Cowdery, Ostler, and the Assyrian king

Reposted, and edited, in light of the use of the ephod in 1 Sam 23 (part of the Gospel Doctrine reading)

The Book of Mormon translation mechanism is surrounded in mystery.

We have conflicting reports of seer stones, “interpreters,” Urim and Thummim, hats, breastplates, divining rods, words appearing on parchment, plates not even in the room, etc. Trying to figure out just how we are to believe the process went is a complicated task.

Adding to the mystery is the one canonical account of the translation, D&C 9:8-9, which refers to Oliver Cowdery’s failed attempt to translate the Book of Mormon record:

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

Aside from its use as a key to personal revelation, this text suggests some interesting things about the Book of Mormon translation.

Assuming Oliver had some kind of interpreting device to hand (the Nephite interpreters, or Joseph’s seer stones, or Oliver’s own divining rod), the mechanism suggested required a confirmation or rejection of a translation that he was to come up with himself.

The binary nature of the revelation (yes/no) is also interesting. This seems to be the preferred method employed by oracles: the petitioner asks the god, the god says yes or no. This is how we think the biblical Urim and Thummim worked, and it is also how such things went in ancient Mesopotamia (the Near East’s Divination Central), which is where Blake Ostler and the Assyrian king come in.

The Cowdery experience is somewhat reminiscent of Ostler’s Book of Mormon “expansion theory” (that Smith “expanded” using his own words and ideas a divinely inspired core Book of Mormon narrative).[1]

Assuming some influence from the plates (proximate or not) and the stones (or maybe the rod), Oliver is supposed to “study things out in his own mind” and get a sense as to what the “translation” is. He then asks whether the “translation” is correct. All being well, he will get a yes/no answer.

It seems to me that in this scenario there is loads of room for personal “expansion.” It’s not necessarily how Ostler sees things, but it seems to me that the process is one that allows Joseph (if  Oliver’s experience per D&C 9 was similar to Joseph’s) to decide on his own (under some form of inexact inspiration) how to translate and God gives him a yes/no confirmation. God’s input here seems to be limited to whatever influence (perhaps through the stones, although this is all left unsaid by D&C 9) he had on Joseph’s “mind” and a confirmation that the translation was “right.” By “right” I do not think we mean “exact.”

I think D&C 9 forecloses, at least in this instance, a Joseph-sees-the-words scenario. If he simply sees the words, what role does his “mind” play, and what is there left to confirm? It seems that Cowdery expected the process to “magically” provide a translation, perhaps via a “divine teleprompter.” Clearly, this was not how it worked.

This D&C 9-esque divination/revelation reminds me of the reports given by ancient Mesopotamian diviners who turned yes/no confirmations into more complex “revelations.” For example, according to a scenario painted by several ancient divinatory texts, the superstitious king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (681-669 BC), inquired of the god whether he should build a temple. I imagine he had worked it out in his mind and believed it to be a good idea. The answer (through the examination of sheep entrails) comes back “yes” but is narrated in far grander terms:

“He (the god) gives him (Esarhaddon) an instruction, and sends him a command…’build the Esharra temple, dais of my delight! Like the writing of heaven make its form artistic!'”

The Assyrian god never said this. He only said “yes” (through the divination).[2] Thus a divine confirmation is “expanded” and given more detail.

Adding colour to simple revelation is an age-old practice and is the skill of a prophet. I am willing to bet that many of the “thus saith the Lord” pronouncements in the OT are similar expansions: a question is formulated; an inquiry of the Lord is made; he says “yes” but the answer is shared through a poetic expansion of the divine license, perhaps a reformulation of the original question.

This seems to be the case, for example, in 1 Sam 23 where David receives spoken answers to questions which were probably received as binary pronouncements only.

1. Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20/1 (1987): 66-124.

2. Of course, most of you probably don’t believe that the Assyrian god said anything, but the point is that the biblical Urim and Thummim and psephomancy in general belong to this kind of tradition. It is a question for further discussion as to whether Joseph’s stones are psephomantic (strictly speaking, psephomancy is the drawing or casting of stones). Phelps’ use of the term “Urim and Thummim” is misleading.


  1. The binary yes/no oracle suggested by D&C 9 simply cannot provide the kind of exacting detail required to produce a book rich on history, theology, and other detail

    I think it could still work if you considered the binary confirmation in conjuction with my own, patent-pending, “math homework theory” of BoM translation.

    Through repeated communion with your teacher you learn basic principles and truths about math. You see examples worked out on the board. You have a chance to ask questions. Then you are sent packing with chapter of problems to complete in the isolation of your bedroom. You crack the book open and start working out the answers based on your knowledge of and previous experience with, say, vectors [puzzling it out in your mind]. After working out a problem you throw your pencil down, heave a sigh of re-/disbelief and wonder if the answer is right. You call your mom, who comes over and gives it a yea yea or a nay nay [burning bosom/stupor of thought]. If not, you go back, check your work, maybe even make some notes in the margins to ask your teacher the next day. If yes, great, continue to the next problem.

    We know that Joseph was prepared beforehand and that the translation process was semi-lengthy, which makes a theory incorporating preparation/practice/confirmation at least plausible. Joe was no tabula rasa when he began and surely a thicker tome when he was finished, and the yes/no of the U&T could have served more to point him in the right direction/help avoid dead ends than to supply detail.

  2. My only question is why after further expansion do we not note the possibility further confirmation? It seems important to the question of validity.

  3. The record suggests that Cowdery most likely didn’t have the interpreters that Joseph used. Joseph had the gift of seership through stones; a contemporary revelation (printed intact in the 1833 Book of Commandments, but edited in the 1835 and all subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants) stated that Oliver had the gift of revelation through divining rod — the kind of forked rod that you hold in your hand and that dips up and down when you get a correct answer. This kind of revelatory tool is inherently binary, whereas Joseph’s seerstones often provided fully visual or verbal revelations.

  4. In other words, D&C 9 probably didn’t apply to Joseph; it was a personal revelation to Oliver, and it fits very well with what other revelations have told us about Oliver’s peculiar mode of revelation. While the section has subsequently been generalized for universal application, it is far from clear that, in the 1820s, it would have been seen as applying to Joseph.

  5. Pete,
    Are you suggesting that at some point, Joseph could “work-out” the characters on his own?

    Interesting. References please. So, you reckon OC has tried to use the divining rod to translate the Book of Mormon? What is the Lord asking him to do instead that is different to what Joseph is doing? (I still don’t know how “study it out in your mind” can help you translate ancient characters. There’s something missing here.)

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I well remember when Blake’s article first came out. (Blake and I are old friends.) A lot of people misunderstood it, and thought it was some sort of an anti-Mormon attack. He paid a heavy personal price for publishing it.

    In fact, however, it was intended as a defense of faith in the BoM, and that is indeed the way it worked in my case. I had drawn the conclusion that Joseph’s handprints were visible on every page of the BoM (a conclusion I still hold), and if the only options were an uninvolved Joseph reading from a divine teleprompter or a completely 19th-century composition, I was going to have to go with the latter. I was on the precipice of the cliff, looking over the edge. Blake’s article came out just in time to help me to rethink the whole thing and preserve fundamental faith in the BoM.

    And I think Blake’s piece has stood the test of time. Whereas there was an initial angry blast from certain BYU religion profs, I would say his perspective is assumed by many, even most of those who contribute to FARMS, for example. There are disagreements over the extent of expansions and what is and what isn’t, as there should be. But to my perception, his basic idea has won out in the end.

    For my own developed views on BoM translation theory, see my article “A More Responsible Critique,” FR 15/1, starting at the caption Shepherd on Pseudotranslation at p. 132 and reading to the end.

  7. In Chapter VII of the Book of Commandments, the revelation that tells Oliver how to translate, we learn that Oliver has access to the same Spirit of Revelation as Moses — but also that:

    …you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod; behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God; and therefore whatsoever you ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, that you shall know. (Paragraph 3)

    In the immediately following paragraph, God instructs Oliver to “trifle not with these things… Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate all those ancient records…”

    If Oliver obeyed this revelation, it would seem that his attempt at translation would have involved the use of his “rod of nature” or divining rod.

    For Joseph’s seerstone visions as having been relatively information-rich, we have the various accounts of the Book of Mormon translation that you’ve alluded to. We also have convergent details regarding the visions he had using the same stones when he was a treasure seer. Many of these can be found collected in Vol. 4 of Dan Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents series.

  8. The one thimg this has going for it is, if I recall correctly, Givens iin his BTHOM mentions that at least during part of the translation, The Book was covered and not even looked at during the translation process. I may be mis-remembering, of course.

    I do think Royal Skousen’s Critical Analysis of the BOM aims to push for a different understanding, but I’ve not read his work, and would be interested in the opinions of anyone who has.

  9. JNS,

    What I’m not getting is how on earth a divining rod can translate ancient characters! Now, it could confirm to you (yes/no) if your translation is any good. But this would still mean that you’d need to provide a translation. The rod can find water, it can’t translate reformed Egyptian.

    So, in my mind, there is no way in the world that OC could have translated the Book of Mormon. (Which is to say that according to this information that you have given me, D&C 9 is not a template for how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. What, then, is it?!)

  10. Are you suggesting that at some point, Joseph could “work-out” the characters on his own?

    Joseph the country bumpkin couldn’t have done it on his own, but Joseph who communed with Jehovah could have.

    I think I’m suggesting that while a binary yes/no oracle cannot produce detail on its own, I can imagine a situation where it wouldn’t necessarily preclude detail either.

  11. Pete,
    OK man. But per JNS, there was no binary oracle. In this case, “Urim and Thummim” is a strange description because that’s exactly what the OT U&T was. (Either that, or the seer-stone/interpreter device was of a wholly different sort.)

  12. Ronan, Joseph and people around him used the term “Urim and Thummim” throughout Joseph’s life to refer to various seerstones that Joseph used for revelations. The U&T terminology wasn’t used until 1832 (1833?) when it was introduced by William W. Phelps; we don’t have to give revelatory weight to the term, as it wasn’t in the revelations or introduced by Joseph. The best source on that stuff, in my view, is Van Wagoner, Richard S., and Steven Walker. “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing.'” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Vol 15, No 2. 1982. pp.48-68.

    I know that, from our perspective, a divining rod is a terrible mode of revelation. But, in 1820s New England, this idea wasn’t even unique to Mormonism. There was a religion in Middleton, Rutland, VT, run by a man named Nathaniel Wood, that was based on revelations given through divining rods. (They also thought of themselves as new Israelites.) D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview gives an overview of that group.

  13. This has me truly baffled. Are we to understand that Oliver was expected to work out his theory first as to what was written on the plates and then ask God if he had guessed correctly? I can’t imagine translating meaningless characters like that:

    Oliver (or Joseph)looking at plates, or holding rod, or whatever: “God, I think this says, “I, Onandagus, have made these plates to record my diary”.

    “Hmm, I feel a stupor of thought. I must have guessed wrong.”

    “I know, how about this: I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents,”

    “Ah, my bosom is burning. On to the next phrase.”

    I just can’t imagine that Oliver could reasonably be expected to have translated by coming up with his own ideas of what was on the plates, and then asking God to confirm that it was true. But if not, what in the world was going on in Section 9?

  14. D&C 9 reminds me of the sixties: If it feels right, do it! Wasn’t that the creed of the hippie generation, Ronan?

    How do you tell the difference between inspiration and wishful thinking?

    There is a consistent theme in Joseph Smith’s biography: the inability to deny himself. In the best of cases, Joseph was inordinately generous. In others, Joseph had no qualms breaking the law and getting into projects over his head such as the Kirtland Safety Anti Banking Society.

    In the worst cases, Joseph overindulged when he felt inspired to have relations with the wives and daughters of the faithful. He also had an insatiable hunger for status, which manifested itself through the accumulation of offices and titles: president, prophet, seer, revelator, mayor, judge, general, and king of the world.

    Contemporary Relevance
    The hedonism of the hippies was meant to be universal. While Joseph Smith could be generous, he wasn’t that generous. Revelation elevated him over everyone else. Especially Emma was not allowed to live by the rules that applied to Joseph.

    However, if one looks at the challenges of contemporary Mormon society, one cannot help but wonder if Joseph’s conception of inspiration is not contributing to some of our pathologies. Are phenomena such as multi-level marketing schemes, personal bankruptcy, the cottage industry of marriage tricksters preying on Mormon widows enabled by a permissive conception of inspiration that relies on euphoria?

    Does this concept of inspiration help the exploiters to suspend their conscience? If my scheme is inspired, if it gives us the burning in the bosom then it cannot be evil. Does this concept of inspiration suspend the good judgment of the members who fall victim of the confidence swindlers? After all, confidence swindlers who appeal to our dreams may have no trouble to give us the burning of the bosom. In that case, it would be sacrilegeous to challenge divine inspiration with skepticism and reason.

  15. Gary,
    Yep, in that light, D&C 9 makes no sense whatever.

  16. Ronan, wouldn’t the accuracy of the method have a lot to do with the size of the chunks of text being considered? Whether God has veto power on a word-by-word basis or a chapter-by-chapter basis is going to have a big effect on what sort of influence Joseph has.

    In either case, I simply don’t think that your model is a workable one without quite a lot of revelatory collaboration.

  17. Ashurst-McGee notes that (pg 58. of his thesis) while the Urim and Thummim are typically viewed as lots, that a recent study by Cornelis Van Dam conlcudes that it was a gem that illuminated when the holder recieved revelation and that it has held up fairly well to criticism. I’m no bible studies guy, so would be interested in an analysis of the claim.

    Actually, Ashurst-McGees thesis is worth reading for the entire discussion as there are a very many examples of explicit vision from Joseph’s stones. To be frank, I’m not sure how that plays with the expansion theory.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    Hellmut: “it would be sacrilegeous to challenge divine inspiration with skepticism and reason.”

    Hellmut, challenging divine inspiration is the definition of sacrilege. For an unbeliever, I’m sure you see no harm in picking apart the processes of revelation and picking apart the revelator as well. But I’m afraid that you and to a lesser extent Ronan in this thread are cutting open a golden goose, and you’ll find that examinations will get you no closer to understanding how everything in fact happened.

  19. Stapers, no-one believes Van Dam.

    Right, I’m off the Seminary to teach D&C 9 as a good method for receiving personal revelation! In the meantime, I want this stuff to be thrashed out:

    1. By what mechanism was Oliver supposed to turn reformed Egyptian text into translated English per D&C 9?

    2. “Urim and Thummim” is not a good word for the seer-stones. The biblical U&T and psephomancy in general is the drawing of lots.

    3. How do we demarcate “seer-stones” (already owned by Joseph), from the “interpreters” evidently buried with the plates.

    Sort it out for me. You have two hours!

  20. Stapers, no-one believes Van Dam.


    How do we demarcate “seer-stones” (already owned by Joseph), from the “interpreters” evidently buried with the plates.

    We don’t. Joseph did, but we don’t.

  21. Really.

  22. Ronan, why the push to examine it all and pick it apart? Do you have some plates that want for translation? Why not simply take a holistic view of the event, thank God for some scripture, and move on? You may as well be asking how the bush was not consumed.

  23. Ronan:
    Again from T. Givens BTHOM, It was my understanding that the interpreters were not returned to JS with the Golden Plates after the Martin Harris fiasco. This is why I shouldn’t lend out books! I never get them back and can’t check my sources…

  24. Ronan, I second Stapley. There’s no difference whatsoever between seerstones and interpreters. In fact, the interpreters buried with the plates were probably only used for translating the 144 lost pages — all of the current Book of Mormon text was evidently produced using a seer stone that Joseph Smith had previously discovered through a vision using another seer stone.

    Oliver was most probably supposed to produce English text by working it out in his mind — presumably with the help of the Holy Spirit — and then receiving yes-no revelation through the rod. But you don’t have to teach D&C 9 that way; subsequent practice in the church generalizes that text as a basic formula for yes-no revelation. (When we use D&C 9 for history, that requires very careful handling due to Oliver’s special association with the divining rod. When we use that text for theology, though, our interpretive community doesn’t impose on us the same constraints.)

  25. mw*, that interpretation seems to originate, in modern scholarly work, with Van Wagoner and Walker, cited above.

  26. But per JNS, there was no binary oracle.

    Well, according to his clarification in #24

    Oliver was most probably supposed to produce English text by working it out in his mind–presumably with the help of the Holy Spirit–and then receiving yes-no revelation through the rod

    apparently there was.

    At any rate, I’m aiming here:

    The binary yes/no oracle suggested by D&C 9 simply cannot provide the kind of exacting detail required to produce a book rich on history, theology, and other detail

    and here:

    By what mechanism was Oliver supposed to turn reformed Egyptian text into translated English per D&C 9?

    Not only does a binary method of translation not preclude detail, but such a method is eminently capable of efficiently producing about as much detail as a human can perceive in real time.

    It’s all about sampling frequency.

    Think DVD burner/player, depending on if you prefer to think of translation as decoding or encoding. I’ve got 40 euros invested in a device that handles the conversion of complicated discrete signals into likewise complicated continuous signals, and all without breaking a sweat.

    The reproduction of the characters is not exact, but it’s pretty close. Mere mortals market devices with frequencies of 2.8224 MHz, which is good enough for rock and roll. Even when I throw in a DVD and push play on my much less capable device, what appears resembles a reality I am familiar with and can wrap my mind around.

    Rosalynde is thinking along the same lines here:

    wouldn’t the accuracy of the method have a lot to do with the size of the chunks of text being considered? Whether God has veto power on a word-by-word basis or a chapter-by-chapter basis is going to have a big effect on what sort of influence Joseph has.

    Summary: A binary process is capable of amazing detail and can be done at speed. There is certainly no need to assume Oliver, with the help of the Almighty, was capable of anything less.

  27. JNS-re-24
    It was also my understanding that JS didn’t always use any sort of stone at all, so I’m not sure the divining rod necesity was a requirement for OC or us now for that matter.

    re 25, thanks for the sitation.

  28. John Wheeler’s “It from Bit” musings come to mind.

  29. Peter- (26)- but this seems so unlike modern experience with Revelation… How do we liken what you re saying to ourselves? Are you suggesting for us to get better revelation we should work it out word by word like some tarot device?

  30. tarot device should read wiji board. I am an idiot.

  31. uh, mw*, ouija? wiji sounds like the new Nintendo.

  32. Ok, so I’m a *big* idiot.

  33. Hmmm. Good questions Ronan. My guess is that there are some unspoken assumptions underlying section 9. That is, I imagine the process was supposed to work something like this: “Commune with God; get a revelation (vision/waking dream?) of what the plates say; before you accept it as the proper “translation” check with God and get an undeniable yes or no”. I know the first part about “get a revelation” is not spelled out in section 9 but considering these were men who had been receiving visions and visitations by angels and revelations regularly at that time it seems reasonable to think that it was such an obvious point to them that it didn’t need to be mentioned in section 9.

    (JNS alluded to this idea this in #24)

  34. It was also my understanding that JS didn’t always use any sort of stone at all.

    I think he used the stone for the BoM throughout. It was in latter projects that he weened himself from the stones.

  35. There is also a significant precedent for multiple means of divine communication for the same divine project. E.g., Moroni telling Joseph to look into his seer stone to find where the plates were burried, or Joseph recieving a vision from his seer stone telling him to go to the river and pray about baptism.

  36. It was in latter projects that he weened himself from the stones.

    Now, if only the Stones would wean themselves from the stones.

    Anyway, I’m back. The Seminary kids now know how to receive revelation. The Spirit was pretty strong, actually.

    I ain’t picking out of spiritual curiosity. I had occasion to look at Assyrian divination today and my interest was piqued. That’s all, sir.

    I’m still not understanding how Oliver was somehow expected to figure out the translation in his mind. Oh well.

  37. Ronan: I’m still not understanding how Oliver was somehow expected to figure out the translation in his mind.

    Didn’t my #33 provide a possible solution? That is that the revelation came in the form of either “pure knowledge” to his mind (could be visions but I think it is more likely that it came in “flashes” of inspiration/revelation like a divine muse or something) and the yes/no aspect afterwards was a basically a safety check on how the ideas were communicated in writing. I suspect that is how Joseph received his revelations too.

  38. JNS:

    Oliver was most probably supposed to produce English text by working it out in his mind–presumably with the help of the Holy Spirit–and then receiving yes-no revelation through the rod.

    Geoff J:

    I imagine the process was supposed to work something like this: “Commune with God; get a revelation (vision/waking dream?) of what the plates say; before you accept it as the proper “translation” check with God and get an undeniable yes or no”.

    I think, too, this is the only way to read D&C 9. In the Oliver-as-translator scenario, this seems to leave, as I suggest in my post, a lot of room for Ostlerian “expansion.”

    My hang-up (which is disappearing as I type) is that the Joseph-as-translator scenario is quite different. He seems to need a stone, Oliver doesn’t. Per JNS, Oliver’s rod confirms the truth of what he has already worked out (like the biblical Urim and Thummim); Joseph’s stone is the means for working out the truth.

  39. Ah, Ronan, but a seer is greater than a prophet. :)

  40. Stapers,
    Quite right, old man. Well, as ol’ Steve points out, it is, ultimately a mystery. I can only testify that D&C 9 worked a charm with my Seminary kids tonight.

  41. Ronan, #38, right — Joseph and Oliver had totally different modes of revelation available to them during the early church. It’s perhaps noteworthy that Oliver really never seems to have understood how his personal approach might produce translations. After all, he never produced any text.

  42. I’ve read somewhere that Oliver Cowdery produced D&C 20, but can not remember all the details.

  43. mw* (can we use Matt W.?), section 20 was a product of both Joseph and Oliver. Much seems derived from a document that Oliver wrote, entitled, Articles of the Church of Christ, which was written in the voice of the Lord.

  44. Let me clarify that in #41, I meant that Oliver never produced any translated text.

  45. Anything for you J.,

    I was surfing around on this idea and came accross this on the Fair message board, thought it was worth siting.

    The relevent quote:
    “Alma Chapter 45 was translated on April 24, 1829. D&C 9 was received in April of 1829. So the question is, is there any evidence that Oliver was successful at translating at this time? The answer is yes.

    The translation of Alma 45:22 begins in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting, and then it changes to Joseph Smith’s handwriting for 28 words, at which point it reverts back to Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting.

    As far as the “study it out in your mind” issue, I, also, believe it refers to Oliver needing to study out and ask God if it was right for him to translate, which he did not do, he simply assumed God would just grant him the privilege…”

    See here.

  46. Steve #18: “But I’m afraid that you and to a lesser extent Ronan in this thread are cutting open a golden goose, and you’ll find that examinations will get you no closer to understanding how everything in fact happened.”

    I am just concerned that there are people who are making detrimental decisions. If we look at the phenomena that I listed at the macro level (Mormon society) there is reason to worry.

    And Joseph Smith’s biography contains several episodes where irrational choices hurt himself as well as others.

  47. Matt W., given the frequency with which handwriting on the original Book of Mormon manuscripts changes around, I find that particular change to be less than compelling evidence. It’s possible — but far from definitive.

  48. I didn’t say I bought it, just said it was worth siting. :)

  49. Nathan Oman says:

    JNS: I’ll have to re-read the Book of Commandments text, but my impression was that it was talking about two modes of revelation, one — like unto Moses — that dealt with translation and one — like unto Aaron — that dealt with the rod. In other words, the revelation endorses Oliver’s status as a rodsman but provides an alternative method for translation. It’s been a while sense I looked at this, so I may be completely off base, but I have read the Book of Commandments text a number of times and your interpretation never occurred to me. (Which is, of course, ultimately neither here nor there.)

    Ronan: On the mechanics of getting a binary answer from the rod, my understanding was that you would set the rod up vertically and depending on which way it fell you would get a yes or no answer. IOW, working with the rod was more than simply water dousing.

    Finally, I think that Ostler expansion theory is right on, but it is by no means clear how one goes about discovering what is or is not expanded, how much expansion there was, and whether the level of expansion was constant. (Eg might there be more Joseph Smith in Alma than in 1 Nephi.)

    Ultimately, I think that the theory has apologetic value only. I am not sure that it has much in the way of hermeneutic usefulness.

  50. Hellmut,

    Re: Your comment(#14)–

    Joseph Smith’s methods no doubt contribute to our religious pathologies. However, I think it’s important to make a distinction between cultural interpretations of those methods versus legitimate claims of inspiration (for those who believe in such things as I do) which bear resemblence to said methods.

    The former can certainly have a likeness thereof but be far from the real McCoy in that it digresses into a spiritual blackmail of sorts. While the latter–well, let’s just say that truth can be stranger than fiction.

  51. What reason do we have to believe that Oliver was expected to translate? Was the whole process intended to teach him the difference between his gift of revelation (yes/no) and the much more open type of revelation Joseph received?

    As for the 28 words of Alma 45, I’m with JNS: Suppose Oliver had to excuse himself for a short “break,” and Joseph carried on without him for 28 words until Oliver returned.

  52. Nate,

    Re: binary rods. We seem to have arrived at a scenario here where, per D&C 9, Oliver was to use his rod to “confirm” the translation.

    Two problems: first, D&C 9 explicity mentions a spiritual confirmation, not a bobbing twig. Are the two mutually exclusive?

    Second, we’re still left with Oliver having to produce a translation with his “own mind.” JNS and Geoff assume some kind of “revelation.” But the text does not say that. Was the binary rod facilitating the revelation? (Is that not a bit beyond the poor thing? I have a vision in my mind here of the Log Lady in Twin Peaks.)

    Are we so sure that Oliver didn’t attempt a translation with the seer stone(s)?

    One reading of D&C 9 would be that perhaps he did, but didn’t have the “gift.” All divination requires some interpretation. When you look at a sheep’s liver, it doesn’t have written on it, “yes, the king will die if you go to battle against the Urartians.” Instead, the diviner makes coherent what looks like nonsense or even nothing to the one without the gift. Oliver looked in the stone(s) (or, I guess, maybe used his rod) and saw nothing, or just gobbledygook. Joseph, on the other hand, using his “mind” could turn whatever the heck he was seeing into English words. He then sought spiritual confirmation (or was seeking it all along).

    Oliver having failed, the revelations tell him to stick to the rod. (Hold to the Rod! The birch-wood Rod!)
    This seems to me to a reasonable scenario for D&C 9 and one that doesn’t require Oliver and Joseph’s translation attempts to be utterly divergent. The explicit use of the “mind” also opens up a lot of room for “expansion,” something diviners have always done.

    The above is, of course, the intellectual equivalent of a Grateful Dead jam session. Your complaint about hermeneutics is well taken…

  53. The above is, of course, the intellectual equivalent of a Grateful Dead jam session.

    Where a group of highly-skilled and well-acquainted people with an excellent command of the language that is music combine their skills creativity to create a harmonious whole that people travel the world to partake of?

    Sounds pretty sweet to me! When are the tie-dyed MA t-shirts coming out?

  54. Nate #50, the crucial think in chapter VII of the Book of Commandments is the sequence of the two modes of revelation. The commandment to use “these things” to translate comes immediately after the discussion of the rod of nature — not after the discussion of the Spirit of Moses. This either means that God needs a good editor or that the translation was to be associated with (a) the rod of nature or (b) possibly some combination of the two approaches.

  55. I think Steve’s comment about the burning bush is more to the point than the 50+ others debating how many tranlators can dance on the head of a pin.

  56. Hmm, well it depends on the size of the pin and whether we’re talking about the translators as being the implements used for translating(seer stones, Urim and Thummim, etc), those who worked on translating by speaking and writing the words (JS and OC and ES etc etc), or They who did the behind the scenes work (Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost).

    It also could depend on whether it’s a strait pin, a bobby pin, a thumb tack, or….

  57. I seem to remember Nibley comparing the Liahona to Near Eastern divining methods. Maybe that’s a topic for another day.

  58. Dang, I forgot my astrisk.

  59. I’d totally forgotten that the Urim and Thummim make an appearance in Lost.

  60. “I’d totally forgotten that the Urim and Thummim make an appearance in Lost.”

    Finally, after 60 comments, something I can use.

    Interesting discussion. Dizzying, but interesting.

  61. Just as a side note, the function of the Urim and Thummim in the Bible as nothing more than a yes-no casting-of-lots is circumstantial at best. Most biblical scholars recognize that we know very little of their function from the biblical text.

  62. From what Royal Skousen has said about Joseph Smith’s translation/revelation process – based on his Critical Text of the Book of Mormon research – my understanding is that Joseph Smith was seeing a number of English words at a time and was reading them to the scribe … sometimes spelling out names (such as Coriantumr) that otherwise could not have been spelled correctly in English.

    I just sort of assumed that Oliver Cowdery would have been expected to do translation (or receive revelation) in the same way – that using a seer stone Oliver would be expected to see an English text, not just guessing as to what could be there on a page that has text in another language.

  63. velikiye kniaz says:

    If memory serves me correctly, (and that becomes increasingly chancey as I get further into my 60’s), The Prophet Joseph was already fairly well acquainted with the Nephite cultural milieu even before he began to translate the plates. At least, this is what I surmised from Lucy Mack Smith’s comments in her biography of Joseph. She speaks of how Joseph would entertain the whole family in the evening with detailed accounts of Nephite customs, dress, farming and military. Without knowing the particulars of how he came into this knowledge, I am assuming that Moroni’s annual and supplemental visits might have had something to do with acquisition of this knowledge. I don’t present this as persuasive proof of the ‘expansionist theory’ but rather that when the time came to translate Joseph could simply envision much of the context of that portion of the translation.
    As to Oliver, for whom I hold great respect, I just don’t believe that he had the ‘standing’ with God that Joseph had as a translator. The point was made earlier that God wasn’t particularly enamored with the idea of allowing Oliver to translate at all. Perhaps, He saw it as a teaching moment for Oliver and thus relented. Then came the 28 belabored words which Joseph recorded. Doctrine and Covenants Section 9 could just as easily have been the Lord’s instructions to Oliver as to what he should do the next time he is so presumptuous as to desire & aspire to a calling higher than that to which he was called.
    The vicissitudes of Joseph’s career as the founding Prophet of the Restored Church don’t trouble me as much as they seem to trouble Helmut. Many non-members assume that if the Church were really true we should have moved from one glorious success or victory to the next until the Saviour returned. Perhaps in a Cecil B. DeMille epic but not necessarily so in real life. Such blatant infallibility would have negated the essential value of the first principle of the Gospel, faith. Thus God knew to allow the miraculous to mix with the flawed mundane. Joseph was human, he made mistakes and I take comfort in that. It means that there just might be hope for me. The Lord said that he would sorely try his Saints to test their faith. He has, He is, and He will do a lot more trying before the Millenium arrives. Most all of these debatable issues call for the exercise of our faith to see us over their alleged rough spots. As for me, I believe that Joseph started with the ‘interpreters’ but as the process of translation went on, found that he didn’t need their assistance any longer. I can’t say for certain that there was a portion of the text that was translated while the plates were in another room, but if that was so it wouldn’t particularly bother me. It reminds me of the time when both the Prophet Joseph and Martin Harris received a revelation in the presence of some of the Twelve. When the vision closed Jospeh turned and addressed the Brethren concerning it while, Martin, pale and exhausted, needed assistance to lie down and rest. Joseph explained Martin’s exhaustion by, “Martin isn’t as used to his as I am.” Obviously, Oliver was as used to translating as Joseph was either.

  64. velikiye kniaz says:

    The last sentence should read, “Oliver wasn’t as used to translating as Joseph was either.

  65. It's a series of tubes says:

    With respect to how the biblical Urim and Thummim “worked”, the statement as phrased in the OP might benefit from the further clarifications available in the (non-LDS) scholarly work here:

    Fascinating reading.

  66. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    I know I’m late to the party. Well, okay, I guess it is over. But I thought I would add a few words to this great discussion for the record.

    Ronan writes that “no-one believes Van Dam” (19), “really” (21). Writing in Vetus Testamentum, German Bible scholar C. Houtman responded to Van Dam’s bold revisionism with partial acceptance. He stated that Van Dam had convinced him of the improbability of the lot theory, but not of the probability of his new theory. Houtman pointed to Bible passages stating that that the Urim and Thummim was the actual medium through which revelation came, not a sign that the High Priest was receiving direct revelation. Drawing on the germanic tradition of stone scrying–the same tradition that JS inherited–he suggested that the Urim and Thummim was a “big precious stone” that functioned as a speculum through which the High Priest could commune with an angel or see the future. (40, no. 2 [1990]: 229-32)

    JNS has enunciated an argument (4, 24) the basics of which I had planned for an essay that was a spinoff from my thesis (Utah State University, 2000), which I never got around to, but I hope is evident in the thesis: That D&C 9 applies to the rod diviner OC, not the stone seer JS. JNS has OC confirming his translation with the rod giving a binary yes/no, but as Ronan points out the revelation has OC praying and receiving a spiritual confirmation or confusion (60).

    Ronan writes that this theory doesn’t explain how the instruction to OC to “study it out in your mind” can “help you translate ancient characters” (5, 9, 15). While Rosalynde (16) and Peter (26) point out that it is logically possible, it seems clear that Cowdery didn’t get far (as noted by JNS [41]; this may also be entailed in Rosalynde’s 16).

    We know that JS outgrew the divinatory instrument of the seer stone and began receiving revelations without that instrument. If, with JS, Cowdery fit into a similar trajectory, we might expect to find Cowdery moving away from the instrument of the rod (with its binary mode of divination) toward something internal/spiritual. But moving toward that from the cultural context of binary rod-divining. Consider this background in light of the instruction for him to pray for an internal/spiritual set of binary options. Apologetically, one might argue that God was working with JS and OC from where they were—as is claimed in the introduction to the revelations (D&C 1:24).

    BrianJ (52) and Velikiye Kniaz (64) suggests that something deeper may be going on here. Whatever one wants to make of this, JS apparently saw it as such immediately after the failure. In the explanatory revelation to Cowdery he is told that translation help “was expedient when you commenced; but . . . the time is past, and it is not expedient now”. Why? “For, do you not behold that I have given unto my servant Joseph sufficient strength, whereby it is made up?” (D&C 9:12–13). Cowdery’s attempt at divination fits into a larger story about JS’s divinatory development. As mentioned, this development will later include JS moving beyond divinitory instruments—an idea that seems to be at work in the explanation to Cowdery of why he failed.

    If anybody ever reads this, I hope it makes some sense.

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