September 25, 2009

Review: Michael Ash's "Of Faith and Reason"

Title: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith
Author: Michael R. Ash
Publisher: Cedar Fort
Genre: Apologetics
Year: 2008
Pages: 191
Binding: Soft cover
ISBN13: 9781599552316
Price: 14.99

Michael Ash's apologetic articles have been appearing online and in LDS publications for over a decade. What offensive thing could he have possibly done to require such frequent apologies? Actually, Ash isn't "sorry." He considers himself an "apologist" in the original sense of the word, a defender of the faith. Ash has been busy researching and answering criticism against the LDS Church. His latest offering is Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, a collection of eighty-plus bite-sized examples of Joseph Smith "getting things right" in spite of the odds against him. Clocking in at under 200 pages, the book is a breeze-through which needn't be read cover to cover; readers can take any sections in any order. This is a "greatest hits" mix-tape and the reader can put it on shuffle or go straight through.

Ash doesn't provide (or expect to find) unequivocal proof that Joseph Smith's revelations and translations are authentic, because "faith—which entails humility and a heart aligned with the teachings of the Savior—is necessary for true conversion" (Ash, xii). Instead, he hopes a collection of "secular evidences" will assist in the process of conversion by "provid[ing] an atmosphere where a spiritual witness can flourish" (xiii). Such evidences can support, not replace, faith.

Rather than providing new research, Ash has borrowed from an already-burgeoning LDS scholarship that has been adding up since Hugh Nibley got the ball rolling. Readers who are already familiar with much of what Nibley, FARMS, and FAIR have produced will recognize most of Ash's included evidences. Ash says these available resources have remained unknown to many Latter-day Saints—including Nibley's work ("relatively few members have actually read his writings," [xiv]). To Ash, Latter-day Saints could profit greatly by spending less time watching TV or surfing the web and more time learning about exciting new discoveries (xv). Perhaps some readers are simply unaware of LDS scholarly sources, or maybe they're bored or discouraged by technical language and length. Ash hopes to make discoveries more accessible:
The purpose of this book is to share some of the evidences for the prophetic abilities of Joseph Smith, the antiquity of many unique LDS doctrines and practices, and the fascinating support for the authenticity of the LDS scriptures. While I rely on the research of top LDS scholars, the data is presented in short snippets that should make it easier to both read and digest. For those whose appetites are teased by the summaries in this book, the endnotes will lead to more in-depth material (xv).
To give readers an idea of how far scholarly evidences have come, Ash cites anti-Mormon literature spanning from the 1830s to today. Many criticisms have lost ground as new information is discovered. The original laughter over Joseph Smith's strange invention of "reformed Egyptian" has faded as examples of such hybrid scripts have multiplied (38-40). Foreign descriptions of the early Lehite journeys through the Old World wilderness turn out to be accurate descriptions of real locations unknown in Joseph Smith's 1830 surroundings (pp. 53-54, 62, 65). In all, Ash cites evidence regarding Joseph Smith's prophetic career, the Book of Mormon's Old and New World shadows, the Book of Abraham, and various uniquely-LDS doctrines. An appendix describes ancient documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library to familiarize Latter-day Saints with some of the material he cites throughout the book (181-189).

I believe Latter-day Saints can benefit by becoming more familiar with much of what Ash includes. Some of Ash's evidences are stronger than others—I seem less impressed with "word-print" studies, for instance,1 and his section on the Book of Abraham is too skinny.2 The largest problem I see is that the book does not discuss the nature of his parallels or describe any specific method of evaluating (or even discovering) them. Instead, Ash falls back on the tired "how could Joseph have known" angle. Such parallels can easily become enmeshed in ideological battles over whether the Book of Mormon is an actual ancient record (now translated into Joseph Smith's idiom), or a 19th-century inspired forgery, or a fraud of some kind, or something else. Parallels from the 19th century would trump those Ash advances for some readers, and such parallels are often presented in a similar style—that is, quick soundbites sans discussion of method.

With these defects, can Ash's approach help level the discussion for a person who is confused about criticisms of the Book of Mormon, or inspire readers to "give place" for the possibility the Book of Mormon is an ancient and authentic record? There have been interesting discussions in the pages of Dialogue, the FARMS Review, and elsewhere that discuss the use of parallels.3 Ash's book isn't geared for an audience interested in such meta-discussion, however. His effort should be judged by his goal, which is to provoke interest in otherwise disinterested or uninformed readers toward learning more about scholarly discoveries and Joseph Smith's claims. Ideally, readers will be hungry for more and not be satisfied with his book alone.

Perhaps Ash could have included Nibley's insistence that he not be held responsible for "anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven's sake, I hope we are moving forward here."4 Such comments led Nibley's former student David Rolph Seely to explain: "I have always assumed Nibley would be delighted for us to read his work critically, and statements such as the above should be taken as invitations to join the fray."5 Hopefully, Of Faith and Reason encourages readers to become more interested in the overall conversation.

Ash has a knack for turning difficult academic subjects into accessible and engaging topics for the average reader. His book traverses a lot of already-covered ground, but ground that the average Latter-day Saint is unlikely to have traveled.

3 1/2 out of 5 Plates

*Fine for the casual reader, problematic for those concerned about methodology.

*Those intimidated by the vast archives of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS) might profit by starting here to get a feel for the field.

*Of Ash's two books, Shaken Faith Syndrome is more highly recommended

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

In Ash's first book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt he spends more time discussing the apologetic issues involved with the Book of Abraham. In my estimation, Shaken Faith is the better of the two books.

For example, see Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Signature Books 1993) and Kevin Christensen's response, "Paradigms Crossed," FARMS Review 7:2, 144-218. Another interesting exchange is Douglas F. Salmon, "Parallelomania and the Study of Later-day Saint Scripture: Confirmation, Coincidence, or the Collective Unconscious," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33:2, 129-156 and William J. Hamblin, "Joseph or Jung? A Response to Douglas Salmon," FARMS Review 13:2, 87-107. Finally, an important addition to the conversation is Benjamin McGuire, "Parallelomania: Criticism of the Textual Parallels Theories," (unpublished), available at

Hugh Nibley, "The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Response," Sunstone, December 1979, 49. Ash's book will greatly help those who aren't up to speed with Nibley enough to even recognize what "moving along" would be.

David Rolph Seely, review of Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 3, by Hugh Nibley, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5 (1993): 195. Footnotes 4 and 5 taken from Hamblin, "Joseph or Jung," FARMS Review 13:2, 95.

September 21, 2009

Review: Royal Skousen's "The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text"

Author: Royal Skousen
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Religion/Textual Criticism
Year: 2009
Pages: 789+ introduction, preface
Binding: Harcover
ISBN13: 9780300142181
Price: 35.00

Using his typically flowery prose, Oliver Cowdery described the exhilaration of assisting with Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon:

"These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated...the history, or record, called 'The book of Mormon.'"1
Cowdery spent about sixty-five to seventy-five days writing Smith's dictation on the original manuscript before copying the entire book onto a printer's manuscript.2 In contrast, Royal Skousen's "Critical Text Project," a meticulous study of the Book of Mormon manuscripts and twenty printed editions has taken something like 7,300 days (over twenty years).

Overview of the "Critical Text" project:
Beginning in 1988 Skousen scoured the available sources and produced transcriptions of the original and printers manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. He noticed that Cowdery had committed about three errors per page as he copied from the original to the printers manuscript and decided a full analysis of variants was needed. Skousen analyzed letters, words, phrases, capitalization, spelling, punctuation, versification, deletions, insertions, corrections, handwriting, spacing, ink flow, and other aspects of the manuscripts to determine what the earliest text contained (The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, pp. xvi-xvii. Hereafter the page numbers are cited in parentheses). Between 2004 and 2009 Skousen published six large volumes of "detailed, rational arguments for his editorial decisions concerning the original text, based on his reconstruction of the actions and intentions of scribes and editors, comparisons with other passages, statistics, biblical parallels [and] languages, early English usage and dialects, the writing habits of particular scribes, pronunciation, and typical errors of the eye or hand made in copying" (xvii).3 Overall, he analyzed "5,280 cases of variation (or potential variation)" and decided which words were original to Joseph's dictation (xxxv). Recognizing the bulky and costly nature of that series, Skousen decided to make his conclusions available in a readable and affordable one-volume format called The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. Grant Hardy, a scholar who provides the book's preface,4 calls the book "the next-best thing" to being present during Joseph's dictation: "a real-time transcription of his revelation of the text" (xiv).

Overview of the Earliest Text:
The physical book is slightly hefty—about 800 pages—and bound so it can lay open and flat on a table. Grant Hardy's engaging introduction situates the Book of Mormon within the realm of world scripture by noting important similarities and differences with other sacred texts (vii-xxviii). Following a quick overview of the Book of Mormon narrative Hardy describes the circumstances of its production—including angelic visitation, the use of various scribes, a stone in a hat, and impressive speed. He describes Skousen's work and provides some examples of differences between the current LDS edition of the Book of Mormon and the original text, and the likely reasons for the difference. In 1 Nephi 13:24 the current phrase "the gospel of the Lord" should read "the gospel of the Lamb." The original manuscript reads "gospel of the land," which was changed in that manuscript to "Lord." Skousen argues a scribe misheard "land" for "lamb," and restores the originally dictated word. In another example an entire word is missing in the current text. Alma 39:13 says: "acknowledge the faults and that wrong that ye have done." The original text read "acknowledge the faults and repair that wrong that ye have done." Skousen discovered a stray ink blot that made "repair" look like "retain" (see p. xviii). Perhaps because the instruction to "retain that wrong" seemed like bad advice the copyist left the word out and Skousen returned it. Readers might enjoy discovering such variants themselves by comparing current Book of Mormon editions with Skousen's Earliest Text. Skousen also includes a useful appendix of "Significant Textual Changes" for quick reference (739-789) and a helpful genealogy-like chart of the different printed editions from 1830 to the present (744).

Hardy concedes that such discussion of variants may seem like trivial "quibbling" to some readers. However, he reasons, this is a book to which "millions of people are passionately devoted—it is scripture, after all, in which every word is considered a gift from God—and no amount of attention to detail is unwarranted" (xix). Some of Skousen's discoveries could easily be incorporated in a future (as yet unplanned) official LDS edition of the Book of Mormon, but Hardy explains why the Earliest Text itself won't become official (xx). The original text includes more repetitious language and less grammatical precision—even Joseph Smith desired a more polished text, which is why he personally helped edit the 1837 and 1840 editions, making "several thousand changes, virtually all grammatical or stylistic in nature" (xix). Hardy knows believers and outsiders may see the implications of Skousen's work differently, but believes the Earliest Text is "an indispensable tool" for the anyone interested in studying the beginnings of Mormonism. He closes the introduction noting three contexts for future studies: The Book of Mormon as Latter-day Saint scripture, American scripture, and increasingly, World scripture (xxi-xxvii).

The editor's preface (xxix-xlv) describes the sources Skousen used to compile the Earliest Text—two manuscripts and "twenty significant printed editions" (xxix). He explains his methods and several obstacles he faced. For instance, Skousen ideally accepted the earliest extant reading, but unfortunately the original manuscript was damaged and scattered; only 28 percent survives. Next, he could rely on the printers manuscript and the 1830 edition. When these differed he made his best effort at determining which was correct (acknowledging the occasional possibility that both could be wrong if they could be compared to the original manuscript).

Skousen also discusses what I see as the most troublesome aspect of the project: the manuscripts don't have paragraphs or punctuation (reflecting the nature of a dictated manuscript). John Gilbert, typesetter for the 1830 edition, was pretty accurate in describing the manuscript as "one solid paragraph, without a punctuation mark, from beginning to end" (xlii). Though Skousen believes Gilbert did a "credible job" and notes that subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon have generally followed his decisions, he decided to punctuate the Earliest Text himself from scratch (ibid.). With no revealed or dictated punctuation, Skousen had to decide how to make the book readable without doing unnecessary damage to the original dictation. He decided to use "sense-lines" by breaking up the lines of the text according to verbal phrases and clauses. The text reads something like this:

30   Behold, I speak unto you as though I spake from the dead,
       for I know that ye shall have my words.
31   Condemn me not because of my imperfection,
       neither my father because of his imperfection,
       neither them which have written before him,
       but rather give thanks unto God
       that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections,
       that ye may learn to be more wise than that which we have been.
(Mormon 9:30-31, p. 672).

The margins contain the versification of the current LDS edition which was added to the Book of Mormon by Orson Pratt in 1879 (xl). Originally, the Book of Mormon was not divided into verses and the chapters were divided differently. Skousen includes the current verse and chapter structure and the original chapter divisions are marked with a special symbol, alerting readers to the book's original structure.5 The reason I call this "troublesome" is because the placement of punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence.6 Skousen wanted the book to be readable and his decision was rather unavoidable; the sense-lines keep the idea of dictation at the forefront of the reader's mind. Skousen hopes the format "will help even longtime readers see the Book of Mormon from a fresh perspective," a commendable (and I believe fruitful) effort. Many Latter-day Saints will benefit from reading an edition of the Book of Mormon that differs from the double-columned footnote-heavy official LDS edition. Many scholars will be grateful to be one step away from the original dictation.

Skousen's Earliest Text is a "must" for anyone interested in studying the Book of Mormon deeply, differently, freshly, and otherwise. Indeed, these are days never to be forgotten, to sit and read the printed words that were written as they fell from the lips of the prophet. Knowing the countless hours and resources poured into this publication by a renowned professor of linguistics and English language has awakened the utmost gratitude of this reviewer's bosom!

 5 out of 5 plates

*Landmark publication
*Top-notch scholarship
*A fresh look at scripture
*Beautiful, affordable edition


Emphasis in original, Cowdery's letter was first published in the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, Vol. I. No. 1. Kirtland, Ohio, October, 1834, p. 14. The account is reprinted in the Pearl of Great Price as a footnote to Joseph Smith—History.

John Welch and Tim Rathbone settle on sixty-five to seventy-five workdays in "How Long Did It Take Joseph Smith to Translate the Book of Mormon?" John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1992), pp. 1-8; Elden Watson, "Book of Mormon Translation Timeline" at To read more about the original and printer manuscripts see Royal Skousen, "Book of Mormon Manuscripts," Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Macmillan 1992), pp. 185-186. Skousen also describes the manuscripts in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale University Press 2009), pp. xxix-xxx. 

Skousen's Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, which consists of six parts (in six books!). A description of the project and its various parts is available in "12 Questions and a Book by Royal Skousen," Frank McIntyre, Times & Seasons blog, 6 September 2009. For more on the background of Skousen's work and some recommended articles he has published see Blair Hodges, "Royal Skousen's Critical Text Project and The Book of Mormon,", 20 August 2009.

Grant Hardy, chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, is also the editor of the excellent The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition. In his introduction he commends Skousen for bringing "the textual analysis of the Book of Mormon to a professional level on par with the finest classical and
biblical scholarship." For more, see "Hardy says Skousen Project 'on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship,'", 31 August 2009.

Brant Gardner's excellent series Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols., (Kofford 2007-2008) makes full use of Skousen's work to show how the original chapter structure appears to have been consistent and deliberate. Pratt's divisions slightly damage the meaning and flow of the Book of Mormon narrative. For a more concise look at his conclusions, see Brant Gardner, "Mormon's Editorial Method and Meta-Message," FARMS Review 21:1 (2009), 83-105, or at

For one example of variant readings based on punctuation, check out my discussion, "Nephi's Scribal Error?,", 12 November 2008.