This is Bob Rees’ essay in response to Earl Wunderli’s essay. Below you will find Earl’s essay along with Bob’s responses in blue. To read Earl Wunderli’s essay click here.

Hi Bob:

Thank you for sending your FAIR paper to Tom Kimball for forwarding to me. I’ve read it with great interest and will respond to it here.

In your Abstract, you note two criticisms. First, you write that my case “exaggerates Joseph Smith’s intellectual and cultural background and compositional skills.” Some believers are indeed convinced that the Book of Mormon is true because Joseph Smith could not have written it himself. It was because of this stumbling block for some readers of my book that I explore this briefly in a section entitled “Joseph Smith as Author” on pages 50-56, pointing out that beyond his limited formal schooling, he was intelligent if not a genius, a good reader who read widely and studied the Bible, and was creative, imaginative, and a good story teller, among other things. We don’t know just how intelligent Joseph Smith was, or how much he was handicapped by his cultural background, or what kind of compositional skills he had. Such judgments were what I was trying to avoid in my research. Based on my research, which, I believe, shows that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth century creation, I would argue that we may well underestimate Joseph Smith’s intelligence and compositional skills, and overemphasize his cultural background.

Earl: You refer to the belief that some (including me) have that Joseph didn’t have, as I put it, the “intellectual and cultural background and compositional skills” to have written the Book of Mormon as a “stumbling block” (“an impediment to belief or convict ion”), but it seems to me it is no more so than that the opposite is a “stumbling block” to those like you who are convinced otherwise. My argument, which I make in my article “Joseph Smith and the American Renaissance” (Dialogue ) and for which I add additional support in “Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon and the American Renaissance: An Addendum” (forthcoming from the Journal of Book of Mormon and Restoration Scriptures) is that not just Joseph Smith, but no one living in nineteenth century America, including the more illustrious authors who were Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, was capable of writing such a book. In addition, I find the “evidence” you put forth in favor of Joseph being the author unconvincing in the extreme. To argue that Joseph was intelligent, creative, “expressive,” a reader, and somewhat educated (although the evidence for such is very thin) places him in the company of tens of thousands of his contemporaries who produced nothing remotely similar to the Book of Mormon. In my new article (link) I compare Joseph with Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman in terms of what Melville called the “try works” of their master compositions and find that, as opposed to these authors, there is practically nothing in the record of Joseph’s education, reading and writing that predicts the kind of book he published in 1830. According to Emma, Orson Hyde and others, Joseph had shown practically no proclivity or talent for composition by the time the Book of Mormon was published. And, as you point out (quoting Brodie) Joseph had “never written a line of fiction” before the BOM was published. Compare this with Hawthorne and Melville, each of whom had published a significant body of novels and short stories before writing their respective magnum opuses. Additionally, the fact that Joseph had “an impressive speaking style” has little to do with the complex composition we find in the Book of Mormon. Lots of people have impressive speaking styles without producing a single line of significant prose. Also, the ability to tell stories does not necessarily predict the ability to compose rhetorically and stylistically complex narratives like those we find in the Book of Mormon.

In the 18th century, a MSS titled “Ossian” purported to be an ancient epic poem found by the Scottish poet James Macpherson. Many people believed it was authentic but it turned out to be, as one critic called it, “the most successful literary falsehood in modern history.” When the great Samuel Johnson was asked if any modern man could have written it, Johnson said, “many men, many women, and many children.” Sometimes I get the impression from reading some critical commentators on the Book of Mormon that they have a similar view of the Book of Mormon. As non-Mormon commentator, Marcus Bach, said many years ago, “No Vermont schoolboy wrote this, and no Presbyterian preacher [Solomon Spaulding] tinkered with these pages.”

You say that your research “shows that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth century creation,” but I find that the evidence you present does nothing of the sort. For example, people cite the fact that Joseph read the Bible as evidence that he was the author of the book. The Bible was the most ubiquitous book in America during Joseph’s time and its influence can be seen in the writings of almost every (if not every) major and minor literary figure. So of course biblical influences can be seen throughout the Book of Mormon, but one would expect that of a record that had deep biblical roots and that was translated by a person and in a culture that was basically drunk on the KJV. And, it is possible to read the bible extensively and even have a deep understanding of it (which evidence is lacking in Joseph’s case) without being able to replicate it or produce a narrative that shares a number of Hebraic elements. Believe me, for over fifty years I have been trying to get undergraduate and graduate students with far, far more education than Joseph to write even simple coherent expository essays and none of them have shown the stylistic acuity and narrative complexity of even one book of the Book of Mormon.

Your second criticism is that my case ignores “the Book of Mormon’s deep structure, narrative complexity, and often intricate rhetorical patterns.” Literary analysts like Grant Hardy, whom you praise and to whom I’ll return, are wonderfully adept at finding these things in this or virtually any other literary work, which were presumably beyond Joseph Smith’s capabilities but not beyond Nephi’s, Mormon’s or the writers Mormon abridged, or Moroni’s.

Although literary criticism can be speculative and even inventive, ultimately it cannot be taken seriously if the arguments presented do not conform in a reasonable way to the text. That is, a text means something, but not anything or everything. Critics can (and do) differ in their interpretations of the text, but we are persuaded or not by both the sophistication of their argument and the degree to which they can support that argument from the text itself. Thus, to argue that literary critics like Grant Hardy “are wonderfully adept at finding these things in this or virtually any other literary work,” seems to suggest that what they find may not actually be in or be supported by the text, but Hardy’s analysis is supported by evidence from (not outside) the text. And this is the crux of the issue: if something is in the text, it had to get there from some place. Thus, for example, allusions in Shakespeare’s plays demonstrably come from the Bible, Holingshed’s Chronicles, Boccasio’s Decameron, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Ovid’s metamorphoses, and a host of other authors ancient and contemporary. One of the remarkable things about the Book of Mormon (as opposed to other major compositions in Joseph’s time), is the absence of such external sources (except for the Bible). If Joseph was such an avid, voluminous reader and if he was influenced by other writers of the time, where are the traces of those writings in the book? I can’t think of a single allusion in the BOM to a book published before 1830 with the exception of the Bible (and one possible allusion to Hamlet, although the evidence for this is certainly debatable since one finds similarities between this passage [1 Nephi 1:14] and several biblical phrases).

Thus, the evidence for “deep structure, narrative complexity, and often intricate rhetorical patterns” is convincingly and abundantly supported by the text. And, yes, one would expect that Nephi, Mormon and Moroni (just as Isaiah, Ezekiel and Paul) would have greater compositional skills than an untutored and relatively uneducated person living on the American frontier. But, and here is a point worth making: all translations come through a translator (or translators) and are reflective to some extent of that particular translator’s mind, experience and skill, including his/her rhetorical skill. Thus, Robert Alter’s marvelous translation of the five books of Moses and the Psalms are to my mind superior because of Alter’s deep knowledge of Hebrew and ancient texts and because of his skill in translation.

After reading the nice things you say about me and my research (thank you!), I’m down to your second page, where you describe my approach as based on “reason, science, and truth.” This is essentially true, although I used the words “evidence and reason” in order to invite readers, whose testimony of the truth of the Book of Mormon is grounded on faith and prayer as prescribed by Moroni, to look at the evidence. I did not disparage the opposition by calling them “unreasonable, unscientific and inclined to believe in myths and falsehoods.”

True, but you seem strongly to imply such by the logic of your argument. As I tried to say, I eschew any such dichotomous argument. A sacred text by its very nature seems to invite (demand?) both faith and reason, inspiration and substantive argument, but a text that is supported by one approach alone is likely not going to yield all of its knowledge and treasure. A person who reads the Book of Mormon as a product of Joseph Smith’s mind and imagination will read it very differently from one who considers the possibility that it is an authentic ancient document, even if it is, like the bible, an arranged (constructed) narrative. We don’t know, for example, if Mary’s “Magnificat” is truly her first-hand account of Gabriel’s visit or if it is an invention, but how we read it depends on whether we consider the possibility of such an actual visit or not. That is, those who believe in the possibility of a virgin birth and an actual son of God, see Mary’s words (whether they are her actual words or not) differently from those who reject the possibility of such a supernatural event. Those who rely solely (or essentially) on empirical evidence, are no more likely to believe in the Annunciation than they are in the First Vision or Moroni’s visit. Are such people “unreasonable, unscientific, and inclined to believe in myths and falsehoods”? Your argument (although not your actual words), seem to suggest such.

There are many issues, in and out of religion, for which evidence does not point clearly to one answer or another, and here we must use what you call “studying, weighing, pondering, considering alternate/opposing views.” Indeed, as I wrote, “I admire scriptural scholars and value their work. Many scholars, both defenders and critics of the Book of Mormon, have done sound research. Any comprehensive analysis of the evidence supporting or refuting the historicity of the Book of Mormon must take into account the internal and external evidence together.” But the key is “evidence.” We cannot disregard the evidence. If it points in one direction, we must go as far as it takes us, after which we use our judgment (study, weigh, ponder, consider alternatives), as long as our judgment is consistent with the evidence. In short, my approach is not Manichean. There is not just one way to discovery. There is a place for carrying water on both shoulders, but, again, it begins where the evidence ends.

Yes, Earl, but exactly what constitutes or can be considered “evidence” depends to some extent on what standards one accepts for evidence. For example, a number of years ago Eugene England discovered that had Joseph Smith consulted the extant travel literature of his day (and there is no evidence that he did or even had access to such literature), he would not have taken Lehi’s company on the route described in the Book of Mormon. Much later, it was discovered that the travel guides of the time were essentially incorrect and that the route described in the Book of Mormon was correct. My guess is that you would not find such “evidence” convincing; I do, however, because it seems highly unlikely that Joseph could have guessed this information. (“Through the Arabian Desert to a Bountiful Land: Could Joseph Smith Have known the Way?” http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/book-mormon-authorship-new-light-ancient-origins/6-through-arabian-desert-bountiful-land

There are many other things that I would count as evidence (or possible evidence) that you likely would not, including the Egyptian influence in the Book of Mormon, rhetorical elements, stylistic variety, the evidence of the Lakish Letters, Nahom, olive culture, warfare, the Tree of Life narrative, and many, many other things (where, when and how could Joseph had access to such things?). So it isn’t simply a matter of evidence but what one considers evidence. And in fairness, as my review shows, some things that are evidentiary to you clearly are not to me. I simply find your argument for such evidence unconvincing—and I consider myself open to the possibility that they might constitute evidence.

In your following paragraph, you again endorse both reason (Isaiah) and spirit and inspiration (Job), but again, spirit and inspiration, in my view, enter where evidence and reason no longer take us.

My argument is that we all are subject to what might be called “emotional evidence”—things we accept as fact for which we do not have empirical evidence, so to dismiss such experiences categorically seems to me highly irrational. That is, we are not just cognitive beings; we are complex creatures who, if we are wise, listen to both our heads and our hearts and, hopefully, accept input from both, which we weigh and measure before making decisions. We all for example have dreams. What do they mean? Psychologists suggest that they have meaning, but there is no absolute formula (or evidence) for interpreting them. We can ignore them or attribute specific meaning to them, but likely we are not entirely indifferent to them. For example, I was abandoned a number of times when I was a child. In my mature years, I had recurring dreams of a child in danger (of fire or violence of some kind). I would usually awake from such dreams in terror. It wasn’t until a therapist led me to recognize that child as myself that I was free to understand that dream. My interpretation of the dream could not be considered “evidence,” and others might find other interpretations and explanations, but the therapist’s speculation had the ring of truth for me and I found it extremely helpful in processing and transforming my childhood experiences. “Evidence” for Newtonian physics’ explanation of the universe was turned on its head by counter “evidence” from quantum physics. As an attorney, I assume that in some instances you have presented theoretical scenarios and probable arguments for which you had no hard evidence.

Those who rely on evidence and reason, you suggest, “miss the intuitive, poetic, and deep structural complexities of the text,” which I suggest can be found in many if not most texts by those looking for them.

Again, Earl, you suggest that literary analysis is tantamount to invention or fiction. As a textual critic, you can’t just make stuff up if you want to be taken seriously, any more than an attorney can invent or see into a crime scene elements not supported by the evidence or an explanation for the lack of evidence in the scene itself. Reasonable people can (and often do) interpret things differently. I am certain you have had many experiences with such matters in the law over the years. You may have had an eyewitness who testified to what she saw in a criminal act, and it is possible that someone was actually convicted on such evidence, but as we now know, eyewitnesses can be extremely unreliable. So, if one is objective (or tries to be) one has a moral obligation to weigh all of the evidence at hand, not just that which supports or is confirmed by his/her point of view or proclivity. Texts have integrity; many significant texts (which I argue includes the Book of Mormon) also have “intuitive, poetic and deep structural complexities.”

See, for example, my critique of John (Jack) Welch’s chiasmus at pages 243-254. Such findings again are judgments and are interesting but hardly a substitute for hard evidence and reason.

It is true that critics can disagree as to what constitutes an authentic chiastic passage, but then so can they disagree on almost everything you marshal as “hard evidence and reason.” That is, as I stated in my review, your tendency to give lists and make what seem to me highly speculative conclusions based on them seems to me as subject to question as your challenge of a particular chiastic segment of the Book of Mormon. Chiasmus is a real form/pattern in ancient writing. Had Joseph Smith been aware of it, he would certainly have been one of the very few people in his age who did so; and, more to the point, understanding such a form and then being able to compose chiastic passages (some much more convincing than the example you criticize Welch of inventing) while dictating a text seems amazingly improbable. To make a convincing case against chiasmus, one must do more than select a single example. Let’s say Welch is wrong in this particular case. That doesn’t invalidate the many other examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Thus, both your and Welch’s “evidence” are judgments based on differing criteria (for example, loose or tight parallel structure). Nevertheless, like you, I find some of the chiastic passages some have identified in the Book of Mormon less convincing than others. Here’s an illustration from literature: the sonnet is a set form (or, several possible kinds of set forms—Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean). The rhyme scheme differs, but they have in common being fourteen lines in length and written in iambic pentameter. That is, they are almost always recognizable. Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, however, some poets began experimenting with the form and wrote sonnets that can hardly be recognized as such because they are either radical variations on one of the set forms (e.g., Gerard Manley Hopkin’s abbreviated Petrarchan sonnets) or do not adhere to established metrics or rhyming. Thus, a reader expecting a tight adherence to the sonnet form might not recognize some modern sonnets. Knowing a little about the various kinds of parallelism in Hebrew writing, it is not surprising to me to find some examples of both tightly and loosely constructed chiastic passages in the Book of Mormon. In other words, things are not always as simple as they seem.

Indeed, such persons are much like those whom you describe as relying “solely on the spirit,” being “indifferent to any evidence” that may challenge them.

This hardly is the case. One might argue with Welch’s evidence, but it is based on certain criteria about and familiarity with chiastic structure (see my previous paragraph), not “the spirit” and certainly not indifference to any evidence. My point is not to support or challenge Welch’s argument/evidence but rather to argue that, as with a legal brief, one may be highly selective in what one chooses to present as evidence. Forensic science certainly demonstrates that “evidence” can be interpreted in very different ways. This can also be seen in the conflicting testimony of expert witnesses.

One of my most serious criticisms of religion generally, including the LDS church, is its emphasis on faith over reason; rarely is reason encouraged, but faith is elevated to a high virtue.

One might just as well say that a serious criticism of science in general is its emphasis on reason over faith and to add “rarely is faith encouraged but reason is elevated to a high virtue.” Both science and religion are subject to error because, as the noted Harvard Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould argued, they represent “non-overlapping magesteria.” There are many examples of the failure of scholarship and science to arrive at “the truth.” The history of science in fact can be seen as a history of one age disproving or overturning the scientific axioms of the previous age. A good example is the discovery of quantum physics which turned Newtonian physics on its head. Three scientists–Barbara McClintock, Stanley Pruisner and Barry Marshall—all made important discoveries which were rejected for years by their respective scientific communities in spite of the evidence supporting them. According to Linda Stone, McClintock, who discovered “jumping genes,” “was ignored and ridiculed, by the scientific community, for thirty-two years before winning” the Nobel Prize in 1984. Prusiner was also widely criticized and ridiculed for his prion theory years before he won the Nobel Prize for it in 1982. Marshall, who theorized that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria rather than acid and stress (the prevailing theory), lamented, “Everyone was against me.”

As Stone argues, “Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is expansive, ‘open-ended’ and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the context, concepts, and the objectives.” This is why I argue that intelligence requires the use of both faith and reason, the head and the heart in dialogue with one another. The extent to which any religion privileges faith over reason or reason over faith (as some like the Unitarians do) predicts to me that the adherents of that religion will be less successful in finding the truth than religions that seek a balance between faith and reason.

You assert farther down the page that as a “long-time student of the book,” you “find the facts anything but simple and the internal evidence anything but obvious.” I don’t believe we’re talking about the same set of facts. Mine are in fact simple and, once identified, are obvious.

Indeed your facts are simple and obvious. That doesn’t mean that they add up to what you say they do or that such facts obviate the existence of other more complex, less obvious, perhaps equally compelling facts.

Whether we’re dealing with words, phrases, names, prophecies, and any other internal evidence, they’re right there in the book. They’re not going to change. Anyone can get to them.

Well, this is something to discuss. Yes, we can certainly say that all of the words, names, prophecies et al in the Book of Mormon are in the Book of Mormon and that they can be put into lists and speculated about, just as all of the evidence for a legal case can be identified, labeled and categorized, but what these things mean is something altogether different. I argue that just as there are certain words, so are there images, symbols, and rhetorical tropes, but these are not so simple or obvious. What does one make, for example, of Lehi’s and Nephi’s dreams? And what is significant about the differences between them? What do these dreams have to do with archetypal images of the cross? What is their relationship to dreams found in other sacred texts, including those in the Book of Mormon? One can assemble a number of shards of pottery, but until one can discern whether there is a pattern to the pieces and whether they fit together, one is left with just a collection of shards. I feel that is often what your lists are—interesting pieces of a puzzle but not the puzzle itself—or not the pieces put into the puzzle in the right way so as to give us a clear picture of how they make the whole.

The same could be said about irony. As I tried to argue, irony is not always easy to detect. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It takes a specialist in understanding and detecting irony to see it, just as it takes a detective or a specialist in forensic medicine to detect and interpret certain kinds of evidence. Having taught secular and sacred texts for over half a century, I know something about rhetorical and dramatic irony and there is ample evidence of sophisticated irony in the Book of Mormon as well as evidence that Joseph Smith was not an ironist.

In contrast, historical and other external facts cannot all be found in one book, they’re always subject to revision in the light of new findings, and so forth. My effort was to see if the internal facts meant anything and, as it turns out, they mean a great deal. I agree with Billy Collins’s approach to poetry but it is hardly applicable to my study, which was concerned with objective truth and not with the literary analysis of a poem.

My use of Collins’ poem was to suggest not that you were doing literary analysis of a poem but rather that like his students it seemed to me you were missing the essence of the Book of Mormon—figuratively tying it to a chair and trying to beat a confession out of it (i.e., that it was written by Joseph Smith). Many years ago I taught poetry to a group of nurses in a large Los Angeles hospital. I had a hard time getting them to read and interpret poetry because they were distrustful of it, partly because they were used to looking for and interpreting other kinds of evidence (using thermometers, stereoscopes, blood pressure devices and other diagnostic instruments). In attempting to get then to recognize that they also used other less obvious kinds of evidence to evaluate the health of a patient, I said, “If I were to make the rounds in the hospital with you today, my guess is that you would use all of the steps your training has given you to make evaluations of the patients. But I would also guess that occasionally, even when that data points to a certain diagnosis, something tells you there is more to the story. Your experience over a number of years tells you that even though the data points in one direction, something else is going on that requires you to look deeper. That something else is an intuitive sense that is critical to intelligent diagnosis. Reading and understanding poetry is sometimes like that. To quote Robert Frost, ‘We dance around in a ring and suppose/But the secret sits in the middle and knows.’” They understood what I was teaching them. The primary purpose of reading texts is to learn how to read texts. They can never be reduced to lists!

Your paragraph following the Billy Collins’s one is, I confess, a little beyond me. I can explain my own thinking, which you quote. At that early stage in my research, I was trying to see whether the claim that “the several ancient writers of the Book of Mormon differed from one another in writing style.” So I decided to look at every word and phrase each of the ancient writers used

Again, looking “at every word and phrase each of the ancient writers used” is much less likely to reveal meaningful stylistic differences than examining the way these words and phrases are used–the patterns, repetitions, allusions, sentence structure, etc. that form a stylistic wordprint that distinguishes one writer from another. One would hardly present the evidence of a letter in court by listing the words in the letter. It is both message and content that demand our attention, the subtleties and characteristics of individual expression. While it is true that Nephi and Moroni use a lot of the same words, they use them very differently. Consider Alma: he has by far the largest vocabulary in the Book of Mormon. According to your theory, somehow Joseph Smith consciously gave Alma a larger vocabulary (for some reason) while dictating his words.

I wasn’t then thinking that my research would unveil other areas to explore, like proper names, prophecies, borrowings from the Bible, curiosities, and other things; my imagination didn’t carry me beyond comparing the several purported ancient writers. I don’t understand how the myth you mention suddenly enters the picture.

My point was that your myth (Joseph Smith was the author of the Book of Mormon) is no less a myth than the opposite. I am using “myth” here not in the sense of “something that is untrue” but rather in its larger sense—“a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.” Thus, naturalist critics have constructed a myth about the composition of the Book of Mormon which they articulate and defend in the same way as those who defend the myth that the book was written by ancient authors. Each side marshalls evidence and argument to support its position and it is left to each person to weigh the soundness of those arguments. I am very familiar with both myths and have examined the “evidence” on both sides. While I can understand the logic of those who see Joseph as the author, I find their evidence less convincing than those on the other side.

Your next two paragraphs reveal your much greater knowledge of literature than my own but again, I don’t see their applicability to my study. Indeed, you note that my “approach seldom gets beyond the book’s details,” but that’s precisely what my book is about: details, and what they mean or suggest. Giving the text “a deeper seeing, a more profound probing, a greater attention to its density, patterns, and complexities” and seeing “through, beneath, and beyond” the facts are all well and good if my evidence isn’t convincing that Joseph Smith not only could have written but did write the book. Then your deeper probing might suggest that what you find was beyond Joseph’s capabilities. Many defenders of the book claim this but they rarely spell it out in detail.

In my various articles and chapters on the Book of Mormon, I have tried to spell out such things in detail, as have others. Grant and Heather are very specific in showing the more complex texture and deeper patterns of the narrative, what Henry James called “the figure in the carpet.” I don’t see them as inventing but rather revealing what the text shows.

In the next paragraph dealing with my appendices, you mentioned Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” with which I AM familiar. But it’s unclear to me what you believe I missed that was as obvious as the letter in plain sight. You refer generally to “the interpretive forest” that I missed and I believe you’re referring again to all that a literary analyst could do with my lists of names (not quite as obvious as a letter in plain sight).

Just as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” we might argue that meaning is as well. What I am saying is that by focusing attention on the detail, I believe you miss much of the essence of the book. Go to the following segment on inattentional blindness on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean: (click here)
I feel that like the French detectives in Poe’s story, you are missing what is in plain sight because you are looking in the wrong places and for the wrong things. One can do raw word analyses of texts to find certain things (for example, image clusters or symbolic patterns or rhetorical styles), but it is what lies beyond the raw data that is significant. In a way, just as with forensic science, you have to know how to interpret the signs. I know you feel you are doing this, but in my judgment your training in the law prejudices you to privilege certain kinds of data over others. That’s to be expected since a lawyer’s job is to prove a case, whereas a textual critics job (if she does it right) is to plumb the text for what it can legitimately yield. I am aware that some textual critics would agree with your analysis just as some would agree with mine. Thus, we each have to be responsible for how fairly, how objectively, and how honestly we come to conclusions.

But it has to do with more than that since to some extent what you see is what you expect or are prepared to see. As I have said in conversations about the Book of Mormon over the years , if one does not believe in angels or divine intervention in history, if one does not believe in prophets or revelation, then one forecloses those avenues of consideration and is left with one choice: to find a naturalistic explanation and to bend all evidence toward that conclusion. To some extent, I feel this is what some defenders of the Book of Mormon do—find an angel behind every bush, find chiasmus in every parallel structure, see every biblical phrase as an evidence of Hebraic influence beyond the bible. What I have been trying to do in my own critical writing is to focus on what I see and can be defended based on critical analytic tools and techniques. But I have also tried to inject more civility into the discussion, to hopefully foster more respectful dialogue because I find the kind of negative labeling, stereotyping, and downright hostility that has characterized some of the dialogue not only counter to the principles of responsible scholarship but a violation of Christian ethics.

What was in plain sight was the number of names that were the same as or similar to biblical names, the number of names that could have been derived from other names, the number of identical and similar Nephite and Jaredite names, and so on. In other words, could an author
have made up so many names, and the lists suggest that one could have done so.

Okay, but wouldn’t one expect to find similarities between two cultures that shared at least the same Near Eastern history, culture and even sacred texts? What seems more significant to me are such things as the Egyptian names, which one would certainly not have expected Joseph Smith to know or guess as, especially given the fact that little was known in his time of the Egyptian influence on Israel, which we now know was substantial, including giving names of pagan religious and political figures to their children. Also strange, as Hugh Nibley pointed out half century ago, is the absence of Baal-related names in the Lehite record. Citing the Elephantine papyrus, Nibley states that the use of such names fell out of favor with the Israelites during Lehi’s time, something unknown in Joseph Smith’s time. In other words, if Joseph was a careful reader of the Old Testament (as some argue) and was trying to construct a convincing narrative, one would have expected him to use Baal-related names. Nibley also noted the Israelite custom of using the -iah and -ihah suffixes during the same period. It seems to me that one either has to conclude that Joseph Smith guessed right on so many details or that somehow there was a source for such things. What is the probability that he would have just been lucky?

Your paragraph on irony is interesting. I’m pretty sure I read your 2003 article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, having borrowed all of Michael Marquardt’s Journals in order to read everything that scholars defending the book have said in it, but I can’t find my review of your paper at the moment. So I reread 1 Nephi 16 and 17 which you cite and about which you write that “these chapters contain a sophisticated play on the words ‘to know,’ showing how Nephi very cleverly uses repetition to turn the epistemological tables on his older brothers. It is a brilliant tour de force, one that is all the more successful because Laman and Lemuel unknowingly set themselves up for it.” So I took special note of the word “know.” Besides Nephi’s two uses of “knew” at 16:2, the verb “know” is used only once in chapter 16 (verse 38), by Laman, who conspires with Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael to kill “our father” (who is not the father of the sons of Ishmael) and Nephi, who Laman says is planning to rule over them (incidentally, how does Nephi know what Laman says to Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael unless Laman is conspiring within Nephi’s earshot (16:37-38)?).

Since Nephi says his brothers were “murmuring” against Lehi and also against Nephi and spoke of slaying Nephi in the presence of “the sons of Ishmael,” one of whose sisters, ostensibly, is paired with Nephi (and another with Zoram) so in such a small, interrelated group, one would imagine it would be very difficult to keep a secret, especially such a violent conspiracy.

This brings us to chapter 17, where at verse 19 the brothers “knew” that Nephi could not construct a ship and “knew” that Nephi was lacking in judgment. Then in verse 22, the brothers “know” (twice) that the people in Jerusalem were righteous (incidentally, do Nephi’s brothers speak in unison at 17:19-22?).

One would guess that, given how unified they were in everything, when one of them spoke it was assumed he spoke for both. They are almost always a pair, presented in the narrative as if they were indistinguishable-Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum!

Finally, Nephi speaks, and this is presumably where the irony begins. In verses 25-29, Nephi uses “know” eight times to tell his brothers that they know that the children of Israel were in bondage, that they were laden with tasks, that it would be good for them if they were brought out of bondage, that Moses was commanded to do it, that the Lord parted the Red Sea, that the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea, that the Israelites were fed with manna in the wilderness, and that Moses smote the rock and brought forth water. I must confess that I find no irony in this, but of course I’m not a literary critic.

Northrup Frye defines verbal irony as a “pattern of words that turns away from direct statement or its own obvious meaning.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics describes it as “a form of speech in which one meaning is stated and a different, usually antithetical, meaning is intended.” Karl A. Plank summarizes “several recurring features” of irony: “First, irony occurs through an indirect use of language and expresses a covert meaning. The meaning of ironic language lacks self-evidence and must be reconstructed by the reader. Second, the indirect use of language reflects a contrast between appearance and reality. In the ironic text things are not simply as they appear to be. Third, irony works through the introduction or implications of a second perspective from which the text’s ‘obvious meaning’ can be reinterpreted.” Plank adds, “Irony functions not to undermine a text’s meaningfulness, but to give access to it by indicating the vantage point from which the text’s full meaning can be perceived.”

So, Nephi’s use of “know” here turns the word on its head causing us as readers to conclude that L&L don’t know at all what they say they do. It is a beautiful example of irony.

The brothers were wrong in their “knowledge” that Nephi could not build a ship and that the people in Jerusalem were righteous, but this says nothing about whether the brothers “knew” the standard elements of the exodus account that Nephi recounts.

The point Nephi is making, and one that makes the irony even more exquisite is that if L & L had listened to and believed Lehi (and the other prophets) or even Nephi himself, they would have known that Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. Also, I think we are to assume by their behavior that they are among the wicked people of Jerusalem and therefore defend against the reality that it is because of the prophesies that the wicked would be destroyed. In other words, their behavior is psychologically consistent here. If they don’t know that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed, they are in denial.

I find nothing sophisticated, clever, or brilliant here that would have been beyond Joseph Smith.

Sorry Earl, but I’m not making this stuff up. This is exactly the kind of irony one finds in Greek plays, in Shakespeare, in Twain and in hundreds of other writers.

I should point out that “know” is used 473 times in the Book of Mormon and, with all its variations and derivatives (knew, knewest, knowest, knoweth, knowing, knowingly, knowledge, known, knows) 910 times. Only six words (thing(s), now, land, yea, behold, and people) are used more. I’m only suggesting that there is much opportunity among so many uses of “know” to find, arguably, some irony,

Again, the point is not how many times a word is used, but how it is used. There might be ten thousand uses of “know” in a text and there be no irony, or there could be two and there be irony. For example, you might say, “I know that Joseph Smith is the author of the Book of Mormon.” And I might respond with sarcasm, “Sure, Earl. I know you know!”

whether it is, as you rhetoricians would say, “meiosis and litotes (understatement), hyperbole (overstatement), antiphrasis (contrast), . . . chleuasm (mockery); mycterism (the sneer); and mimesis (imitation, especially for the sake of ridicule).” Finally, on rereading 1 Ne. 16 and 17, I noticed some curiosities in addition to those I noted in the preceding paragraph. When Nephi breaks his bow, his brothers get angry because they obtain no food, but what about the bows of the brothers? Well, all their bows had lost their springs (16:21). Nephi goes right out and makes a new, wooden bow, but why couldn’t the brothers do this?

Within the context of the narrative and what we know about L&L, it makes perfect sense. For one thing they are happy with any failure of Nephi’s because they resent him so much. Also, they are delighted that their father also begins to murmur about what has happened to his favored son. In other words, as anyone who has grown up with siblings would recognize, sibling rivalry has its dark underside and here it is in full display. They want Nephi to fail! And besides they are lazy, as we see elsewhere in the narrative.

Nephi also makes an arrow out of a straight stick (16:23), but what happened to his other arrows that he was going to use with his steel bow?

I’m no bow and arrow expert, but my guess is that arrows for a steel bow would not work with a wooden bow. And isn’t it interesting that had he been the author Joseph would have thought of that!

And don’t the brothers have any arrows? As for the ball with the two pointers and writing that appears and changes from time to time, Nephi writes that “by small means the Lord can bring about great things” (16:29). Maybe Nephi’s referring to this wondrous ball as “small means” is an example of understatement (meiosis).

I take it to mean that by “small means” Nephi intends for us to understand “a little faith.”

And how is Nephi able to name a place by the English “Bountiful” rather than some exotic name like “Irreantum,” which he interprets (17:5-6)?

It is not at all unusual for someone to use words from two different languages in describing something (Writers in English may use both English and Latin or Greek since a word in one language may be more precise in another). What is a one English word for “many waters”? We don’t have one!

As between Nephi and Joseph Smith as the author of these two chapters, I think the evidence favors Joseph Smith.

But you have offered no counter argument to support your original conclusion, which means essentially that Joseph Smith is the author because you say that he is. I contend that the expression in these chapters represents a sophistication in composition of a high order and that by 1830, there is nothing of Joseph’s writing that is even close to what we have here.

I can do little with your next paragraph, without specific examples, where you extol the irony found in the book, which you consider “significantly beyond the literary capacity of Joseph Smith at the time he supposedly wrote the Book of Mormon.” I confess that I lack “experience in analyzing ironic texts.”

I give lots of specific examples in my article on “Irony in the Book of Mormon.”

Likewise, I can do little with your next paragraph, in which you refer to “rhetorical patterns, styles, tones, images, symbols and other elements,” without specific examples to examine. I believe this highlights the difference in our approaches, your emphasizing the literary analysis, which calls for judgment (see Grant Hardy below) and my examining in detail what facts are in the Book of Mormon and what they might mean, avoiding judgments as much as possible.

You say my approach “calls for judgment” but no less so than your does. You call your details “facts” but surely you recognize that they are no more so than the facts I present as evidence of a complex, often sophisticated and highly intricate narrative. You can’t simply call lists of words facts while ignoring the fact that those words are placed in contexts, in rhetorical patterns.

In the next paragraph, you note that I “over-emphasize errors in the text while ignoring the substantial corresponding consistencies.” For example, I point out two errors involving the cities of Nephihah and Mulek but “ungenerously” fail to mention that these are “the only inconsistencies in over four hundred geographical references,” which you describe as “an astonishing feat.” I agree that the consistency of the geographical references is impressive except that Joseph Smith may well have had a crib sheet of some sort;

On what basis do you make such a speculation? Again, keep in mind the superhuman capacity it would take to either free compose such a lengthy narrative by dictation without making errors or, also amazingly difficult, to compose it and then memorize it and then dictate it—keeping all of those geographical references consistent! I contend that we have no other example of such a composition in the history of writing. I attempted to show in my article on “Automatic Writing and the Book of Mormon” that when one examines all of the texts that make a claim as automatic writing, the Book of Mormon does not qualify.

we apparently don’t know exactly how the dictation proceeded;

From what are considered by most scholars reliable eye-witnesses, we know that he dictated a substantial amount of the text without any evidence of crib sheets, notes or other mimetic devices or materials.

and perhaps a quarter or so of the names are used only once (for example, of the eleven place names beginning with A in the Nephite history, four are used but once (Amnihu, Angola, Ani-Anti, and Antum), and others are used just two or three times). A closer look at the place names may reveal other curiosities. There’s also the problems that none of the names are tongue-twisters as we would expect from a translation of a foreign language,

Why would you assume this? As one looks as various translations of the bible, one can see a wide range in the complexity and syllabic choice of the translators—from highly literary styles with lots of polysyllabic words to colloquial styles with essentially monosyllabic words. Also, looking at Joseph Smith’s writing during this time, one would hardly expect tongue-twisters. His composition style is primitive at best.

and none of the names are found in the archaeological record. And of course we’re back to just how much ability Joseph Smith had, a question that I suppose we’ll never resolve.

We may not be able to answer it fully or definitively, but we know a great deal: he had a rudimentary education which was rather normal for those living a hard-scrabble life in rural America at the time. He undoubtedly absorbed a good deal of what would have passed for a rough informal education and eventually became an autodidact, but there is little evidence (although a great deal of speculation) that he was learned or, more important, that he had anywhere near the compositional sophistication one sees in the BOM. His information base was limited to what he could have had access to in libraries, books, newspapers, etc., but there is little evidence that he took real advantage of such resources. The contrast between the crude compositional evidence we do have (which amounts to just a couple of written examples at the time of the translation and publication of the BOM) and the Book of Mormon is startlingly vast.
If what one finds in the BOM came out of Joseph’s mind, one has to make a convincing argument as to how it got into his mind in the first place. And no one has made that case based on anything but speculation.

Your next paragraph is on my “tendency to focus on individual words rather than on the deliberate longer allusions (as evidenced by some combination of their explicit attribution, length, context, or clustered borrowing).” You give two examples, “Alma 36:22 quoting 1 Nephi 1:8” and “Helaman 5:9 quoting Mosiah 3:17.”

Alma 36:22 quotes Alma talking to his son Helaman about his conversion experience, with Alma saying that he thought he saw, “even as our father Lehi saw,” God sitting on his throne, surrounded by “numberless concourses of angels” singing and praising God. This parallels 1 Ne. 1:8, in which Lehi thought he saw the same thing in the same language. It’s not clear to me what you make of this. The idea of God’s throne (an archaic idea) is found in the Bible (see, e.g., Psalm 47:8; Matt. 23:22; Rev. 7:10), and may well have been something believed by Joseph Smith, since it is found several times in the Book of Mormon (see 1 Ne. 1:14, 17:39; 2 Ne. 28:23; Jacob 3:8; Morm. 3:10; Moro. 9:26). Isaiah uses it (Isaiah 6:1/2 Ne. 16:1), as does Jesus (Matt. 5:34/3 Ne. 12:34). And it’s not quite true that I focus on individual words rather than on longer expressions. Mormon/Alma and Nephi/Lehi use the same expression to describe their visions, but I consider this to be one of hundreds of expressions common to two or more of the purported authors of the Book of Mormon.

Part of the point here is believing that someone had such a colossal memory capacity that he could not only dictate such passages as the ones in Alma and Helaman, but could remember as he is dictating earlier material (that had not yet been translated!) that he weaves into the narrative in these places. The point is not to find similar passages in the bible and BOM, but to argue that Joseph could have kept this enormous library of material stored in his head in such a way that he could pull it out at will when a character (Alma or Helaman) refers to previously dictated material to make a point.

Helaman 5:9 quotes Helaman talking to his sons, advising them to remember the words that king Benjamin spoke to his people, that “there is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.” King Benjamin does indeed say something similar at Mosiah 3:17, that “there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ.” But Alma also speaks similarly to his son Shiblon at Alma 38:9 that “there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ.” And Nephi at 2 Ne. 31:21, speaking of Christ, says that “there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God.” So it isn’t just Mormon’s expression in his abridgment of the records of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman, but also Nephi’s. This is another example of hundreds of expressions used by more than one purported author.

In the same paragraph, your critique is a little confusing. You state that I mention the “Mosiah-first translation theory” only to buttress my claim that Joseph Smith is the sole author but “never as a potential counter to this theory” (emphasis added). It is not clear to what this italicized “theory” refers. Grammatically it seems to refer to the only other “theory” mentioned, i.e., the Mosiah-first translation theory. But it makes no sense that I never mention the Mosiah-first translation theory to counter the Mosiah-first translation theory (and I don’t believe you challenge the Mosiah-first translation theory). So what I think you mean is I never mention anything to counter the “Joseph Smith as sole author” theory, although you don’t refer to this as a “theory,” which creates the confusion. You give two examples of narrators alluding to “source texts not yet quoted,” which presumably challenge the “Joseph Smith as sole author” theory.

My point is that the Mosiah-first translation theory can provide at least as much evidence for my position that Joseph Smith was not the author of the BoM as it does for your position that he was.

The first example is “Moroni at Ether 12:41, alluding to a phrase from his father’s epistle produced in Moroni 9:26.” At Ether 12:41, Moroni concludes chapter 12 by commending his readers to seek Jesus, that the grace of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost “may be and abide in you forever. Amen.” At Moroni 9:26, Mormon concludes his second epistle to Moroni by wishing that the grace of God and Jesus Christ may “be, and abide with you forever. Amen.” The common phrase is apparently “be, and abide in/with you forever. Amen,” referring to God’s grace. This particular phrase referring to God’s grace is used nowhere else in the Book of Mormon nor in the Bible. While you believe that Moroni is alluding to this phrase in Mormon’s epistle to him (it is just an allusion, as you say, since Moroni never refers to Mormon’s epistle), it seems just as likely that it belongs to Joseph Smith as the author, who believed in the importance of God’s grace since it is referred to many times throughout the Book of Mormon (2 Ne. 2:6, 8; 9:8, 53; 10:24; 11:5; 25:23; Jacob 4:7; Mosiah 18:16, 26; 27:5; Alma 5:48; 7:3; 9:26; 13:9; Ether 12:26, 27; Moro. 7:2; 8:3; 10:32, 33). Toward the end of the book (Ether 12:41, Moro. 9:26), Joseph Smith may have wanted to leave this important wish to his readers. Under my theory, Moroni gave it first in Ether, and Mormon used the same phrase later in Moroni.

Your second example is Moroni’s “‘curtain call’ in Moro. 10 alluding, in turn, to the farewell comments of each of the small plates’ authors in 2 Nephi-Omni that had not yet been dictated” (italics yours). Here you cite Hardy in a footnote, who quotes from verses 27-31 and 34 of Moro. 10, at the very end of the Book of Mormon. Before going through each of his quotes, let me note a few things related to all of them. As you seem to recognize with your italicized phrase, Nephi-Words of Mormon were dictated after Moroni, so if there was any copying, it would have been the author (Joseph Smith) copying Moroni and not Moroni copying Nephi and the other early prophets. Actually, there may not have been any copying at all. Few if any of the quotes are word for word, and some of the language appears elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. In other words, the language was part of Joseph Smith’s religious vocabulary, much of which he may well have gotten from the traveling preachers during the Second Great Awakening. Each of the early prophets is speaking solemnly at the time, using language that reflects the solemnity of the occasion. Hardy quotes the following:

  • “ye shall see me at the bar of God” (Moro. 10:27); “you and I shall stand . . . before his bar” (2 Ne. 33:11). God’s “bar” is used by Nephi again four verses later at 2 Ne. 33:15, and by others at Jacob 6:9, 13 (twice); Mosiah 16:10; Alma 5:22, 11:44, 12:12; Morm. 9:13; and Moro. 10:34.
  • “like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out the dust” (Moro. 10:27); “as the voice of one crying from the dust” (2 Ne. 33:13; cf. 2 Ne. 3:19; Isa. 29:4//2 Ne. 26:16). See for “crying from the dust”: 2 Ne. 3:20; Morm. 8:23; Ether 8:24.
  • “they shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the everlasting God” (Moro. 10:28); “the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God” (2 Ne. 33:14; cf. 2 Ne. 3:21). See 2 Ne. 29:2; cf. 2 Ne. 8:4.
  • And God will show unto you, that that which I have written is true” (Moro. 10:28-29); “God will show unto you . . . that they [the things I have spoken] are true” (Moro. 7:35; cf. 2 Ne. 33:11). Cf. 3 Ne. 18:37.
  • “come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift” (Moro. 10:30); “come unto Christ” (Omni 1:26); “lay hold upon every good thing” (Moro. 7:19, 20, 25). See Moro. 7:21.
  • “Awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem” (Moro. 10:31); “Awake! And arise from the dust” (2 Ne. 1:14, 23; cf. Isa 52:1-2). Joseph Smith apparently got this from Isaiah 52:1-2, part of deutero-Isaiah.
  • “And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite” (Moro. 10:34); “I soon go to the place of my rest” (Enos 1:27).
  • “and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah” (Moro. 10:34); “I bid you farewell, until I shall meet you before the pleasing bar of God” (Jacob 6:13).

What I was referring to is what I see as your flawed methodological pattern here and in your book of taking phrasal and idea complexes and reducing them to single commonly used words as a means of dismissing claims of intertextuality. For example, in reducing the complex of an authorial farewell anticipating to meet his readers at the bar of God to a far more common reference to a divine “bar” of judgment. In discussing Moroni’s “curtain call,” you employ a quotation format to suggest that that you are being fair and comprehensive with Hardy’s account, but you actually (perhaps intentionally) leave out the “clinching” details, like the “come unto Christ” of Omni 1:26 and Moro. 10:30 or the “meet you before the pleasing bar of God” of Jacob 6:13 and Moro. 10:34]

In the following paragraph, your comments at the 2013 Sunstone Symposium on Joseph Smith’s authorship reflect what many Mormons believe, that Joseph Smith could not have written the book, being a barely literate farm boy, as BYU scholars call him. Dictating the book in three months was indeed a remarkable achievement.

Okay, let’s stop here for a moment. I am a pretty good memorizer (I have a hundred poems inside my brain) and give lots of oral presentations. I couldn’t begin to memorize even one of them without a great deal of time (which, if you look at Joseph’s life in the years before he dictated the Book of Mormon, he didn’t have). To do that day after day primarily over a three month period, again, without any discernable “crib notes” really would put such an accomplishment in the realm of the superhuman. But also consider that he would have had to compose the material he was memorizing before he could commit it to memory, and there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to suggest that he did. Where is the evidence, one single slip of paper, that shows that Joseph was constructing a lengthy, complicated narrative? There is none. The few pieces of paper we do have show nothing that resembles the BOM.

My treatment of this accomplishment is in my book (pages 51-56). Without repeating my treatment, I will simply repeat my conclusion that “Joseph was apparently much more than a barely literate farm boy, although this part of him shows through in the spelling and grammar in the first edition of the book.” I go on (pages 56-64) to point to passages throughout the book that suggest a first-draft dictation, such as long, incomplete sentences and mid-sentence corrections. Also, Joseph Smith anticipated and answered potential objections to his book, unlike what we have experienced with real ancient writers.

Assertions are not conclusions. “Joseph was apparently much more than a barely literate farm boy . . .” He may have been, but the distance between whatever he was and what he would have had to be in order to write the history of the Lehites is, again, enormous, unbelievably so. (I would eliminate the qualifier “barely” which still leaves him as rather uneducated and certainly unsophisticated or, more to the point, incapable of composing anything like the BOM.) Also, I find your arguments unconvincing partly because it seems you do not take into account the difficulties and complexities of translation when you assert that “passages throughout the book suggest first-draft dictation.” Consider the challenge of translating concepts from one language/culture to another. If you have ever watched a translator at work, you can almost see the hive of activity in their minds and mouths as they try to find words to express the concept being translated. One wrestles with how exactly to shape and frame the meaning at hand. Translation is always a labor; the translation often has to go through several drafts before it is completely coherent. Thus, one would expect to find “long, incomplete sentences and mid-sentence corrections.”

You say, “Joseph Smith anticipated and answered potential objections to his book, unlike what we have experienced with real ancient writers.,” but aren’t you comparing figs and persimmons here? Joseph is aware that he is translating, not writing an ancient text and therefore one might expect him to anticipate such objections.

You note in your next paragraph that I, like other scholars, “seem unable or unwilling . . . to be truly open to any evidence that challenges their axioms.” You’ll note that throughout my book I’ve considered the views of apologists and invariably found them wanting. I have not consciously steered clear of opposing views but have considered them and challenged them based on a close look at them. To what extent I’ve resisted ideas supported by evidence staring me in the face, as you note of scientists in your next paragraph, someone else will have to point out. But I do think that defenders of the book disregard abundant evidence of the non-historicity of the Book of Mormon staring them in the face. The evidence ranges from external evidence such as the creation accounts and the tower of Babel story, both reflected in the book; Deutero-Isaiah; lack of archaeological evidence and Hebrew DNA in Native Americans; to internal evidence such as the two Jesuses, common vocabulary, and all the other stuff I cover in my book.

Earl: I think here we have the crux of the problem: It is a normal human response to shut out argument or evidence that runs counter to our proclivities (or our settled positions) and to privilege those that confirm or validate it. Again, Kathryn Schulz provides convincing evidence that we all do this and yet each of us has the sense (the illusion) that we are being objective, fair, and balanced in our judgment. So, the things you find as evidence of Joseph Smith as the author may be some of the things that others find evidence of an ancient author or, more likely,
we tend to select and slant in order to confirm our already settled decision. But it begins with our world view—our epistemology or epistemologies—and our ability to somehow question our questioning and challenge our axioms. It also has to do with the method and means we employ in evaluating evidence and weighing argument.

I tend to feel that those on both sides of the BOM divide find it almost impossible to give credit to the arguments of their opponents. Personally, I find some of the arguments and evidence on both sides persuasive. I think there are troubling questions no matter how you come down on the book’s origins, but I hate the rancor, vituperation, stereotyping and belittling that takes place on both sides. I don’t consider those who think the book is a modern invention as misguided fools, as disingenuous blind men or as dishonest scholars; but neither do I consider those who see the book as a genuine ancient text as “true believers,” zealots, or stupid. Again, quoting Emerson, “Tell me your sect and I’ll tell you your argument.”

I do think that we often see the world through how we feel as well as how we think. I also think it can make a difference in how we are trained to think. A humanist scholar sees the world differently from a legal scholar and a textual critic sees it differently than a social critic.

You proceed with high praise for Grant Hardy, and I think he has done an outstanding job of both formatting the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, and providing a literary analysis of it in Understanding the Book of Mormon. I had not read either one when I was doing the final editing of my book, although I believe Understanding the Book of Mormon was published much less than three years before I finished my editing. I believe (I don’t remember exactly) that my manuscript sat at the publishers for upwards of two years before the final editing. Even so, I proceeded on the assumption that, given all that had been written about the internal evidence by BYU professors and other defenders, there wouldn’t be a lot more to say, and I don’t believe Hardy contributes anything to my own research because of his different approach. I’ve now read Hardy and will now contrast his approach with my own.

In truth, the Hardys have done among the deepest and most incisive analytical work anyone has done on the book. They have unfolded its structure, technique and meaning in marvelous ways and, to my mind, provided compelling evidence to support their conclusions. Understanding the Book of Mormon is a brilliant book, one that demands to be taken seriously. Knowing that Hardy brings to his reading of the BOM a very impressive background of textual studies (not just in Western but also Eastern literatures) makes me trust his analysis because as a fellow textual critic I know how and where to look for what is in a text.

A good example of his approach is found on page 142. I will focus on Alma’s relationship with his oldest son Helaman and “successor as high priest.” Alma recounts his conversion story to Helaman, which “may make us wonder about his relationship with Helaman,” who was “the one son he did not take with him on his missionary journey to the Zoramites at Antionum (Alma 31:6-7). Perhaps Helaman had other obligations that kept him at home, but there may have been spiritual concerns as well. It sounds as if Alma desperately wanted Helaman to take his words to heart.” Alma’s telling his conversion story “is the most complete account of his conversion we have.” “By contrast, we see only an abbreviated version in his words to his second son, Shiblon, along with an acknowledgment of Shiblon’s faithfulness and diligence.” “There is no similar praise for Helaman.”

This is just part of the story but it makes my point. There is a lot of speculation: “the urgency of Alma’s . . . retelling . . . may make us wonder about his relationship with Helaman”; “perhaps Helaman had other obligations that kept him at home”; “it sounds as if Alma desperately wanted.” Hardy certainly has a gift for making the characters come alive. But a literary analyst could paint a completely different picture of Alma’s and Helaman’s relationship. Hardy writes that Alma’s recounting his conversion story to Helaman “may make us wonder about his relationship with Helaman,” but it does no such thing. Indeed, if Alma is going to recount his conversion story to anyone, who better than to his oldest son Helaman, in preparing him to take charge of the records. Alma may well have left Helaman behind on his missionary journey because he was the nearest thing to a high priest in Alma’s absence. And Helaman may not have needed the explicit praise that Shiblon did, which related to his actions among the Zoramites, and Helaman was not there; Alma’s confidence in Helaman is shown by the long recounting of his conversion and as the designated receiver of the plates; Alma refers to each of his three sons as “my son,” but as “my son Helaman” four times (a term of endearment?), “my son Shiblon” once, but not once as “my son Corianton”; Alma was capable of criticizing a son’s behavior, as he does to Corianton but not to Helaman; and Alma advises Corianton to “counsel with [his] elder brothers.” This does not sound like Alma lacked confidence in Helaman. I will not even guess as to what Joseph Smith had in mind when he wrote this, other than to note that Alma’s conversion story is, as I wrote in my book, not the chiastic masterpiece that Jack Welch claims for it, or even a chiasm as Hardy calls it.

This seems another instance of your selective reading of Hardy. His “speculation” here is intentional–highlighting that while there are alternative ways of reading individual details, the entire package does, in fact, point to a single conclusion. But again, you stop before getting to the “clinching” arguments–1) Helaman was not Alma’s first choice to be recipient of the plates (as we don’t discover until an aside in Alma 50), and 2) Helaman does not fulfill either of the two imperatives of Nephite record keepers, i.e., writing a narrative or safely transferring the records to a successor. [See Understanding, p. 143)

It is so interesting that you criticize Hardy for speculating and yet your own study is highly speculative. In a sense, that is what we must do when we are dealing with literary texts. They are not scientific treatises or mathematical formulae and therefore they are subject to subjective readings based on the best objective evidence from the text itself. The question is the extent to which we present a coherent argument for our reading, based on the text. Reasonable people can differ on this (there are multiple readings of Hamlet and Moby-Dick) but as readers of critical writing, we have to decide if one argument is more persuasive than another. I argue in my review that your analysis of the BOM is what one might expect of a lawyer. That is, you think like a lawyer, you assemble evidence like a lawyer, and you argue like a lawyer. I’m sure you are a terrific lawyer; I just don’t think you are a very capable textual scholar. If I were involved in a law suit, I would certainly employ you over Grant Hardy, but textual criticism is not legal criticism.

In your next paragraph, in which you extol Hardy’s “much deeper, more careful and more precise analysis” than my own requires little comment, given his literary analysis as compared with my own approach. You note that Hardy “makes a convincing argument that there are three major narrators of the text—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni—and that each has a distinctively different style.” My research was to determine, in part, whether there was a difference among the several writers, and the evidence suggests that there is not, based, for example, on their vocabulary and idioms, and in contrast to the biblical writers, who are clearly different from them.

As I pointed out earlier (likely ad nauseam!), you are looking at/for the wrong things! If you are looking only at “vocabulary and idioms,” you will not see the kinds of significant stylistic differences in these writers’ expressions. In a way it is like looking in the trees for fish or in the sea for birds (that’s an exaggeration, of course, but I use it to make a point—if you don’t know what or how or where to look you are not likely to find it). That’s not a criticism of you, only recognition of our different education and experience. I would hope that someone with a legal problem wouldn’t accept my legal judgment over yours!

Of course, Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni wrote on significantly different things, Nephi writing a first person account of his journey to the western hemisphere, Mormon writing a third person abridgment of the historical and religious accounts of the Nephites and Lamanites, and Moroni writing both a third person account of the Jaredite history and a first person account of his own times. One would think their accounts would be noticeably different in style, but I believe that if Nephi wrote Mormon’s and/or Moroni’s accounts, they would be the same.

Based on the internal evidence you would be wrong! It isn’t just the narrative point of view or the subject that makes the difference, but what we might call a word/expression print—the tone, the stylistic pattern, the rhetorical complexity that make the difference. In the introduction to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wrote, “In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremist form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.” It takes an ear and eye finely attuned to style to discern stylistic differences. “Tone” is hardest to read in a text and yet it is the most revealing of an author’s intent.

And I’m surprised that Hardy would write that “the narrators are explicit, self-disclosing presences in the text in a way that Joseph Smith never is.” Joseph Smith was purporting to translate plates, not write them, so why should he be an “explicit, self-disclosing presence?” And Hardy just confirms my point that Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni are indistinguishable in being “explicit, self-disclosing presences.”

To begin with, Hardy’s point is that if Joseph Smith is the supposed author, then one might expect his writing of the BOM to reflect his writing style in other texts, which it clearly does not. And, far from confirming your point that the three authors “are indistinguishable,” his assertion is only that each, in his own way and style, is a “self-disclosing presence.”

You then write that my “own study contains a number of mistakes and careless errors,” giving some examples. I really appreciate this section because if anyone should be able to spot mistakes and errors in my book, it is you. I’ll comment on your examples in order:

  •  I wrote that “it is unclear why the Book of Mormon includes the book of Ether . . . .” The thrust of this statement is that the book of Ether adds little, if anything, of a religious nature to the Nephite history. It’s an abbreviated history of a people who self-destruct. The best reason for its inclusion, I believe, is that people were in the western hemisphere before the Nephites/Lamanites, as the story at the tower of Babel states. I wrote, of course, from the premise that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon and had to include it because the Bible says that people were here. That Mormon promises way back in the book of Mosiah to include the Jaredite story, as you note as the reason for the inclusion, does not answer the question of why the book of Ether is even included. Your answer just shows that Joseph Smith knew early on that he’d have to include a story of earlier people, but didn’t want to complicate the Nephite history so he made the Jaredite history short and sweet.

You say that the “book of Ether adds little of a religious nature”–Mormon’s objective in including Ether seems to be bringing resolution/closure to a prominent mystery (i.e., the Moisah found-artifacts drama) and for him, it appears, the non-Christian nature of the Jaredites made much of the “religious nature” of the account problematic for his purposes. Moroni transforms the meaning of the book of Ether with his interrupting editorial comments in a manner which adds a great deal to the “religious nature” of the entire, edited BOM: he uses the Jaredite account to make the entire BOM thoroughly typological for latter-day readers. The Lord brought a chosen people to this particular land of promise under certain covenantal conditions. When those conditions were violated by the people’s posterity God sent prophets to call them to repentance. When the prophets were repeatedly rejected, the covenant was brought to fruition and the people were swept off the land. In Moroni’s exegesis, this becomes a thrice-told tale–begun and tragically completed for the Jaredites & Lehites, and now begun–but still open–for latter-day Gentiles [see Ether 2:9-12].

• You write that Samuel the Lamanite explains why the unrighteous Lamanites were not swept off like the Jaredites, citing Hel. 15:10-13 for his explanation. Samuel’s explanation that the Lamanites were not swept off because of their once steadfastness is unconvincing and in any case seems to apply to the “latter times.” I suspect that Joseph Smith wanted to explain where the dark Indians came from, who they were, why they weren’t earlier destroyed as the Nephites were, and what could become of them.
• You may well be right that an angel and not Joseph Smith showed the plates to the three witnesses. I don’t remember where I got my information. An angel rather that Joseph Smith would strengthen the argument that the witnesses saw the plates in vision.
• You are also right (thank you for pointing out my errors) that the KJV is not based on the Greek texts of Isaiah. Of course it is the New Testament that comes from the Greek; the Old Testament, as far as I know, comes from the Hebrew.
• You’re right! “Abinadi” should be “Aminadi.”
• You’re technically right about Mark Thomas never being a professor at BYU. He was the full-time director of field studies in BYU’s Marriott School of Business from 2001 to 2007, when he was dismissed at the behest of the religion department essentially because of the publication of his book, Digging in Cumorah, in 2000, which was published before he was asked by BYU to join the staff. He tells me that students may have referred to him as “professor.”
• You’re right that Micah was an “eighth century BCE prophet, not a ‘late Old Testament author.’” In my defense, I should note that one of my editors included Micah, which I simply took at face value since I’m not a Bible scholar. I will also note two additional points, first, that the things and language attributed to Jesus, including the language from Micah, sound nothing like him in the Sermon on the Mount; and second, that the language from Micah quoted by Jesus shows Joseph Smith’s deep familiarity with the Bible (although he may have gotten some of the familiar language from the traveling preachers).
• Finally, you challenge my understanding of 2 Nephi 11:3. You say that this verse is not about latter-day witnesses to the Book of Mormon but is explicitly about Nephi, Jacob and Isaiah as witnesses of Christ. This is true as far as it goes, which is down to the semicolon. But then Nephi talks about sending their words [Jacob’s and Isaiah’s] forth to his [Nephi’s] children to prove that his [Nephi’s] words are true. The time periods are a little fuzzy but part of this section seems clearly to talk about the future, as, for example, 10:7, where God promises the Jews that when they believe in Christ they’ll be restored to the lands of their inheritance. And this chapter 10 goes on to talk about this land being a land of the Gentiles’ inheritance, a land of liberty with no kings, and about the Gentiles and the native Americans [Lamanites] and other things, which all seems to be about the United States as Joseph Smith knew it in the early 19th century. In chapter 11, it becomes less clear but Nephi talks about sending Isaiah’s words unto his people. Be this as it may, I should probably have quoted 2 Ne. 27:12-14, in which God expands on what Ether wrote at Ether 5:2-4 about three witnesses with no mention of any others. 2 Ne. 27:12-14 speaks about three witnesses to the Book of Mormon except for “a few according to the will of God,” and “as many witnesses as seemeth him good.” So due, perhaps, to a severe truncating of my manuscript, there IS a “rhetorical hedge” regarding the number of witnesses.

Unfortunately, because my family is coming for Christmas and I haven’t gotten a thing done, I don’t have time to address each of these points.

Following your list of mistakes that I made, you accuse me of being “deliberately unfair” to Joseph Smith for his mistakes. I’ve always maintained that dictating the Book of Mormon in three months was a remarkable achievement. We still know too little about the dictation process, but the “curiosities,” which differ in number and nature from my own, suggest that the book was not a translation from ancient gold plates but oversights by a gifted story teller.

In your following paragraph, you note that believers and nonbelievers alike make up their minds and then collect evidence to support their beliefs (with the exception of Grant and Heather Hardy). I was uncertain about the church when I began my study, bewildered by the opposing views of people like Fawn Brodie and Hugh Nibley. I began my study specifically to avoid as much bias as possible, hoping to follow the facts wherever they led, and they have led me to side with the nonbelievers. You may believe otherwise, but I can’t escape from the facts right there in the Book of Mormon, available for everyone to see.

But don’t you see that the point I have been making all along is what you consider “facts” is by no means universally agreed upon as significant facts. Again, I would point out that two lawyers can look at the same “facts” and come to opposite conclusions. That’s why I used the analogy of the Poe story—I think you are missing the blossoms on the leaves and the birds on the branches because you are looking for a forest—or, perhaps more accurately, because you are looking at the bark and pine needles! I don’t mean that to be unkind or unfair; it just seems to me that your kind of criticism is rather like what Edwin Arlington Robinson says about looking for God: ““The world is . . . a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

Your next paragraph praises Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. I’ve discussed Hardy enough and his literary analysis. You note that he provides both argument and counter-argument, but from my reading of the book, it is clear which side he is on.

Well, it is undoubtedly clear from anyone’s writing what “side” he or she is on (if indeed everyone has a side). I think the Hardys present a more balanced view than most. At the very least they seem to see some of the counter-arguments to their conclusions as valid and worthy of consideration, which is rare for writers on either side.

In your penultimate paragraph, you note a shift in my tone from the Introduction to the Conclusion. If this is true, it would seem that my book follows the same arc as my research, which began as uncertainty and ended up as near certainty.

In your concluding paragraph, you say some nice things about me and my approach, and I appreciate that. You are so bright and articulate and well-informed that I’m sure you have loyal followers in the church. I’m just disappointed that you will continue to defend the Book of Mormon, a book that has so many problems with it that reveal the book’s true provenance. You are helping to postpone the day when the truth will out.

The fact is, Earl, I remain open about the Book of Mormon. I am convinced from my years of serious study of it, that the case that it is an ancient document are more compelling by far than the case that it is a product of nineteenth century America. If someone were to find a MSS in the Library of Congress or the British Museum dating from the sixteenth century that included a history of Ancient Americans who came from the Near East and that had characters named Nephi, Moroni and Ether, I would have to seriously re-examine my position. I would hope that if some stele were uncovered in Guatemala that had the same names that you would also want to reconsider your position. Am I right?

Sincerely, Earl
November 10, 2014

As I said in my original review of your study, I am impressed with the dedication and diligence with which you have undertaken your study of the Book of Mormon. And I feel you raise some legitimate issues that need to be seriously considered. On the other hand, I think you either miss or ignore much that counters your conclusion about the book’s authorship. Unlike you, I am not “disappointed” that you continue to defend the book as a product of Joseph Smith’s mind and imagination—I am convinced that you do so out of integrity even as I am also convinced that you are misguided. The question of the book’s “true provenance” will likely remain an open issue; the question for any critic is whether he or she also remains open. As to the “day when the truth will out,” my guess is that will not likely come in this life.

I find the Book of Mormon an amazingly interesting book with a compelling message. What it teaches me of God, Christ, and the human family is of immense importance. What it teaches me about how to live my life is invaluable. Its messages are of far greater importance to me than questions about its authorship, although as a scholar those interest me a great deal. My sadness is related to people who, because they consider it has nineteenth century origins, stop reading it, cease looking for beauty and meaning in its pages, and make themselves immune to its powerful witness of Jesus Christ.

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Bob Rees holds a BA from Brigham Young University and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught at UCLA and UC Santa-Cruz and was a Fulbright Professor of American Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. Currently he teaches at Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley. Rees is the author and editor of numerous studies in the humanities, education and religion. He is the co-editor (with Eugene England) of The Reader’s Bookof Mormon (Signature Books, 2008) and the editor of Proving Contraries: A Collection ofWritings in Honor of Eugene England (Signature, 2005) and Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons (Signature, 2011). Currently, he is completing a second volume of Why I Stay and writing a books on Discipleship and Mormons and Gays. Rees has served as a bishop and a member of the Baltic States Mission presidency. He lives in Mill Valley, California.

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