Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On the Latest Anti-Mormon Attack on the Book of Mormon I

Paul Owen is a fairly nice guy. I know him. He is, nonetheless, an anti-Mormon. He has written books explicitly attacking Mormonism in general and the Book of Mormon in particular. His latest article also attacks the Book of Mormon. He concludes that the Book of Mormon is a "fictional (though ancient) narrative" (Paul Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture: A Thematic Analysis of 1 Nephi 13-14," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (?!) 23 [2014]: 100):
What I am suggesting, in essence, is that the Book of Mormon could be taken as a genuinely restored ancient text with a fictional narrative that originated in the Old World
(Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture," 99)
Since the Book of Mormon claims to have come from the New World, Owens is arguing that the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be.

Owen thinks that Joseph Smith took the narrative of the Book of Mormon (or at least 1 Nephi 13-14) from the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras. Owen does not explain that the 2 Esdras he discusses is not the 2 Esdras of the Septuagint but is the book that is also known as 4 Ezra. The earliest known version of it is not in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek but in Latin.

Owen skirts the issue of whether his proposal that it is authentically ancient and still modern fiction is logically coherent, but setting that concern aside for the moment, let us look at one particular point of his argument.

Owen thinks that Joseph Smith took the idea of brass plates from 2 Esdras/4 Ezra:
The books that are revealed to and dictated by Ezra are first written down on "writing tablets" (2 Esdras 14:24 NRSV; "box trees" KJV). So also the Book of Mormon ( cf. 1 Nephi 13:23; Mosiah 1:3).
(Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture," 92.)
Owen argues that "those curious references to Jews writing on "tablets" (2 Esdras 14:24) in obscure characters (2 Esdras 14:42)" are the origin of the idea of the Book of Mormon being written in strange characters on plates of gold or brass (Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture," 95). Therefore,
Joseph Smith (or someone in his circle) could have read 2 Esdras in the King James Version of the Apocrypha and perhaps had access to commentary on its meaning through libraries and cultural knowledge.
(Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture," 94.)
Consequently, Owen maintains
that the gold plates that were shown to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni [were] not necessarily historical artifacts from the history of the America
(Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture," 97.)
Owen thinks that his speculations 
would allow the Book of Mormon to be taken as simultaneously modern and fictional, on the one hand, and miraculous and inclusive of authentic ancient material on the other. It would thus bring the manner of the production of the Book of Mormon more in line with the restoration of other ancient texts (e.g., the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, Doctrine and Covenants 7).
(Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture," 98.)
So Owens makes the sweeping claim that like the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and part of the Doctrine and Covenants are fictional as well.

There are a couple of small problems with Owen's thesis. I will deal only with the problems with 2 Esdras/4 Ezra being the origin of the idea of the plates.

Owen gets the notion of "writing tablets" from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which was first published in 1989. The King James Version of the passage, which would have been available to Joseph Smith reads:
But look thou prepare thee many box trees, and take with thee Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Ecanus, and Asiel, these five which are ready to write swiftly; (2 Esdras/4 Ezra 14:24, KJV).
Owen does not actually cite the passage because his reader would have found his argument confused by the actual evidence.

So Owen appears to be arguing that Joseph Smith got his basic scenario for the Book of Mormon by reading a translation that was published 155 years after he died like Owen did. This argument is anachronistic.

Owen attempts to obfuscate the issue by opining:
there can be no doubt that Joseph Smith's access to 2 Esdras provides a simple, straightforward explanation of the textual evidence-with the exception of one point. The references in the text of 2 Esdras to Jews writing on "tablets" in "obscure characters" are unclear in the King James translation available to Joseph Smith. While a bit mysterious, this could potentially be explained in several ways: (1) Smith (or someone in his circle) could have intuitively surmised (based on the context) the underlying meaning of the King James renderings "box trees" (2 Esdras 14:24) and "which they knew not" (14:42) in a way that happens to correspond to modern English translations. (2) Smith (or someone in his circle) could have had access to annotations on the Apocrypha through various sources (libraries, local ministers, bookstores) that clarified the meaning. (3) These particular parallels between 1 Nephi 13-14 and 2 Esdras 14 could be coincidental, parallels of which Smith and his associates actually had no awareness prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon.
(Owen, "Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,"96.)
Of course, Owen's argument has major historical problems:

Joseph Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, described him as
a boy, eighteen years of age, who had never read the Bible through in his life: he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.
( Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and his Progenitors for Many Generations (Lamoni, IA: The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1912, reprinted Independence, Missouri: Herald, 1969), 92 = Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1901), 82.)
Joseph Smith had not read the Bible and was not inclined to read much anyway.

Joseph Smith's close associates, like David Whitmer, agreed with Lucy Mack Smith claiming that when Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon:
Smith was ignorant of the Bible.
(M. J. Hubble interview of David Whitmer, 13 November 1886, in Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin, 1991), 211.)
Multiple accounts of the First Vision indicate that Joseph Smith found James 1:5 simply by flipping through the Bible at random. In an 1843 interview, Joseph Smith said that:
There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious, and was desirous to know what Church to join. While thinking of this matter, I opened the Testament promiscuously on these words, in James, 'Ask of the Lord who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not.' I just determined I'd ask him.
("The Praries, Nauvoo, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c." The Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette 58 [September 15, 1843]: 3, reprinted in Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989], 1:444.)
Alexander Niebaur records Joseph Smith as telling him:
Joseph tolt us the first call he had a Revival meeting his mother & Br & Sist got Religion, he wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel & sho shout like the Rest but could feel nothing, opened his Bible f the first Passage that struck him was if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberallity & upbraidat not went into the Wood to pray
(Alexander Neibaur Journal, 24 May 1844, in Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:641.)
Joseph Smith's own Bible was not purchased until 8 October 1829 when the Book of Mormon was being printed.

Joseph Smith seems to have first systematically read the Bible when he was doing his own translation. When he got to the apocrypha (such as 2 Esdras/4 Ezra) he received D&C 91 and consequently seems to have skipped the apocrypha altogether. He thus seems never to have read any of the apocrypha in his life.

So Joseph Smith never read the Bible before he translated the Book of Mormon, did not even own one, and was ignorant of it. He seems never to have read the apocrypha in his life. The idea that he got the idea for the Book of Mormon by reading an apocryphal book seems far-fetched.

If Joseph Smith were to get the idea for the plates by reading an apocryphal book, then why 2 Esdras/4 Ezra and not 1 Maccabees? After all, Jews writing on brass plates is explicitly mentioned there:
τοῦτο τὸ ἀντίγραφον τῆς ἐπιστολῆς ἧς ἀντέγραψαν ἐπὶ δέλτοις χαλκαῖς
This is the copy of the letter which they copied on brass plates (1 Maccabees 8:22).
ἔγραψαν πρὸς αὐτὸν δέλτοις χαλκαῖς
And they wrote to him brass plates (1 Maccabees 14:18)
καὶ κατέγραψαν ἐν δέλτοις χαλκαῖς καὶ ἔθεντο ἐν στήλαις ἐν ὄρει σιων
And they wrote down in brass plates and placed them on stele on Mount Zion (1 Maccabees 14:26)
τὴν γραφὴν ταύτην εἶπον θέσθαι ἐν δέλτοις χαλκαῖς
And they said to put this writing on brass plates (1 Maccabees 14:48)
These passages would not necessarily have helped Joseph Smith because this is how they were translated in the King James Version:
And this is the copy of the epistle which the senate wrote back again in tables of brass, and sent to Jerusalem, that there they might have by them a memorial of peace and confederacy: (1 Maccabees 8:22 KJV)
They wrote unto him in tables of brass, to renew the friendship and league which they had made with Judas and Jonathan his brethren: (1 Maccabees 14:18 KJV)
So then they wrote it in tables of brass, which they set upon pillars in mount Sion: and this is the copy of the writing; The eighteenth day of the month Elul, in the hundred threescore and twelfth year, being the third year of Simon the high priest, (1 Maccabees 14:27 KJV)
So they commanded that this writing should be put in tables of brass, and that they should be set up within the compass of the sanctuary in a conspicuous place; (1 Maccabees 14:48 KJV)
While none of these passages match the language of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith probably never saw them in his life, they are much closer than imagining that Joseph Smith somehow got the idea for the Book of Mormon by reading about box trees.


Paul Owen's argument posits that Joseph Smith got the idea for the Book of Mormon by reading a book which historical sources deny that he read, in a translation published over a century and a half after he died.

There are a number of words one could use to describe Owen's argument, but scholarship is not one of them.