that one’s work matters to others, especially when curiosity is high enough to elicit comments on a forthcoming book. In the case of Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, he did all the work, and I had the pleasure of writing an introduction. I have followed the discussion on this website with interest, and perhaps I can offer a few points of clarification to help prevent misunderstandings or disappointments. The short response would be that that it is Skousen's "professional level" of textual scholarship that is "on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship." I didn't mean to imply that the textual challenges posed by different texts were of the same scope or difficulty. The manuscript evidence for each book in the classical library or the Christian canon varies enormously. Now, a few points of clarification:

The first is that this Yale volume is not a true critical text, because it does not include an apparatus that indicates variants. For that information, along with Skousen’s explanations of his editorial decisions, readers will have to consult his six-volume Analysis of Textual Variants, which is very thorough indeed. The Earliest Text presents the results of Skousen’s analysis in a full, unencumbered format (although the book does include 45 pages of significant textual changes as an appendix).

The terms “lower criticism” and “higher criticism” date back to the nineteenth century when scholars tried to draw a distinction between studies that sought to establish the best text possible and those that attempted to uncover the origins of texts. Because the terms are imprecise and carry a great deal of theological baggage (mostly assumptions about the faith-positions of various scholars), they are no longer commonly used in biblical studies. Textual criticism is still something like what used to be called “lower criticism,” but everything else is classified according to more accurate methodological descriptions, such as the historical-critical method, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and literary criticism.

Skousen’s work is textual criticism, and as such, it is mostly belief-neutral. That is to say, he is working with the extant manuscripts and printed editions, and the results he derives are similar to what anyone, LDS or not, would get from applying the same scholarly tools to the same source materials. (Skousen’s objective is recovering the English text dictated in 1829; he has nothing to say about reformed Egyptian.) The strategies that he employs in establishing the text—including the analysis of handwriting, ink flow, insertions, deletions, corrections, spelling, scribal tendencies, parallel passages, linguistic evidence, dialectical analysis, and so forth—are exactly those developed over the last two centuries by textual critics across disciplines. It is with respect to his rigorous standards and methodological expertise that I claimed that he “has brought the textual analysis of the Book of Mormon to a professional level on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship.” I stand by that claim. (Very few nineteenth-century works, even those that have been published in “critical editions,” have had this level of textual scrutiny. Shakespeare and Milton, however, are another story).

Of course, there are similarities and differences implicit in any comparison, and I took pains in my introduction to point out that the scope of Book of Mormon textual analysis does not match that of the Bible. After discussing the various types of errors that inevitably crept into the text, from misreadings, to mishearings, to copy mistakes, to typographical errors, to inaccurate corrections, I noted:
All of these textual relationships can be painstakingly worked out. The challenges will be familiar to New Testament textual scholars, but in the case of the Book of Mormon there are only two manuscripts and twenty significant printed editions (ranging from 1830 to 1981). By contrast, there are some 5,500 manuscripts of the New Testament, many of which are only fragments and no two of which are identical except, perhaps, for some of the smallest bits of papyrus or parchment.
I have nothing but awe and admiration for the generations of scholars who have painstakingly sorted through these documents to try to get as close as possible to the originals. And it is obviously more difficult to do textual criticism in a foreign language (though Skousen does pretty well when the lengthy biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon require him to work with Hebrew and Greek).

The New Testament is unique for the number of its extant manuscripts (which is a testimony to its significance in western culture), but the vast majority of these are relatively inconsequential for textual analysis. For a project comparable in scale, however, you might take a look at the Poona critical edition of the Mahabharata, which dealt with hundreds of manuscripts for a much, much longer work of literature. Another difference is that Skousen’s reconstruction is almost certainly more accurate than what we find in the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (with a text identical to the Nestle-Aland twenty-seventh edition), precisely because he is dealing with just two manuscripts, including about 28% of the original autograph. Biblical scholars usually have to work with versions that are hundreds of years, and who knows how many copies, away from the autographs (though a handful of NT fragments are dated to the early second century).

In a project of textual criticism, the goal is to follows the evidence wherever it leads, without much concern for theological implications. Skousen has documented the non-standard grammar and awkward readings in the earliest text of the Book of Mormon (which necessitated several thousand changes, mostly stylistic, in the printed editions), but he doesn’t speculate on what that might tell us about nature of God or revelation. Similarly, a biblical textual critic, when acting in that capacity, analyzes thousands of textual variations without drawing conclusions about why God didn’t make that process of transmission smoother. Those are questions for the theologians. Whether one is inside the faith or not, a work of scholarship like Skousen’s is to be celebrated by anyone with an interest in scripture, literature, or textual criticism.

Grant Hardy is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is editor of the excellent The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition.

Yale University Press, 2009.

See Grant Hardy's comments under the "Editorial Review" section on

See BHodges, "Royal Skousen's Critical Text Project and The Book of Mormon,", August 20, 2009.

August 30, 2009

Robert J. Matthews Passes Away

Author and scholar Robert J. Matthews passed away Sunday, August 30, 2009 from complications following open heart surgery. Matthews, who was Professor Emeritus of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, is considered one of the foremost scholars on the "Inspired Translation" of the Bible by Joseph Smith. His book A Plainer Translation": Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible, a History and commentary (BYU Press 1975) is still referred to as one of the most definitive works on Smith's translation. See his wiki page for more information.

Some of Matthews's book chapters and articles from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship can be accessed here. Other articles by and about Matthews can also be found in BYU Studies (image from