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The Book of Mormon: An Imperfect Book?

ImperfectBookSignature Books sent me an advance copy of An Imperfect Book by Earl M. Wunderli, and it is due to be released tomorrow, June 17.  (Perhaps it’s a great gift for that non-believing dad for Father’s Day.)  The subtitle to the book is “What the Book of Mormon tells us about itself.”  Wunderli takes the text of the Book of Mormon, much as John Sorenson does, but seems to come to a different conclusion.  Rather than discuss Book of Mormon geography, Wunderli approaches the book as having 19th century origins, and he believes that Joseph Smith wrote the book.  He takes on many of the apologetic arguments, trying to refute them.  

There are several theories about the origins of the Book of Mormon:  The Spaulding Theory, and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews to name two, but Wunderli doesn’t approach those theories with a ten foot pole.  Rather, he believes that the primary text that Joseph Smith used (plagiarized) was the Bible.  At first glance, that shouldn’t surprise most as there are large sections of Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount embedded nearly verbatim in the Book of Mormon.  But Wunderli doesn’t stop there.  He notes that there are several New Testament verses in the Book of Mormon prior to the coming of Christ, and he finds that questionable.  For example, Helaman living in 62 BC seems to quote Paul of Galatia (approximately 120 years later around 62 AD):

  • Helaman (Alma 58:40)  “nevertheless they stand fast in the liberty wherewith God has made them free”
  • Paul (Galations 5:1)  “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free”

That’s just one of Wunderli’s examples.  He also discusses the problems with the Documentary Hypothesis (that I blogged about previously) and how it is a problem for the Book of Mormon.  Briefly, many scholars believe that the first 5 books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) were written by at least 4 different authors.  Moses couldn’t have finished the book of Deuteronomy because it says in 34:5 “So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.”

Wonderli makes that case that Deuteronomy was written somewhere between 620 to perhaps 180 BC, some 20-400 years after Lehi left Jerusalem.  This is a problem because if Deuteronomy was written so late, it couldn’t have possibly been on the Brass Plates that Nephi and his brothers retrieved from Laban.  I think this is potentially an important issue.  While I don’t deny that many scholars subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, here is a quote from my previous post that deserves attention here:

The hypothesis is only one possible answer.  It is merely a concept.  There is as yet no consensus on the theory.

Daniel Smith-Christopher, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Loyola Marymount University, “At this point, I would say that the Documentary Hypothesis is the best explanation for many of the difficulties that are presented to us by the first five books of Bible as we now have them.”

Lawrence Schiffman, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University, “In my mind, the Documentary Hypothesis does not really solve the problem that it sets out to solve, in which case we simply get left with the question of faith.  One who wants to believe that the Torah is a divine document and given by God, can do so; one who wants to believe that it’s a human document subjected to documentary or other types of similar analysis can do so.  I think it’s a question, a mystery, to which we’ll never really know the answer.”

To his credit, Wonderli says that LDS scholars take various positions on the issue.  For example, Sidney Sperry and Bruce R. McConkie don’t support the Documentary Hypothesis, while John Sorenson wrote that “there can be no doubt that nineteenth-century scholarship was correct in recognizing different blocks of material in the Penteteuch.”

Another problem lies in the fact that when Nephi quotes Isaiah, he seems to be quoting the Greek translation of Isaiah.  If Isaiah was on the Brass Plates, Hebrew would have been much more appropriate, and Joseph seems to rely on the King James (Greek) Version of Isaiah, rather than an earlier Hebrew version.

I was really looking forward to Wunderli’s chapter on wordprint studies.  To my surprise, Wonderli completely ignored the dueling wordprint studies at Stanford and BYU.  Briefly, some researchers at Stanford put together a peer-reviewed statistical study in Oxford University press arguing that the Book of Mormon was based on the writings of Solomon Spaulding;  about a year later, BYU posted a rebuttal to the Stanford researchers questioning their results, and proposing a more updated methodology on how to do the test properly.  For example, the BYU researchers used the same authors that the Stanford Study chose, but applied them to the Federalist Papers:

Early or late Rigdon was falsely chosen as the author of 28 of the 51 Hamilton texts with inflated posterior probabilities ranging as high as 0.9999 (Fig. 2). Pratt was falsely chosen as the author of 12 of the papers, and Cowdery was falsely chosen as the author of the remaining 11 papers.

This leads some to questions wordprint studies altogether.  John Hamer wrote “I’m saying that computerized wordprints are without value.”  Wunderli doesn’t apply any fancy statistical tests for his wordprint studies, and he make no effort to tie the Book of Mormon to Solomon Spaulding.  Instead, he notes that Jesus of the Book of Mormon seems to speak differently than Jesus of the Book of Matthew.  Mildly interesting, he notes that

The Jesus of the Book of Mormon, when he ventures beyond his saying in the Bible, uses forth fifteen times and mostly superfluously, while the biblical Jesus uses it five times with less redundancy, talking about trees bringing forth good or bad fruit.  In the Book of Mormon, Jesus uses cast ten times, repeating what the biblical Jesus says in one instance about salt being cast out and trodden under foot.  The biblical Jesus uses the word nine times.  Both Jesuses use lest twice.  (emphasis in original)

Of course Wunderli gives many more examples than I have listed here.  Wunderli also thinks he was able to identify a change in Joseph Smith’s translation style where he seems to change from the use of “wherefore” to “therefore” based on the chronology of translation.  I found the chapter hardly convincing, though I suspect that once again it will appeal to critics and not apologists.

Wunderli takes issue with the prophecies of the Book of Mormon, and I think he might have a point here.  Prophecies that occur prior to 1830 seem to have very good precision:  Christ will be born 600 years from Lehi, the Nephites will be destroyed 400 years after Christ, and also seem to have racial overtones, with Europeans “who will be led by the Spirit of God as instruments of genocide.”  (Wunderli also says that the Book of Mormon is anti-Semitic.)  Wunderli seems to go a bit too broad in his anti-Catholicism stance.  While it is certainly true that people like Bruce R. McConkie condemned Catholics as the Church of the Devil, and often used the Book or Mormon as evidence, I just don’t think that is a proper reading of the Book of Mormon, and is much more of an incorrect cultural interpretation of the Book of Mormon.  Wunderli says that events in the future of Joseph Smith are much more vague.

Wunderli also takes issues with the ages of some characters of the Book of Mormon.

If we assume normal generations so that each son is born when is father is twenty-five, Nephi lives to about 96, his son Amos to 155, Amos junior to 241, and Ammaron to 256.  Something is obviously wrong.  If we assume that each father’s son was born the same year the father died, then Nephi would have been 96, and Amos 84 years old, Amos junior 111, and Ammaron would have lived to be at least 126–although in this scenario we would have much younger mothers and gaps in the record while the babies were growing up and learning to write.

Wonderli also thinks he finds errors in translation.  Alma 31 discusses the war battles, ‘During an ensuing battle, an intrepid Nephite charges the general and takes of “his scalp” with a sword, the scalp falling “to the earth”‘.  Wunderli notes “It is, or course, an Indian scalping.  It is doubtful Joseph Smith would have known what Professor Ludlow offered, that scalping was actually invented by the British”

In summary, Wunderli does his best to take on all the apologetic arguments, and quotes them liberally.  He uses the same data they use in support of the Book of Mormon and does his best to refute their arguments.  The people at Signature Books think this book may be similar to Grant Palmer’s Insiders View of Mormon Origins in that it will appeal widely to scholars.  What do you make of some of Wunderli’s arguments that I have presented here?  Do you think they have merit?

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5 comments on “The Book of Mormon: An Imperfect Book?

  1. Interesting post — I’ve often wondered about the many passages in the BoM that seem to be plagiarized from Paul (or whoever wrote the different books attributed to him).

    Does Wunderli engage with Ostler’s Expansion Theory at all? That would seem to account for most of the problems raised in the post.

  2. Brad, Wunderli certainly does quote Ostler in the book. I’m not completely familiar with Ostler’s expansion theory though, and I don’t believe that Wunderli specifically references Ostler’s theory directly. Is there something you can tell me about Ostler so that I can tell you if Wunderli addresses specific points of Ostler?

  3. The way I understand the expansion theory is as a sort of middle ground between a strictly ancient source and a complete fraud — Ostler suggests that the BoM was inspired by some actual ancient source but contains many elaborations that are more the product of a 19th century production. See his Dialogue piece for more: http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V20N01_68.pdf

  4. I don’t think the documentary hypothesis is something you can choose to believe or not believe, any more than you can believe or not believe the theory of evolution, independent of the evidence. It’s gone way beyond a matter of speculation. I mean, scholars questioned it, but they’re not proposing a return to previous assumptions. They’re saying that maybe none of the Bible is as ancient as it claims or was written by the individuals it says are its authors. This is corroborated by evidence from other disciplines, which show a much different history for the region than the Bible tells.

  5. Ostler and Gardner both account for the King James Version language in the Book of Mormon by acknowledging Joseph’s contribution as translator/transmitter. There is no question that Joseph was deeply familiar with certain portions of the KJV and used its terms and phrases. To me it’s less an instance of plagiarism than one of influence. Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon does not appear to be a literal one, but rather he used familiar terms and phrases to express the words, ideas and concepts he encountered in the text, sometimes in ways very different than how they are used in the KJV.

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