For the last several months, my ward has had monthly priesthood lessons on the Gospel Topics essays that the church has released over the last year or so. I teach in Primary, so I haven’t been to most of them. A friend taught the Race and the Priesthood essay in June, though, and invited me to his class; he did an excellent job, and it was well-received.
And then, three weeks ago, he asked if I’d teach a class. My topics? Book of Mormon and DNA Studies, Book of Mormon Translation, and Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. (If only the class had been two Sundays later … )
In preparing the lesson, I decided to do two things I haven’t done before. First, I really wanted the class to be discussion-oriented. And I didn’t want anybody to feel like they couldn’t speak honestly, or like their questions were unacceptable. So I decided, upfront, to provide a way for class members to ask questions anonymously. It’s not that the topics are terribly controversial, or that I thought anybody would actually be constrained. But people are often hesitent to ask questions they think will make them look dumb or like an outsider (and this isn’t a uniquely Mormon problem—I see the same thing sometimes with the law students I teach), and anonymity can resolve some of those issues. I thought about providing notecards but, professionally, I use clickers in my classes, and I really like the technological solution. But most of the response systems aren’t free, and even those that are requires some upfront registration.
Still, almost everybody in my ward carries a smartphone. So I set up a Google Form where they could ask whatever they wanted. My friend emailed everybody about what we were going to talk about on Wednesday before the lesson, and included a link to the Form. I sent out a reminder email on Saturday night.
I also debated how to let people know about it on Sunday, in case they weren’t on the email list or were visiting. Finally, I remembered Tumblr. I tried Tumblr out a couple years ago as a professional blog substitute, but it never worked for me.
But I realized I could use it for my lesson. So I set up a new Tumblr and used it almost as if it were Evernote, putting interesting links and pictures and quotations that I came across as I prepared the lesson. Then, on Sunday, I gave my class the URL. That way, they had a link to the Google Form, and, if they decided to look at their phones instead of me, they had something on-topic that they could look at.
In the end, I got four anonymous questions (though one person told me after class that he’d asked one of them). I got plenty of actual discussion, and it was all careful, thoughtful, nuanced, and faithful. From where I sat, it was a spectacular success, something I’d strongly recommend to other priesthood quorums and Relief Societies. And I wouldn’t hesitate to recomment Tumblrs to teachers, either.
I prepared a lesson (which I’ll paste in below); ultimately, I only summarized what I prepared. We spent the bulk of the time in a back-and-forth discussion, which is what I’d hoped for and what really made the lesson.
In light of yesterday’s Joseph Smith Papers Project announcement, though, I hope this is helpful and interesting.
Lesson Outline (n.b.: these were my notes for the lesson; I didn’t use all of this, and I don’t think all of it was necessary, but it’s what I wanted on the paper in front of me) (also, quick humblebrag: I managed to quote Daniel Kahneman and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and paraphrase David Foster Wallace, all while advancing the lesson)
- To learn the history surrounding Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham translation. It’s not immediately obvious why, but the church found these topics important enough that people put in real effort to understand and explain the history and, largely, did an admirable job
- To the why: I think exploring these things can help us crystalize and understand scripture generally, as well as why we have modern scripture. What role does it play in the gospel? What role does it play in our lives?
- Other goals for today?
Start: to get some feel for where I’m coming from, I believe that the BoM and BoA are scripture, divinely inspired.
Common theme in conclusion to Book of Abraham, BoM DNA papers: there’s ambiguity. We cannot definitively prove things one way or the other. That is, we live in a world of ambiguity, which is good
What’s the issue? Studies have shown that Native American DNA comes from Asia (though there may be less exclusivity than previously thought: a 24,000-year-old bone in Siberia shows genes found today in the Middle East, Europe, and Native Americans). At least a couple people have used those studies to say that the BoM can’t related history, because the Lehites can’t be the ancestors of Native Americans
But the analysis of the evidence is only as good as the assumptions underlying it; if we assume that the Lehites were one group among many, it doesn’t mean as much (though it still may be relevant)
Book of Mormon
How did Joseph translate the Book of Mormon? Basically, he dictated to various scribes: (a) Emma Smith; (b) Martin Harris; (c) Oliver Cowdery; (d) some of the Whitmers
Procedure: Emma Smith Bidamon wrote to Emily Pilgrim in 1870: “Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”
Urim and Thummim: Mentioned Ex. 28:30; 1 Sam. 14:41 (though it was left out of early Hebrew manuscripts, so that part’s not in the KJV). Essentially, they appear to be divination stones.
And they appear to be something different than the Urim and Thummim that Joseph Smith got. See Mos. 28:13-15, 20; 8:13 (calling them “interpreters”); Ether 4:5 (also calling them “interpreters”). D&C 17:1 they get the name “Urim and Thummim.” They were apparently glasses-like, because they were called “spectacles”
Seer stone: Joseph had at least one, and maybe more. One he found digging for a well in 1822. He initially used it for finding lost objects and treasure; as he grew into his prophetic calling, he used it for revelation.
Not clear exactly how he used the interpreters. But with the seer stone, he would put it in the bottom of a hat, put his face in to block out the light, and dictate the Book of Mormon.
What did he see? Not clear. “Br. Hyrum Smith said that he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves. Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.”
There are at least two possibilities. One is that he saw words or sentences scroll in front of his eyes. Royal Skousen believes this–in his mind, it was a very “tight” translation, one which Joseph had essentially no input in.
Alternatively, the revelation may have been looser, presenting concepts that Joseph then had to put into his own language. Richard Bushman seems to lean in this direction, and I tend to agree.
The actual witnesses disagree to some minor extent: Martin Harris and David Whitmer both indicate that words appear, but Whitmer says one character appeared at a time, with its interpretation, while Harris says sentences appeared. In any event, they don’t record these recollections until the 1880s, more than fifty years after the translation occurred.
Book of Abraham
Then we get to the Book of Abraham, which starts to put real pressure on what Joseph meant by “translate”
Quick set of meanings:
- Book of Mormon: to interpret one language into another, with that language written (albeit not necessarily looked at). With the Book of Mormon, he was miraculously translating a language he didn’t know into a language he did
- Bible: the JST wasn’t what we’d think of as a translation. He didn’t have any ancient language–he was going through a King James Bible, making emendations which seem to sometimes add in material that is missing, sometimes harmonize contradictions, and sometimes expand. It reads a lot like a Midrash (which offers exegesis on scriptural text)
- Book of Abraham:
The Book of Abraham seems slightly different. He was still translating a language he didn’t know into a language he did, but he seemed more interested in the language this time. He attempted to understand the writing, and to make a grammar.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs couldn’t be interpreted until 1822 in France, with the Rosetta Stone: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_Stone 196 BC, carved in ancient Egyptian, Demotic script, and ancient Greek. Discovered by Napoleonic soldier in 1799.
John Gee claims that the ability to read ancient Egyptian wasn’t well-developed until the 1850s; I can’t find that anywhere else
From the fragments we have, as well as the various hieroglyphs we have in the Pearl of Great Price, though, his translation doesn’t seem to match up to the written documents (though, in fairness, parts were destroyed in the Chicago fire). Seems to have been a stepping-stone for inspiration
Translation as we know it: 1835, began to study Hebrew. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V03N02_43.pdf
Studied German in 1844, was reading Luther’s translation of the Bible. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V19N03_87.pdf; King Follett Discourse: http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/discourse-7-april-1844-as-reported-by-willard-richards?p=5&highlight=germ
“Some Mormons were crushed when the fragments turned out to be rather conventional fuerary texts placed with mummified bodies, in this case Hôr’, to assure continuing life as an immortal god. According to the Egyptologists, nothing on the fragments resembled Joseph’s account of Abraham.
“Some Mormon scholars, notably Hugh Nibley, doubt that the actual texts for Abraham and Joseph have been found. The scraps from the Metropolitan Museum do not fit the description Joseph Smith gave of long, beautiful scrolls. At best the remnants are a small fraction of the originals, with no indication of what appears on the lost portions. Nonetheless, the discovery prompted a reassessment of the Book of Abraham. What was going on while Joseph ‘translated’ the papyri and dictated text to a scribe? Obviously, he was not interpreting the hieroglyphics like an ordinary scholar. As Joseph saw it, he was working by inspiration–that had been clear from the beginning. When he ‘translated’ the Book of Mormon, he did not read from the gold plates; he looked into the crystals of the Urim and Thummim or gazed at the seerstone. The words came by inspiration, not by reading the characters on the plates. By analogy, it seemed likely that the papyri had been an occasion for receiving a revelation rather than a word-for-word interpretation of the hieroglyphs as in ordinary translations.” — Richard Bushman, RSR 191-92
Other Interesting Stuff
Book of Mormon: at the time it was published, most American homes had, at most, a Bible and a couple other specific-purpose books, like school supplies and devotional reading. When Joseph originally set the price at $1.75, that was crazy. CPI says that would be about $40 today
Most people read books published serially in newspapers. In fact, that’s how the Book of Abraham originally appeared