In this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews scholar Nicholas (Nick) J. Frederick about New Testament intertextuality in the Book of Mormon.
As an undergraduate classics major at BYU, Frederick became interested in studying Book of Mormon intertextuality. He wanted to discuss with other scholars what he was finding but encountered resistance from those who thought he was attacking the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Further frustration came as he realized that the few resources on the topic were primarily written by critics of the Book of Mormon arguing against historicity. Their research was overreaching and didn’t address how these New Testament elements were functioning within the text.
Frederick, who has since written a dissertation, book, and articles on the topic, hopes to expand the discussion of the New Testament elements in the Book of Mormon beyond that of simply whether they speak to historicity. That the New Testament can be found in the Book of Mormon is undeniable, but some might struggle with the notion of the New Testament as an antecedent text. Frederick suggests that we negotiate this roadblock by untethering the gold plates from the 19th century English document that we call the Book of Mormon because they are “two different texts that are related through translation.” Moving past the issue of why these passages are in the Book of Mormon to how the Book of Mormon affirms, comments on, corrects, and reimagines the New Testament is an important and fascinating discussion.
Unfortunately identifying common phrases isn’t as simple as it would seem. Sometimes there are direct quotations, such as from the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi—though even there Frederick discusses the fascinating influence of John’s gospel on quotations from Matthew. But the presence of the New Testament is often subtle. He explains that the Book of Mormon will “carefully weave these New Testament passages into the larger text,” so the interdependence does not readily stand out to the casual reader. The Book of Mormon seems to masterfully deconstruct and reconstruct New Testament concepts and phrases for its own purposes.
In an attempt to broaden the discussion, Frederick proposes a methodology for determining the probability of intertextuality, which goes beyond simply identifying common phrases. He adds four additional criteria to solidify connections. Through multiple examples, Dr. Frederick shows us how intertextual studies can enrich our study of the Book of Mormon.
About Our Guest: Nicholas J. Frederick served a mission in Brussels, Belgium, then attended BYU where he received his BA in classics and his MA in comparative studies. He then attended Claremont Graduate University, where he completed a PhD in the history of Christianity with an emphasis in Mormon studies, after which he returned to work at BYU. His research focuses primarily on the intertextual relationship between the text of the Bible and Mormon scripture. He enjoys teaching courses on the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, particularly the writings of Paul and the Book of Revelation.
“The words dictated by Joseph Smith between April 7 and June 30, 1829, were published with few alterations. However, Joseph intervened in the 1837 and 1840 printings to make multiple changes in the previously published wordings. Other emendations have been authorized by subsequent Church leaders.
Several authors have documented different tallies of alternations made in the various versions of the Book of Mormon (see below). Understanding the quantity and quality of these emendations may be helpful in understanding how Joseph Smith created the text in the first place.
Two critics took the time to count the changes. Turns out, they underestimated when compared to the digital work done by LDS scholar, Royal Skousen:
Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s 1965 publication, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, has probably had a greater influence. Much like Lamoni Call’s approach in the 1890s, Jerald Tanner sat down eighty years later with an 1830 edition and a 1964 edition of the Book of Mormon and annotated all changes he could identify. His count almost doubled Call’s. In their introduction, the Tanners also allege a conspiracy by Church leaders to conceal the changes: “The changes made in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith’s revelations have apparently caused the Mormon Church leaders some concern, for they fear that their people will find out about them.”12
In the last two decades, digitalization of the texts has allowed a much more nuanced analysis of the words and word substitutions by a team of scholars in the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project led by BYU professor Royal Skousen.13 When he was asked, “How many changes are there in the Book of Mormon text?” Skousen replied:
I don’t know for sure, and I’ll tell you why it’s hard to count them. In my computerized collation of the two manuscripts and 20 significant editions of the Book of Mormon, I can count the number of places of variation. These are places where there’s a textual variant. The variant itself can involve spelling, punctuation, words missing or added, a grammatical change, and so on. In all, there are about 105,000 places of variation in the computerized collation.14
Critics claim no errors at all should be present. But the translation at least partly involved Joseph. And the original didn’t include punctuation, headings, columns, etc.
Different camps of believing Latter-day Saint scholars believe Joseph exercised what have been called tight or loose control.
There is evidence for both camps, tight and loose control. Joseph spelled out proper nouns, but seemed to have freedom to speak (loose control), using words he knew, and playing a role in the transmission.
Others, such as Martin Harris and David Whitmer, reported that Joseph literally saw a scroll with Egyptian characters with English below. That is the view of tight control.
“Joseph Smith left no description of how the words came to him as he dictated. At a Church conference in 1831, Hyrum Smith invited the Prophet to explain how the Book of Mormon came forth. Joseph’s response was that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and … it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”24 His only answer was that it came “by the gift and power of God.”25
That Joseph contributed to the process in an undefined but necessary way was demonstrated in 1829 when Oliver Cowdery attempted to translate but failed. The Lord explained why: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask.” (D&C 9:7–8). It appears that translating involved more than mimicking a court recorder reading back previous testimony.”
Brian Hales identifies and categorizes the changes and variants below:
Understanding the “Changes” and “Variants”
The Book of Mormon is “a literary feat for the ages,” writes Huffington Post blogger Jack Kelly. That Joseph Smith “dictated most of it in a period of less than three months and did not revise a single word before its initial printing is even more jaw-dropping.”29 So Joseph did not revise the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon before it went to print, but as Lamoni Call and the Tanners have documented, changes were made in subsequent printings.
If numerous revisions, rewritings, edits, and modifications were needed in a second edition, then the question is why? Did the original Book of Mormon manuscript contain many errors that needed correction like the early draft of most books that are eventually printed? If so, its creation might not have required divine intervention or have been significantly different from other publications. But if the changes constituted minor letter and word substitutions to upgrade the dialect and grammar without changing the primary story line or message, then Joseph’s creation would retain an important uniqueness.
Royal Skousen has recently published “all of the cases of grammatical variation in the history of the Book of Mormon text.”30 His study identifies 106,508 “accidentals” in the different versions of the Book of Mormon.31
Skousen’s research supports that none of the general categories of changes indicates the presence of glaring problems within the Book of Mormon narrative.
The two major (Tanner) claims related to adding “Son of” to God in four places in the Book of Mormon. And changing Benjamin to Mosiah in two positions. Hardly major changes. Only editing changes for clarity.
“In Joseph’s early teachings, Christ was both God and the son of God, so either rendition was accurate.42 It could be reasoned that this highlighted change did not alter any doctrine or teaching, but the additional words served to more clearly distinguish the teaching from Trinitarian views popular in other religious traditions. Skousen speculates, “Perhaps he didn’t like the Catholic sounding expression” and that the addition was simply a “clarification.”43
It appears that of all the possibilities, these two emendations were the most significant changes the Tanners could identify. If more important historical or doctrinal alterations had been encountered in their research, it is probable those would have been mentioned first.
The significance of all the changes will likely remain controversial, but a couple of observations can be made. First, these two do not seem to represent an attempt to correct sweeping contradictions or blunders in the text but rather provide clarification to potential ambiguities. Second, if these are the most egregious changes critics can identify, the Book of Mormon narrative, as it fell from Joseph’s lips, was remarkably free from significant errors.
Book of Mormon Changes Do Not
Represent Revising or Rewriting
As discussed above, the changes identified by Skousen and Carmack do not refer to major modifications or corrections to sections of the Book of Mormon’s original wording.
(LDS critic) historian Dan Vogel acknowledged, “Smith’s method of dictation did not allow for rewriting. It was a more-or-less stream-of-consciousness composition,” adding, “It is not that the manuscript went through a major rewrite.”44
Normal content editing, which involves revising and reworking parts of the text, did not occur in the original or in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon.
Many naturalists consider Joseph Smith to have been a first-time novelist in 1829 as he created the Book of Mormon, so the lack of revisions is unexpected.45
Professional writers and instructors generally emphasize the need for rewriting in order to create a finished manuscript. Betty Mattix Dietsch, author of Reasoning & Writing Well, addresses the plight of first-time novelists: “Some inexperienced writers seem to think they have hit the jackpot on their first draft. They evade the fact that every exploratory draft needs more work.”46
Note: image above is from the 9th edition.
“I usually write about ten more or less complete drafts” confides Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, “each one usually though not always closer to the final thing.”47 In her college [Page 62]textbook, Steps to Writing Well, Jean Wyrick emphasizes the importance of rewriting:
The absolute necessity of revision cannot be overemphasized. All good writers rethink, rearrange, and rewrite large portions of their prose. … Revision is a thinking process that occurs any time you are working on a writing project. It means looking at your writing with a “fresh eye”—that is, reseeing your writing in ways that will enable you to make more effective choices throughout your essay. … Revision means making important decisions about the best ways to focus, organize, develop, clarify, and emphasize your ideas. … Virtually all writers revise after “reseeing” a draft in its entirety.48
Louis Brandeis, who served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939, coined a common maxim for authors: “There is no good writing; there is only good rewriting.”
That changes have been made in the Book of Mormon text should not be confused with the idea that revisions or rewriting occurred. They did not, which is surprising for a frontier-schooled twenty-three-year-old farm boy who is listed as “author.”49
A review of critical literature regarding the Book of Mormon identifies two classes of critics. There are those who tell their audiences that many changes have been made and provide examples (like the Tanners). There are others who report “upwards of 4,000” changes without any further discussion.50
On the surface, voices that stress the thousands of emendations could easily generate a mental picture of a book that underwent significant revisions and rewriting after its first edition. If the overall insignificance of the changes is not disclosed, the number of 2,000 or 3,913 changes could be used by critics to mislead their audiences, as propaganda is designed to do.
Jerald and Sandra Tanners have sold many copies of their book 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, since first released in 1965. The title of the book is technically accurate. But how many unsuspecting observers have read (and continue to read) the title and assume the Book of Mormon manuscript required thousands of corrections to compensate for significant mistakes in Joseph Smith’s dictation?
The perception created by the title might be misleading because readers may impute more significance to the word “changes” than actually justified. If transparency is sought, then adding a subtitle might be useful: 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon: But None are Really Significant.
Royal Skousen summarized his research: “Errors have crept into the text, but no errors significantly interfere with either the message of the book or its doctrine. … Ultimately, all of this worry over the number of changes is specious.”51
Reid Moon, a 1985 BYU grad, shows the first five editions of the Book of Mormon printed in Joseph’s lifetime.
By Royal Skousen at FAIR, published in 2015. Royal discusses several minor emendations. Nobody knows more about the Book of Mormon manuscripts and the Book of Mormon changes than Royal Skousen.
The Book of Mormon is a marvel. The translation was a matchless feat. It contains the restored Gospel.
“Stylometry examines the styles of writing in a text by identifying word-use patterns. It is “also known as computational stylistics [and] is a method of authorship attribution that uses …statistical techniques to infer the authorship of texts based on writing patterns. It tries to describe an author’s conscious and unconscious creative actions with quantifiable measures such as the frequency with which an author uses certain words or groupings of words. Stylometric analysis is based on the fundamental premise that authors write with distinctive, repeated patterns of word use.”1
Comparison of the Book of Mormon to Novelists of the Same Time Period
In the past, Roper and Fields had used stylometry to show a consistency of authorship in Isaiah and the Pauline Epistles. But in this presentation, they chose to compare two novels each from Jane Austin, Charles Dickens,James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain with the Book of Mormon. Together these eight volumes have about the same number of words as the Book of Mormon, but contrast in voice, character development, and other aspects.
Using a 3-D computer model, they showed a unity of authorship in each book written by contemporary authors along with the characters they each developed. They showed how these authors did not come close to the 119 characters developed in the Book of Mormon. That book shows four major authors or abridgers, who among them go on include many more writing styles from other Book of Mormon contributors.
For example, Mormon as a writer contributed about 36% of the words in the Book of Mormon with a central theme around war. Nephi is the next most prolific writer with a theme around family. He is followed by Alma with a theme of faith and Moroni with themes of ordinances and governance. In each of these themes, the writer of abridger developed 24 more writing styles with 24 other sentiments. This is far too many for Joesph Smith to keep track of and many more than the selected contemporary authors of the prophet. In the same light, the 119 Book of Mormon characters shows narrative voices that eclipse any of the other contemporaries chosen.
Together this was supposed to help the audience consider the impossibility of someone of Joseph Smith’s age and limited experience working with Oliver Cowdery over 60 working days to compose anything so complicated as the Book of Mormon. It worked for me and others in the audience.”
Fascinating study. Check out the entire article above!
Royal Skousen — the leading authority on the Book of Mormon manuscripts — hasn’t found a word in the Book of Mormon that is found to have come into English (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) later than 1720. The Book of Mormon is an archaic, biblical-sounding text. It’s not simply the King James Text.
It’s an Early Modern English text, not an Upstate New York dialect. Skousen doesn’t fully know what it means.
Skousen believes Joseph saw words, and in many cases spellings, in the interpreters. Not simply ideas.
This LDS historian, Gerrit Dirkmatt, points out details in history you’ve never heard. Joseph and Martin visited several printers before their negotiations led them back to Grandin (who finally agreed, after getting paid much more than usual).
Dirkmatt points out additional details, such as early accounts of Joseph’s visions (possibly the first mention of the 1st Vision), that were published in a competing print shop around the time of the Book of Mormon printing.
Stanford Carmack – Exploding the Myth of Unruly Book of Mormon Grammar: A Look at the Excellent Match with Early Modern English
Dr. Carmack focuses on syntax: the arrangement of words and phrases. Early Modern English was spoken centuries before Moroni’s visit.
1475-1700: Early Modern English
BH Roberts posited that the Book of Mormon was full of grammatical errors because Joseph was uneducated. This has long been the dominant view.
Carmack above showed many syntax correlations to Early Modern English (from 1475-1700). Syntax is the way in which words and phrases are arranged.
More specifically, certain BoM syntax closely correlates with several books in the late 15th Century. However, the BoM has a negative correlation — when comparing these same variables of syntax — with the King James Bible.
And Joseph didn’t use this syntax in his own language. Only in the scriptures he transmitted.
The dominant English Bible in Joseph’s day was the King James. The KJV had lots of Tyndale’s writings in it. Tyndale wrote in the 1520s and 1530s. Early Modern English works well with the KJV that is found within the Book of Mormon text.
Carmack posits that the Book of Mormon has a range of syntax usage from Chaucer through the 19th Century with a concentration in the 1500s and 1600s.
Carmack compares the Book of Mormon syntax to four books from Joseph’s time period. Three of them have elements that more closely match the Book of Mormon than the fourth book: The View of the Hebrews (VH).
The View of the Hebrews has long been claimed by LDS critics to be a source material for the Book of Mormon. I find it highly interesting that other books — with no real or even claimed connection to the Book of Mormon — more closely mimic the Book of Mormon than a book (VH)the critics claim gave rise to the Book of Mormon.
You gotta listen to these Blake Ostlerpodcasts. This topic is one that Blake had already published in BYU Studies in 1987. But, fortunately for us, he recently put into podcast form.
In this weekly episode Ostler’s synthesis is this: the Book of Mormon has ancient, as well as modern, elements.
Ostler and his sons discuss several modern topics that others suggest influenced the Book of Mormon: View of the Hebrews, the use of the King James Bible, claimed anachronisms, possible Wesleyan (Methodist) influence on Joseph Smith, a very developed form of Christianity (not available in ancient Judaism), and others.
Then Blake and his sons review the improbability of Joseph knowing ancient material and otherwise guessing correctly in so many areas.
Mosiah 1-5, 7-8: closely reflect covenant renewal festival in the Old Testament
Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite: evidence of prophetic lawsuit, following biblical form
1 Nephi 1: ancient form of prophetic commission
Blake sees ancient and modern influences in the same text. The same thing occurs in the Bible, as older texts are re-purposed and redacted.
They also discuss the translation process that was not a simple fax from heaven. William Smith described how Martin Harris used the breastplate/spectacles to translate in 1828. He stopped using this system, as it strained his eyes.
Once Oliver was involved (1829), Joseph used a chocolate-colored stone he found near him home when he was digging in a well. Blake explains that David Whitmer’s explanation — ancient text with English below — can’t be the answer for a variety of reasons.
Joseph wouldn’t have edited a text directly and exclusively given by God (with no room for variation or modification); in fact, in 1837 Joseph added and modified text to clarify
translation will never be directly and solely from God, unless God overpowers Joseph’s mind
no translation can possibly be exactly word for word; and Joseph didn’t know a language other than English at this time
Ostler speaks of the Gospel of John, which was written long after Jesus’ death, and contained insights into Jesus’ divinity (living water, bread of life, etc); these insights weren’t understood at the time of Jesus, as the other Gospels show that the Apostles didn’t understand Jesus’ mission and teachings during his life; the Gospel of John in much more reflective and imposes a more complete view
Ostler argues that, like the Gospel of John, Joseph is receiving the revelation of the text, but also the true meaning of the text in a 19th Century thought world
not only is the Book of Mormon a translation (from the Golden Plates), but it’s also a revelation with Joseph’s expansion and reflected through Joseph’s world
puzzler: no text of Isaiah on table, but he has multiple chapters; uses neither plates nor book available while Joseph is looking at stone (within hat); he was simply inspired to know revelation; he translated just as he did the parchment of John, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and other translations (revelation is the answer)
early witnesses needed Golden Plates to help Church grow, not because Joseph viewed the plates to translate (in 1828 he gave up trying to understand the characters)
theory of revelation: includes a human and God, but it’s a human experiences; this experience requires interpretive framework; reflects ancient text, but his own abilities, terminology, and cultural influence has its effects observable
there’s no such thing as revelation from God’s point of view; we get revelation from our point of view
the Book of Mormon is twice inspired! Once with the original prophet, but second with Joseph’s expansion.
Was Joseph aware he was expanding beyond the plates? In 1837, Joseph felt inspired to expand the already-published Book of Mormon. Ostler argues that he originally followed inspiration, not knowing he was the instrument to expand.
Joseph was free to express, not give an isomorphic 1:1 translation. Any translation has “play” in it. Ostler believe he received concepts and phraseology, and then explained it.
The Book of Mormon revelation was given great liberty what the underlying text meant.
Ostler recognizes that chiasmus, Hebrew phrases, separate and unique voices in the book (Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni) are all evidences against the expansion theory.