A Recent “Anti-Mormon” Essay: Trying to Understand Gee’s Response, Part I

The most recent volume of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (JBMS) includes a number of scholarly essays by researchers who are either established in the field of Mormon Studies or are promising to play a big role in this next generation of Mormon scholarship. Every essay has its own new offering to add to understanding the Book of Mormon (BM). Each of these scholars except Dr. Paul Owen is a member of the LDS church, and it seems that has played a big part in a recent misreading of his essay by Dr. John Gee, a Senior Research Fellow and the William (Bill) Gay Research Professor at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.[1]

Gee begins his first response by painting a rather negative picture of Owen. He states that Owen “is a fairly nice guy,” but nonetheless he is “an anti-Mormon.” Gee claims that Owen has written books that both attack Mormonism and the BM, but the only book that fits this description is The New Mormon Challenge published back in 2002. Owen was one of three editors of that volume, and has changed his approach to Mormonism immensely since then. Since 2002 Owen has published in BYU professor of Philosophy David L. Paulsen’s festschrift,[2] and several essays in Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology. It seems that Gee is either unaware of these newer publications or used the term “anti-Mormon” to disparage his character and his essay in the JBMS.

I don’t want to go into all of the details concerning my disagreement with Gee and his (mis)understanding of Owen’s article. Rather, I would like to focus my attention on three points of emphasis. I will show (1) Gee’s misrepresentation of Owen’s essay, (2) his lack of understanding of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra, (3) Gee’s response also shows a lack of rigor in checking historical sources in making his critique of Owen’s paper, and (4) his unawareness of the field of intertextuality in general. In this initial post I will address points one through three, and in a second part I will address the fourth issue.


Where’s the Other Half?

If Gee’s description of Owen’s essay is taken at face value it seems that the only reason Owen wrote the paper was to attack the BM and argue that Joseph Smith (JS) “got his basic scenario for the Book of Mormon by reading” 2 Esdras/4 Ezra. Gee focuses his response solely on the last half of Owen’s paper, pages 91-100, completely ignoring pages 81-90. The first half of Owen’s essay explores the literary structure and theology of 1 Ne. 13-14, making fresh contributions to the identification of the “great and abominable church,” along with other aspects of the narrative that are depicted throughout this pericope. Owen provides a detailed close reading of these chapters and this contribution to the wider field of Mormon Studies should be applauded, not ignored. If Gee had paid closer attention to this section he might have better understood the overall argument of Owen’s paper.


(Mis)understanding the Details

Gee makes a few passing comments that attempt to undermine the accuracy (and academic quality) of Owen’s paper. Gee states,

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.

There are several problems with Gee’s assertion. First, Owen actually does explain which 2 Esdras he is talking about. On page 91 of his paper, Owen states, “…these references in 1 Nephi 13-14 appear to bear some connection…to the contents of 2 Esdras 14 in the Apocrypha.” The Geneva Bible (1560), the Bishops’ Bible (1568), the King James Version (1611), and the Revised Standard Version (1957) all have the title of this book in their translations of the Apocrypha as “2 Esdras.” Therefore, contrary to Gee’s assertion, Owen does identify which book 2 Esdras is. He could not have expressed the point with greater clarity.

Second, Gee is confused about which books constitute 2 Esdras in the Septuagint (LXX). In the LXX 2 Esdras is the canonical books Ezra and Nehemiah, but in some manuscripts they are simply given their respective titles. Those manuscripts do not include a book “2 Esdras.”[3] 2 Esdras in the LXX (Ezra and Nehemiah) is not included in any list of apocryphal or pseudepigraphic literature. For Gee to state that Owen needs to clarify that 2 Esdras is 4 Ezra and not the 2 Esdras of the LXX is misleading. His argument simply doesn’t make any sense. It would have been better for Gee to simply leave this point unaddressed since his comment illustrates that he has not analyzed the details closely enough.

Lastly, Gee makes the argument that the earliest known version of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra is not in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, but this is only half true. It seems that the reason Gee makes this argument is to distance the 2 Esdras/4 Ezra from the BM because the earliest known version is in Latin, and could not have had an impact on the BM according to its historical claims. Gee’s statement is accurate in that we have no extant Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek manuscripts of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra. But this does not mean that Latin is “the earliest known” version. No scholar today who has studied this text in detail thinks that the Latin text (along with the Syriac, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Coptic translations) is the original version. These texts are all thought by scholars to have been translated directly from their Greek antecedent texts.[4] This has been established in great detail by G. Mussies’ essay, “When Do Graecisms Prove that a Latin Text Is a Translation.”[5] Beyond the fact that scholars agree that the extant versions all derive from the Greek, the consensus today is that this Greek translation was taken from a Hebrew original.[6] Gee’s statement quoted above is inaccurate in many details, as will be seen throughout the rest of his two-part response.


The “Box Trees” of the KJV

Gee tends to focus on this single connection made by Owen throughout his response, which has in turn led many of Gee’s readers commenting online to think this is the only literary connection Owen makes. Gee first notes the connection made by Owen, then states that in Owen’s opinion these tablets “are the origin of the idea of the Book of Mormon being written in strange characters on plates of gold or brass” and cites page 95 of Owen’s essay. In reality, Owen makes the exact opposite argument on that page:

If Joseph Smith, rather than relying on the printed text of 2 Esdras, was exposed by divine encounter and inspiration to a body of ancient lore that eventually found its way into Jewish-Christian apocalyptic works (cf. 2 Esdras 13:41-42), this would explain why we find those curious references to Jews writing on “tablets” (2 Esdras 14:24) in obscure characters (2 Esdras 14:42)–both of which details were only cryptically expressed in the English language of the rendition of the Apocrypha to which the prophet had ready access. (p. 95)

Owen also continues on the next page (96) to explain again that “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.” This undermines Gee’s argument that “Owen does not actually cite the passage because his reader would have found his argument confused by the actual evidence.” Not only does he explicitly state that the KJV had a different translation, but he also includes that evidence in the list of literary correspondences on page 92, which is also quoted by Gee. It is not that difficult, as a reader of Gee’s response, to see the evidence that argued against his mischaracterization of Owen’s essay in this instance.

There is also another point that I would like to make that has been overlooked by both Gee and Owen in relation to the “box trees” translation in the KJV. Owen argues several ways that JS or his associates could have plausibly known what “box trees” meant in the KJV 2 Esdras 14:24. He argues that (1) JS or someone he knew could have read and understood the context of 2 Esdras in a way that works with modern translations, (2) JS or someone he knew could have had access to materials or persons that could have clarified the meaning, or (3) the parallels between 2 Esdras and 1 Ne. could be coincidental. I would like to contribute to number two on this list by making an important note on the versions of the KJV that were being printed at the relevant time before the translation of the BM.

Not all copies of the KJV had the Apocrypha included in them in the early 19th century, but many of them did. I have looked at several printings and by far the majority of them include the following note in the margin next to 2 Esdras 14:24 for “box-trees”:[7]

||Or, box tables to write on,

See ver. 44.

This note could have provided the information to JS and his associates that Owen cites in his second possibility. This fact makes it completely unnecessary for JS to have read anything outside of his bible, or any copy of the bible that had the Apocrypha included with notes. The majority of King James bibles that included the Apocrypha in JS’s day had notes. This also undermines Gee’s entire argument against Owen, stating that “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 [the NRSV] after he died like Owen did. This argument is anachronistic.” Not only is Gee wrong here in his characterization of Owen’s argument, there is further evidence in copies of the bible themselves at JS’s time that support Owen’s number two suggestion. This still doesn’t mean that JS got the “basic scenario” for the BM from 2 Esdras in the marginal notes in his KJV. This simply means that this single literary connection is even stronger than Owen thought himself.


Joseph Smith, the Bible, and Historical Documents

Gee claims that Owen’s argument that JS’s “access to 2 Esdras provides a simple, straightforward explanation of the textual evidence” has major historical flaws. In a very confusing section to probably anyone who has read anything about JS’s history, Gee uses Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet to argue, “Joseph Smith had not read the Bible and was not inclined to read much anyway.” Gee also quotes a line from an 1886 interview with David Whitmer that JS “was ignorant of the Bible.” Gee goes on to argues that “Multiple accounts of the First Vision indicate that Joseph Smith found James 1:5 simply by flipping through the Bible at random.” Both of the accounts that Gee quotes come late in JS’s life, the first in 1843 and the second in 1844, and neither come from JS himself.

Gee does nothing with these sources to weigh their accuracy with earlier, more authoritative accounts of this experience. He doesn’t discuss the difference between these accounts from third parties and those written earlier in JS’s own hand. He simply uses these to craft his argument because they go along better with his view that JS was not familiar with the bible “before he translated the Book of Mormon,” and that he “seems to have first systematically read the Bible when he was doing his own translation [of the bible].”

There are several accounts of the first vision that were produced by JS throughout his lifetime.[8] In the 1832 account JS discusses how at the age of twelve he became very religious and

seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns of for the welfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that <they did not adorn> instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul[9]

JS not only claimed in this account that he was familiar with the bible at an early age, but that he felt that he could discern by reading the scriptures that the different Christian denominations he was familiar with did not practice what he found was in the bible. He claimed an intimate relationship with not only his neighbors, but also the bible itself.

In the 1835 account JS said that at the age of “about 14. years old” that “information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to I to obtain it.”[10] He had gone into the grove to pray because he had read James 1:5 and had taken it seriously. The image that the 1835 account portrays is not one of “promiscuously” opening to this verse and then going out to pray in the woods soon after. JS describes himself as one taking the matter very seriously, and turning to what he had learned in the bible itself to find out how he was to go about getting his important information.

In the 1838 account, which is the source text of the current printed edition of Joseph Smith–History in the Pearl of Great Price, JS describes himself as “one day reading the Epistle of James, First Chapter and Fifth verse…”[11] In this account he describes himself as actually reading the Epistle of James, not randomly opening the bible and falling on a single verse.

In the 1842 account printed in the Times and Seasons JS describes himself again as being actively involved in investigating the various denominations. He believed that the groups were so different that not all of them could be right, because God would not reveal one plan to one group and another plan to others. “Believing the word of God I had confidence in the declaration of James,” which he then quoted James 1:5 in full as he did in the other accounts. JS did not accidentally fall onto this verse in the 1842 account either. He was intimately acquainted with it and knew that he believed in it.

All of JS’s own personal accounts argue against the description of his lack of knowledge of the bible in the later 1843 and 1844 depictions that Gee cites. They describe JS as being heavily involved in the process of searching for a church, and searching through the bible at a young age to see what denomination closest fit his understanding of the text or to discern how he was to obtain the answers he needed. This evidence goes against Gee’s statement that “Joseph Smith never read the Bible before he translated the Book of Mormon.”

As conclusive as the different firsthand accounts of JS’s first vision are, I think it is important to also make another note that helps to clarify JS’s acquaintance with the bible. Although Gee, along with various other researchers in the past, uses Lucy Smith’s words to paint a picture of JS as never reading the bible, there are other statements in her Biographical Sketches that accord with JS’s own statements about his early use of the bible.

After the death of JS’s older brother Alvin a minister attempted to get all of the denominations in their area to come together and worship as one. Lucy and many of the family felt that this was right and wanted to join in with the movement, but JS protested to his mother about his own involvement. When asked if he would attend the meetings he said,

Mother, I do not wish to prevent your going to meeting, or any of the rest of the family’s; or your joining any church you please; but, do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time.[12]

This important information, left out of the conversation by Gee, agrees with JS’s description of himself at this time of his life. Although he might not have been prone to long periods of reading in front of family, JS was nevertheless well acquainted with the many books found in the bible from his own personal reading. From my perspective Lucy’s statement that JS had never read the bible through in his life only applies to the possibility that he never read every single verse from beginning to end up to that period of his life. In any case, Gee oversteps the historical evidence when he claims that JS was not familiar at all with the bible until after he translated the BM, and even then only when he went through his revision of the KJV.

Another piece of evidence that can only briefly be mentioned is the fact that the early revelations that JS received prior to translating the BM provide some of the strongest direct evidence that JS was familiar with the language of the bible. A good example is the revelation now found in Doctrine and Covenants section 4, originally printed in the Book of Commandments as chapter 3. As Richard Bushman, JS’s biographer, put it, “Virtually all of the language of section BofC 3 (D&C 4) comes from the Bible: Isaiah 29:14 (verse 1); Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27 (verse 2); 1 Corinthians 1:8; John 4:35-36 (verse 4); 1 Corinthians 13:13 (verse 5); 2 Peter 1:5-7 (verse 6); Matthew 7:7-8, Luke 18:1, James 1:5 (verse 7).”[13] All of these verses are direct evidence that JS was much more familiar with the biblical text than Gee is trying to paint the historical picture. While he claims that Owen has used “sleight-of-hand” in his essay I would simply state that Gee himself has not been careful with the historical evidence to the degree that this important matter deserves.


JS’s Personal Bible?

Gee seems to think that JS’s “own Bible was not purchased until 8 October, 1829 when the Book of Mormon was being printed.” This is a confusion of the historical sources as well. Although we may not know what specific bibles JS may have had in his personal collection prior to buying a bible in October, 1829, that does not mean that he did not have any. It is also not entirely accurate to state that this particular bible was JS’s “own Bible,” as the Cooperstown bible was purchased jointly with Oliver Cowdery as the front cover states in Oliver Cowdery’s hand:

The Book of the Jews And the Prophecy of / Joseph Smith Junior and Oliver Cowdery / Bought October the 8th 1829, at Egbert B Grandins / Book Store Palmyra Wayne County New York. / Price $3.75 / H[o]lines to the L[ord].[14]

It is likely that JS either owned his own copy or copies of the bible or that he used his family’s or other copies available to him to read. JS would not have made the statement to his mother that he could learn more from reading the bible in two hours in the woods than she could attending church meetings in two years if he did not (1) have access to bibles pre-October, 1829, and (2) was utilizing that access by actually reading it. Gee also fails to note that this bible was purchased by JS and Oliver Cowdery to serve as the base text of the Joseph Smith Translation. It served a functional purpose, not for every day reading.

I also find it highly unlikely that JS “never…read the apocrypha in his life.” Not only was JS interested in apocryphal literature, he purchased volumes that he later donated to the Nauvoo Library on this very subject. The complete record of the Nauvoo Library has recently been transcribed and published in Mormon Historical Studies by historian Christopher C. Jones.[15] In it there is a list of 34 non-Mormon books that JS specifically donated to the Library, and among the books is included “Apochyphal Testament.”[16] According to historian D. Michael Quinn this could refer to one of two books, “either Apocrypha: The Apocryphal Books of the Old Testament (seven British editions 1763-1816 and one in 1835) or Apocryphal New Testament (three British editions 1820-29 and seven U.S. editions 1821-35).”[17] If it was either of these books, JS at least spent much more time later in life becoming acquainted with apocryphal literature than Gee allows.



It is really unfortunate that I have felt the need to respond to Gee’s blog posts about Paul Owen’s essays for several reasons. First, Owen is a scholar that has written a fascinating article that takes the BM very seriously. The fact that a leading LDS scholar attacked Owen in such a personal way that entirely mischaracterizes the essay is not going to invite other non-LDS scholars to join in the discussion as well. Second, Gee has long had a reputation in the wider academic LDS community for his work on the Book of Abraham. He has been involved in the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meetings, presiding over sessions on topics dealing with Egyptology and the Bible. It is unfortunate that a scholar with his training would do so much damage to an academic essay that has so much potential for opening up doors to relations between Mormon and non-Mormon scholars. I hope that in the future LDS scholars will be much more careful about the way they read and respond to the type of essay that Owen produced. I feel confident that many more are on their way from both Owen and other non-Mormon scholars. I look forward to their contributions to the wider field of Mormon Studies.


[1] For the first past of Gee’s response go here; for the second part here.

[2] Jacob T. Baker, ed., Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David L. Paulsen (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012).

[3] Cf. Bruce M. Metzger, “The Fourth Book of Ezra,” in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1983-85), 1:516; and Ralph W. Klein, “Ezra-Nehemiah, Books of,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2 D-G (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 732.

[4] See Michael E. Stone, Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra (Hermeneia Commentary Series; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 3-9.

[5] In Vruchten van de Uithof: H. A. Brongers FS (Utrecht: Theologisch Institut, 1984), 100-119.

[6] Cf. Stone, Fourth Ezra, 3.

[7] I have confirmed this with each of the following printings of the KJV: Cooperstown: H. & E. Phinney, 1828; Oxford: Clarendon Press, Samuel Collingwood and Co, 1823; Philadelphia: M. Carey & Son, 1818; Oxford: Rev. D’Oyly and Rev. Mant, 1817; New York: Collins and Co., 1816; Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1806; Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, 1803; ; the following do not include any notes at all, and therefore do not have the note at 2 Esdras 14:24: Boston: Hilliard, et al, 1829; Walpole, (N. H.): Anson Whipple, 1815; Boston: Greenough and Stebbins, 1809; Morris-Town: Mann and Douglas, 1805; Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1802.

[8] The Joseph Smith Papers Project has a great page on their website detailing all of the important information, as well as images and transcriptions of each of the documents, here.

[9] JS, History, circa Summer 1832, pp. 1-2; and here.

[10] JS, Journal, 9-11 November 1835, Monday-Wednesday, pp. 23-24; and here.

[11] See JS–H 1:11; and here.

[12] Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for many Generations (Liverpool: Published for Orson Pratt by S. W. Richards, 1853), 90.

[13] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 578, nt. 48.

[14] Quoted from Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds., Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 5, nt. 9.

[15] Christopher C. Jones, “The Complete Record of the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute,” in Mormon Historical Studies 10:1 (Spring 2009), 180-204. See here.

[16] Jones, “Nauvoo Library,” 192.

[17] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Revised Ed.; Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 496, nt. 78. Also noted by Jones, “Nauvoo Library,” 204, nt. 16.

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