The BoM’s “J” Source: Joseph Smith

I’m intrigued by Blake Ostler’s 1987 paper “the book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source.” Ostler explores a medley of methodological approaches to the Book of Mormon, including source-, motif-, and form-criticism. He argues that the Book of Mormon can neither be explained as a nineteenth-century invention, nor as an exact equivalent to some ancient document from the plates. He suggests instead that Joseph Smith did have an ancient manuscript which he was inspired to translate, be he freely added his own material to the text as part of a “creative co-participation” (109).

As Ostler put it: “if the expansion theory of the Book of Mormon is correct, then the vast majority of theories, both pro and con, have assumed far too much by simply pointing to parallels” (79). His paper does offer an alternative to the polarizing “parallelomania.” In effect, both sides win. However, each party has to suffer some capitulations in order to accommodate Ostler’s theory.

For example, I don’t know of many (any) critical scholars outside of the church who would accept the common LDS belief shared by Ostler that real plates actually existed containing an ancient Christian document. Yet I suspect that Ostler did not intend his theory to be primarily for non-LDS critical scholars. Rather, it seems to be an apologia for fundamental Mormon beliefs – one which also incorperates principles of modern critical scholarship.

Perhaps the more important questions, then, involve the loss suffered by faithful Mormons who espouse Ostler’s theory: what can be said of a text that is not uniformly translated from an ancient source? Is it really possible to differentiate between Joseph Smith and the ancient authors? Finally, why would God make the revelatory process of translation so vague as to allow Joseph Smith to add his own glosses to the “most correct book on earth?” Kevin Barney has elaborated a bit on Ostler’s theory (p. 142 f), as I’m sure others have. Nevertheless, I find myself questioning the theological implications of a document that was ostensibly preserved by prophets, recovered through the help of divine agents, accompanied by ancient instruments, only to be loosely translated.

12 Replies to “The BoM’s “J” Source: Joseph Smith”

  1. I believe in a far less “radical” alternative. Joseph Smith used his own language and experiences to translate what was written by the ancient prophets. He didn’t change what they were saying, but he did say it in a more modern way. In other words, he didn’t add or expand on anything. He just bridged the gap of some cultural differences.At first that might not make sense. However, that is how translation works in most cases. There is never any point for point transference of language. Even ideas can be lost without some adjustments. Ostler to me just added too much complication to something not that hard to comprehend.

  2. In personal correspondence from Blake in 2002, and published in FR 16:1, “Truth and Method” by Kevin Christensen, Blake offered this comment on his expansion hypothesis:”As new evidence surfaces indicating that primary ideas previously thought to be Christian were in fact excised from the preexilic text, the content of the plates rather than Joseph Smith’s midrashic expansion should grow. In my original article, I suggested, for example, that the phraseology of secret societies in the Book of Mormon seemed to be nineteenth century—it turns out that a lot of what I suggested was nineteenth century may well be explainable in terms of ancient counterparts.”Blake has also stated that his 1987 view of the atonement in the Book of Mormon as derived from St. Anselm is was a mistake. Still, it’s a valuable article for many reasons. Just not the last word on the topic.Kevin ChristensenPittsburgh, PA

  3. I think it primarily an important thing to note about the text. That our received text may have expansions and asides not in the original text. That may be due to a complex interplay between God and Joseph. But I think it almost certainly the case that had we the original texts that we’d find expansions and then even some loose translations so as to convey connotation better.

  4. He didn’t change what they were saying, but he did say it in a more modern way.jettboy, are you serious? The BofM’s language is one of the poorest duplications of Jacobean English on the planet. If anything, it’s less modern than the prose of the text it was attempting to duplicate – the KJV.Ostler’s idea is tempting. I haven’t read it. It sounds like he’s taking more of a grammatical-textual approach? Is that correct? I think if we look at the BofM thematically, it smacks of early 19th century evangelical debates, which I think is the best hermeneutic through which to interpret it. Peadobaptism (Moroni 8?), pneumatology (2 Ne. 31), even modalistic trinitarianism (Mosiah 15). Ostler might have his textual reasons for both camps, but thematically it seems obvious, to me anyway.Good post!

  5. Perhaps the more important questions, then, involve the loss suffered by faithful Mormons who espouse Ostler’s theory: what can be said of a text that is not uniformly translated from an ancient source?I think Stephen Robinson’s rebuttal of expansion theories needs to be considered (“The Expanded Book of Mormon?” in Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Second Nephi: The Doctrinal Structure (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 393–94.) Robinson is not so concerned about the explanatory power of the thesis, but its unacceptable theological implications. As a theological pragmatist, I have to agree with him.

  6. Anon,Can you explain why you think that a hypothesis should be rejected because of preconceived “theological” implications? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, that theology should take the backseat to explanatory power of a hypothesis? Personally, I find that to accept a theological position when that doesn’t fit the evidence more problematic pragmatically than dealing with the theological implications of a well-reasoned hypothesis.

  7. tt,I was just addressing the original question about “the loss suffered by faithful Mormons who espouse Ostler’s theory,” and was only agreeing that the theological implications were deleterious to faith. But I’ll expand a bit.I think Robinson’s point, in part, is that theological assumptions are foundational to this or any hypothesis concerning the relationship of the BoM translation to its source, since there is no way to assess it against its source. We don’t have the plates. These competing hypotheses are ultimately based on whether one believes a priori that there were plates or not, and if so, was Joseph really providing a translation of them or not? Given no plates and an historical and literary vacuum, precisely what evidence are we talking about here? In this case, then, to reject the antecedent assumptions is to necessarily reject the conclusions.As for your question, personal theological belief may be expressive of just about any nexus of culture and experience, but to me “theology” proper is dialectic and can only exist within communities. More specifically, its the discourse of religious communities and contingent on shared history, experience, and culture. As the product of consensus, it exists independent of any particular person or idea. So for me, to say this expansion hypothesis is theologically valid is to say it is in harmony with (as best one can determine) Mormon theological consensus. I don’t believe it is.In my view, then, theology certainly can be, and constantly is, modified by the shifting currents of culture and critical thought, but I guess I just don’t frame that question the same way you do. All of us can assess theology, but none of us can determine it.But you may find this more satisfying: in terms of personal faith I agree with you. My pragmatism has two sides. My Pannenbergian side rejects, for myself, any theological position that is contrary to my own broader apprehension of truth. I’m helpless to do otherwise. But vis-a-vis the church, my approach to theology is utilitarian. If a theological proposal is not constructive of faith, it will not be accepted by the church. The church is helpless to do otherwise. And if it’s not acceptable to the church, whatever its merits, it is theologically irrelevant.

  8. anon,I suppose that I can agree that theological presuppositions are always at play in the kinds of hypotheses that we present. It seems to me that Robinson’s position, as you characterize it, argues that since our presuppositions produce the results that they entail, that we should just pick the theological presupposition that best suits us. However, I am not convinced that all we have are our presuppositions. Critical scholarship depends upon the investigation of these presuppositions. As for Ostler’s hypothesis, it does presuppose the existence of plates, but it comes to a different historical (and theological) conclusion. As for the evidence that is at play here, I think that we have a lot more than nothing. I don’t really understand this majoritarian theological position. What exactly is the point? At most, this might be useful for doing descriptive sociological work, but it essentially makes doing theology impossible. You seem to be saying that no group or individuals in Mormonism can actually do constructive theology since members wont necessarily believe it. But this makes no sense since the community of the church is made of individuals. I am a Mormon. I do constructive theology. Therefore, Mormons can do constructive theology. The only way that it can become relevant is by doing it. Finally, I don’t really see how you are holding together pragmatism and utilitarianism for assessing theology (perhaps I’m not sure exactly what you mean in the way that you are using these terms). I see theological work arising out of problems present within the faith. If other people don’t see those problems, so what? This is a specialized activity. Most people don’t worry about gravity, but there are a lot of scientists who think about the problems it presents.

  9. tt,I apologize for being unclear. The danger of dashing off quick blog posts on topics deserving long discussion. I’ll try to better avoid ambiguous terms. I also won’t say anything more on Robinson, since I haven’t read the piece for many years, and may be misrepresenting him. But particulars aside, if I conveyed a reductionist critique, well, he tends to do that for effect. I think he recognizes the realities are somewhat more complex.I don’t disagree with you at all on the possibility of any particular new theological articulation becoming influential within the church, but for me the probability is an important consideration in evaluating validity or relevance. As I said, “theology certainly can be, and constantly is, modified by the shifting currents of culture and critical thought.” Mormon theology is of course nothing other than Mormons theologizing, and the theological reflections of one Mormon can be influential on the many. I think Robinson himself did this with Believing Christ. But revision at the blurry margins (the Mormon theology of grace) is much easier than at the center (belief that the BoM is a literal translation of an ancient record). For myself, I feel Ostler’s hypothesis is so contrary to a foundational Mormon dogma that it stands no chance of acceptance. It may be brilliant in every respect, but I’m confident it is not and will never be broadly accepted as Mormon theology. If only Blake and a handful of others accept his position, you can of course maintain it is “Mormon theology” because a Mormon arrived at it, or because it is treating Mormon distinctives. But if only a handful of Mormons believe it, or even know of its existence, is it “Mormon theology” in the normative sense of that term? I would be happy to call Blake’s thesis “brilliant non-normative Mormon theology,” but that amounts to saying it is both currently and prospectively irrelevant to the church and its received, “majority” theology. I confess I just tend to say it’s irrelevant.Would you disagree that orthodox Mormon theology is a cardinal standard against which Mormon theological propositions should be judged valid/invalid, relevant/irrelevant, or whatever term of art you prefer? If received Mormon belief is not a cardinal (though not exclusive) referent for “Mormon theology,” what would make a theological proposition Mormon rather than Catholic or Lutheran or Ostlerian or Trailertrashian? If Blake becomes a Rastafarian, does his thesis then become Rastafarian theology? Even if we grandfather it in, can a Rastafarian Blake then continue to write Mormon theology, or is it this-or-that by virtue of the author’s religious affiliation? Do anti-Mormon formulations of Mormon belief qualify as Mormon theology? Is Warren Jeffs’ theology Mormon? Sterling Mcmurrin’s? For me this is not some puerile exclusion by naming, or even sociological description, but a basic part of establishing the rules of discourse and qualifying what doing theology well means in the context of Mormon theology. Mormon orthodoxy is not for me just a starting point for doing Mormon theology, but the context within which it must be done to remain Mormon in character. It’s malleable, but not without boundaries, and as a consensual construct can only change through consensus. But what is the defining characteristic of Mormon theology for you? How does one evaluate Mormon theology, not as good or bad history, or literary analysis, or philosophy, but precisely as “Mormon theology”?

  10. anon,Basically, if I have understood you, I think that you are conflating two very different issues: what the majority of Mormons believe and what Mormons can believe. You take the majority belief to be not only descriptive, but normative. I think that this faces two problems. First, it assumes that what is normative is equivalent to what the majority of members believe. But what is a majority? 51%? Then are all the 49% who believe something different no longer “Mormon”? Also, what if most members believe something that is different from the official pronouncements? I have a strong feeling that most members watch rated R movies. Does that mean that Mormon doctrine is that watching rated R movies is okay? My point is that I am not sure that what most Mormons believe can be determined nor should it be the standard by which normative doctrine should be established. My second problem has to do with the conflation between what is actually Mormon doctrine with what can possibly be Mormon doctrine. I strongly disagree that possibility is determined by actuality, since we both agree that Mormons have believed differently in the past and will believe differently in the future. How then is possibility determined? Well, this is obviously more complex and I am not sure that I have a sure answer. Since we’re talking about Robinson, the fact that he (and others) have brought about an evangelical détente is something that 30 years ago would have scarcely been considered possible in Mormonism. Some, like myself, still don’t really see this as legitimately “Mormon” in the sense that I would like to see Mormonism articulated differently. However, I am willing to allow multiple varieties of Mormon theology, something that your definition seems to preclude a priori. For me, the “relevance” and “validity” of a certain theological position has more to do with its merits in solving certain problems than whether Sister Betty in my ward has heard of it. I understand that you want to draw boundaries on what can count as “Mormon”, and I don’t think that this is unnecessary. However, I think that we need to be very critical of the criteria that we use in doing so. The criteria are never free from ideological interest and I am curious as to why certain lines get drawn and not others. As for Ostler being within the bounds of Mormonism, the fact that he hasn’t been excommunicated is enough for me to consider it a possible “Mormon” theology, even if I might disagree with it.

  11. tt,I’m still not sure how you qualify theology, or even a theology, as Mormon, but you raise some good points. This is all getting far beyond the thread topic, but I’ll offer a few final thoughts and welcome any last comments you may have. I’m not sure we’re really that far apart as much as focusing on different parts of the whole.Per your two concerns: (1) Mormons can and do believe just about everything, but out of this infinite plurality I believe some broadly recognizable formulation of what Mormons believe, in the aggregate, can be abstracted. You use the term “majority,” but I only used it in quotes, citing you. I’d have no idea as to how to even determine majority belief, strictly speaking, on any particular point and I’m not talking about theological definition through polling. When I say “orthodox” or “received” Mormon theology, I mean what many in the blogosphere call “correlated orthodoxy.” If I had to hazard a definition, perhaps: “The current official teaching of the church as found in the official publications of the church and the teachings of its general officers; and that superset of LDS theological belief which Mormons generally find to accord with revelation and scripture.”If that does not lead straight to a cut and dried theology, well, I agree, and many of us would like one. But when someone asks, “What do Mormons believe about X?” it would be misleading to say, e.g., “Just ask anon; whatever he believes is what Mormons believe.” That is my point: it is not just the belief of any single individual. I believe most Mormons accept correlated orthodoxy as “what Mormons believe,” making it indeed in some sense majority belief, even if most are only acquainted with a fraction of the total, or even misunderstand what they do know. Understanding is not necessary for assent, just for informed assent, which most people have surprisingly little interest in. Still, if most Mormons agree that this is what Mormons believe, I’d say this is in fact what they believe, i.e., their theology. Mormon theology. As for the difficulty of determining that belief, that is precisely the challenge and purpose of theology. However hard to particularize, I’m not sure what other general definition of “Mormon theology” one might offer. The beliefs of theologically well-informed Mormons? That would be the theology of an immeasurably small fraction. But please, give me a more coherent definition.Also, your example concerning R-rated movies is, I think, invalid, since it speaks to practice, not belief. I suspect most active members do not in fact watch them, and that of those who do, most would admit that it goes against the teaching of the church. Though I’d be happy to leave that particular teaching aside as of ambiguous orthodoxy. There are infinite grey areas; we’re a young church and our theology is skeletal. But I still maintain there is a great divide between belief and practice and that neither determines the other. We all act contrary to both professed and actual beliefs. Examples could be endlessly multiplied. (2) Not sure precisely what you’re angling at here, since I said categorically: “I don’t disagree with you at all on the possibility of any particular new theological articulation becoming influential within the church,” by which I meant, becoming doctrine, theology, whatever. But while I believe theological change is undetermined, it is not uninfluenced. Theology changes, but is contingent and does not arise de ipso. When I said that Blake’s hypothesis “will never be broadly accepted as Mormon theology,” that was an assessment of probability, not possibility. I never meant to conflate the actual with the possible, and confess I can’t see where I did that. But if I did, I misspoke.As for the possibility of “multiple varieties of Mormon theology,” I accept that as fact, but as I’ve said, individual Mormon theologies can take virtually any form. I know a Mormon who believes in the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that is “Mormon theology,” of any recognizable stripe, and certainly is non-representative. Again, as I said, I’m happy to say Blake’s hypothesis is “brilliant non-normative Mormon theology.” If you reject normativity as a criterion for validity, fine and well. I’m concerned in the first place here with how language is used (the adjective “Mormon,” used abstractly), not how we arrive at Ultimate Truth or even just compelling theology.As for “relevance” or “validity” or “merits in solving certain problems,” I think these are the most potent stimulators of theological change, and these are all reasons why I believe Blake’s hypothesis will never be broadly accepted by the church. It addresses a problem virtually no Mormon sees (irrelevant), it violates foundational dogma (invalid), and it creates more theological problems than it solves (lacks merit; see Robinson). But I expect we still disagree. Maybe the more basic question is who should determine theological relevance, validity, and merit with respect to “Mormon” doctrine. I say the church does, as a whole, however messy and ambiguous that may be, because when the adjective “Mormon” is used in the abstract, it refers to Mormonism in the abstract, not any particular Mormon or select group of Mormons.Perhaps you wish to establish that the theologies of theologically capable and informed Mormons, however diverse and nonrepresentitive, are as valid as “majority” or “orthodox” or “normative” theology. Ok, fine. I’ll even call them Mormon theology, at least here. I think we understand each other. But I hope I’m clear now on what I, and I think most people, understand that term to represent.I still hold out that perhaps we’re mainly talking past each other. Mormon theology is what we do and can believe as Mormons. Maybe I’m putting “do” first where you put “can” first. Yes, theology is partly a descriptive exercise, but I don’t find that dull. But I’m an intellectual historian. You seem more exclusively interested in what we can believe. Perhaps you’re a philosopher. I think theology is a nexus of both actualities and possibilities, not one or the other. Does that take us closer to rapprochement?

  12. anon,Thank you for this very interesting dialogue. I am quite sure that we have not yet exhausted exactly what is at stake in this discussion, but I appreciate you indulging me for so long. At this point, I feel like you are conceding my main points, but not granting the implications of these points. I will try my best to crystallize my position. I am arguing that there is no set thing that constitutes “Mormon theology.” It has no essence. Instead, I am conceiving of “Mormon theology” as a discourse. I don’t think that one can provide a definition of essence for Mormon theology for the reasons that I provided above: 1) there is no agreement on what it is even within Mormonism and 2) it is constantly changing. I would add here more clearly that I fundamentally disagree with the attempt to create a fixed definition of “Mormon theology” because such definitions are not only “descriptive,” but also “normative.” That is, definitions which seek to draw boundaries between “this” and “that” produce the boundary, they do not represent it. I think that our major disagreement is on this last point. I cannot take exclusionary definitions about Mormon theology as binding because the very basis for determining these definitions that you have given are extremely problematic (“what most members believe,” “majority,” “correlated orthodoxy,” “orthodoxy”). Finally, “Mormon theology” cannot be an exercise in description. Description is sociology, or history, or something like that. The question of “What do Mormons believe about X?” is not a theological question. The reasons that Mormons believe such and such may be theological, but the question and its answer are not. Also, as I have argued above, the very basis of the question is wrong. The answer is that Mormons do and can believe all sorts of things.Our fundamental disagreement is about how the boundaries of categories are policed. I see these categories as in flux, under contestation, diverse, and producing problems and possibilities. I see your attempt to fix a definition about what counts as Mormon theology to both obscure the reality of the discourse and exclude certain options based on ideological presuppositions.

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