Who wrote Ether 3? Or, Why Mormons do not fear the Documentary Hypothesis

The story of the appearance of Jesus Christ to the brother of Jared is one of the highlights of the Book of Mormon.  Searching out who exactly the author or authors of this chapter are can be illuminating. Let’s take a look: I can see five authors – how many do you count?

1. Moroni.

The Book of Ether, we are told, is transcribed by Moroni on to plates. Ether 1:1 states:

AND now I, Moroni, proceed to give an account of those ancient inhabitants who were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country.

This seems pretty clear: Moroni states he is an author. His commentary is present throughout the Book of Ether.

2. Ether.

While Moroni did the engraving onto the plates, though, he did not originate all of the material. He writes in Ether 1:6:

 And on this wise do I give the account. He that wrote this record was Ether, and he was a descendant of Coriantor.

Simply put, Moroni states he is reworking material at hand, a record originally written by Ether. And indeed, we are reading from the Book of Ether. So far, two authors. But let’s keep going.

3. The brother of Jared.

Ether 3 recounts a theophany, where Christ appears to the brother of Jared. Ether wasn’t there at the time, nor was Moroni. They do not claim to be writing this story via revelation. Rather, the brother of Jared wrote down his experience. After the theophany, the brother of Jared is commanded to record it, as described in the last verses of chapter 3 and the first verses of chapter 4:

And the Lord said unto him [the brother of Jared]: Write these things and seal them up; and I will show them in mine own due time unto the children of men. …And the Lord commanded the brother of Jared to go down out of the mount from the presence of the Lord, and write the things which he had seen; and they were forbidden to come unto the children of men until after that he should be lifted up upon the cross; and for this cause did king Mosiah keep them, that they should not come unto the world until after Christ should show himself unto his people.

OK, so far this is pretty straightforward: the brother of Jared had an amazing experience. He wrote it down, then Ether re-recorded it onto his record, and then Moroni wrote the story again, with plenty of commentary inserted as the story is related.

Neither Ether nor Moroni indicate that they are writing a word-for-word transcription, and we also know that Ether’s recording was not in the language that Nephites typically read. How do we know this? Because earlier on, Mormon records that when Ether’s record was found, no one could read it. It had to be translated. This brings us to our fourth author:

4. Mosiah.

Remember that Mosiah (son of King Benjamin) is brought twenty four gold plates to translate, plates that the people of Limhi had found.  Moroni reminds us of this in the second verse of the book Ether:

And I take mine account from the twenty and four plates which were found by the people of Limhi, which is called the Book of Ether.

Recall that these plates were translated by Mosiah – one of the places we first meet the two stones fastened into a bow for the purposes of translation in the Book of Mormon, back in Mosiah 28. Here are some relevant verses:

11 Therefore he took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, and also the plates of Nephi, and all the things which he had kept and preserved according to the commandments of God, after having translated and caused to be written the records which were on the plates of gold which had been found by the people of Limhi, which were delivered to him by the hand of Limhi;

17 Now after Mosiah had finished translating these records, behold, it gave an account of the people who were destroyed, from the time that they were destroyed back to the building of the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people and they were scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth, yea, and even from that time back until the creation of Adam.

 18 Now this account did cause the people of Mosiah to mourn exceedingly, yea, they were filled with sorrow; nevertheless it gave them much knowledge, in the which they did rejoice.

 19 And this account shall be written hereafter; for behold, it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account.

Here it is clear that Mosiah was the source of the understanding of this record. While it is possible that Moroni might have re-translated these plates, he never mentions translating during his extensive work, whereas he does a lot of transcribing and editing of records he already has. Thus, it seems likely that Moroni is working from Mosiah’s translation of Ether’s record of the brother of Jared’s original account.

However, now that the subject of translation comes up, we must acknowledge that in any translation, the translator plays a role. The Book of Mormon is filled with passages that mirror the King James Bible, no doubt in part because Joseph Smith was familiar with the King James translation.  This brings us to our fifth contributor:

5. Joseph Smith.

That Joseph Smith’s input to the Book of Mormon was not divinely fixed but rather in part depended on Joseph himself was asserted by his biggest fan, Brigham Young, as recorded in the Journal of Discourses:

When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities. He spoke to the children of Jacob through Moses, as a blind, stiff-necked people, and when Jesus and his Apostles came they talked with the Jews as a benighted, wicked, selfish people. They would not receive the Gospel, though presented to them by the Son of God in all its righteousness, beauty and glory. Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiff-necked, the Lord can tell them but little. (JD 9:311)

It seems that Brigham Young understood the translation of the Book of Mormon to be similar to other forms of translation – that frequently there is no single optimal way to translate passages, and so different translations are not a sign of imperfection but rather the limitations of human language.

There may be other authors. We don’t know, for example, if Mormon did any editing of the Mosiah translation when he received the plates (before Moroni got to the task), or if anyone else who held the plates between Mosiah and Moroni had any input. Nor do we know whether Ether had the original account of the brother of Jared, written hundreds of years (at least 28 generations) earlier. It seems possible that during those hundreds of years, some other translation or editing might have occurred.

So, I can estimate at least 5 different authors for Ether 3: Moroni, Ether, the brother of Jared, Mosiah, and Joseph Smith. The presence of multiple authors isn’t really surprising, once you reflect on it; we are fully comfortable as Mormons with all of these authors. We are completely fine with inspired editing and record keeping, the passing down and reworking of sacred writ.

Why is this of interest? One reason is our course of study this year in Sunday School, the Old Testament. All modern commentaries discuss the Documentary Hypothesis – the idea that the Five Books of Moses are a synthesis of four earlier documents.  While all agree it is only a hypothesis, and there are still ongoing debates about the degree of its applicability or validity, it is a concept that those who search the scriptures will come across.

To me, it seems Mormons are uniquely well equipped to not only accept, but embrace the idea underlying the Documentary Hypothesis. We are totally fine with one prophet editing and adding to what another prophet wrote, and still calling it The Book of Ether (or Alma, and so on).

And this analysis can be useful. For example, as Grant Hardy showed in his outstanding book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, we can learn a lot by thinking about who authored which verses in the Book of Mormon. I find his analysis of story in Ether 3 and the Christology of both Ether and Moroni to be fascinating.

Why not consider the same concepts for other scriptures?


Breaking News: UVa Announces Chair in Mormon Studies

Today the University of Virginia is announcing the intent to establish the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies, an endowed faculty position.

This is a landmark event for a number of reasons. One is the prominence of the department choosing to establish this chair. As the UVA Religious Studies website points out, it has an excellent reputation:

The department’s undergraduate program has been rated by the Gorman Report as the best in the nation, and the department’s graduate program is ranked by the National Research Council as the sixth best in the nation, and the best in a public institution.

The addition of Mormon Studies in such a well-respected department speaks to the emergence of Mormon Studies as an academic discipline, indicating that Mormonism is worthy of study at the highest academic levels.

In addition to advancing the field of Mormon Studies, the establishment of a senior academic chair brings other benefits to the LDS community, including:

•       Courses taught about Mormonism by a serious scholar expose non-Latter-day Saints to Mormonism under circumstances where it must be taken seriously.   These students are at a unique time in their lives when they are forming opinions that often last a lifetime.
•       Such courses can prepare young Latter-day Saints to cope with the questions about Mormonism that arise when it is discussed in the public sphere.
•       A professorship in a major university gives Mormonism a place at the table when significant religious, social, and cultural issues are under discussion.
•       Studying Mormonism in the context of other religions helps us to better understand what is distinctive and powerful about our religion.

As a very important element, the establishment also speaks positively about the state of Mormon philanthropy. The donors who have funded the endowment that established the chair clearly believe that an independent, academic appointment will benefit the Church’s broader mission. It also suggests that careers in Mormon Studies could become increasingly available.

Overall, a major step forward for Mormon Studies.

A/C and Retention

One fascinating tidbit that came out of between-sessions chatting at General Conference this weekend is that in Brazil there has been a marked improvement in convert retention since the chapels have added air conditioning and heating.

While feasting upon the word has always had a physical as well as metaphysical component, I can’t help but wonder what other moves might help retention. My vote would be to make the chapels more beautiful: almost no one is so struck by the magnificence of our meetinghouses that they want to learn more; that’s hardly news. But if climate control has a substantive impact, I would bet that a more inspiring physical presence would as well. Definitely worth the marginal extra cost.

Other suggestions for retention?

PS: This same Brazilian-centric source suggested that the repeated references to Pres Benson’s “14 points of following the prophet” was spot-on for the needs of the LDS community there.

Church Conflict per Among the Gentiles

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson’s Among the Gentiles was published last year. It examines the relationship between Greco-Roman religion and early Christianity, focusing on the religious milieu into which Christianity emerged and eventually dominated. In this, Johnson takes an interesting approach, which he summarizes as follows:

My concentration, however, is not specifically on social organization, myths, doctrines, or even rituals, but on the ways in which actual human beings show themselves to be religious. … I use several interchangeable terms for the “ways of being religious,” speaking of religious sensibility, religiousness, religious perspective, and even religious temperament. I distinguish these ways of being religious in terms of their distinctive ways of perceiving divine power and its function.

He describes four types of religious activity, which he labels A through D, all of which have clear parallels in our own Mormon world: Continue reading “Church Conflict per Among the Gentiles”

Insights from Names of Deity

Rabbinic commentators have sought to better understand the nature of God by exploring the implications and origins of his name. Michael Fishbane writes in Rabbinic Myth and Mythmaking (Oxford University Press, 2003): In the context of an explanation of why the ‘dry land’ (yabashah) is called ‘eretz (‘earth’) in Gen 1:10, we are told that the primordial earth was an obedient creation of God’s, and ceased to extend when He ‘said’ so. This compliance is strikingly forumated by an exegetical play on the noun itself, since we read that ‘the dry land’ was called ‘eretz because ‘she wished to do His (God’s) will’ (she-ratzta la-‘asot retzono). One may suppose that our myth was one of several accounts telling how the land, sea, or sky acquired their limits — narratives that were supported by a mythic etymology of the divine name ‘El Shaddai, as meaning that God (El) is He who (she-) said dai (‘enough’) to His creations when they grew out of hand and threatened to overwhelm the world with their profusion. In the context of such tales, the letters of ‘eretz in Gen 1:10 provided welcome proof from Scripture… Continue reading “Insights from Names of Deity”

The Halakic Jesus

John Meier’s fourth volume of A Marginal Jew came out last spring, and is focused on placing the historical Jesus within the Jewish Law of his time. The title of his introductory chapter, “The Historical Jesus is the Halakic Jesus,” is an excellent summary of his thesis, and as he says later, “The historical Jewish Jesus must be seen as a Jesus immersed in the halakic discussions, debates, and actual practice of 1st-century Palestinian Jews.” The word halaka (Hebrew for “walking,” “conduct,” “behavior,” etc.) is used to refer to a legal opinion or ruling concerning specific human conduct.

The idea of understanding Jesus better by sorting out how he fits in to the local religious context and controversies of his day is hardly new, but Maier does an excellent job. We Mormons, with our focus on conduct and behavior, in particular may have quite a bit to learn from this approach. One of my favorite observations so far comes from an illustration of one of the criteria frequently used by questers for the historical Jesus, the criterion of discontinuity. Fr. Maier writes,

To take a curious example…: when asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies by citing the two commandments enjoining love of God with all one’s heart and love of neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-34). At first glance, the reader will perhaps be surprised to see that I invoke the criterion of discontinuity to establish the historicity of this anecdote. After all, the two commandments, taken by themselves, are simply citations of two precepts contained in the Pentateuch (Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18b). True, but what is “discontinuous” is what Jesus does with these texts. He (i) cites each commandment word for word, (ii) joins the two of them back to back, (iii) ranks them explicitly as “first” and “second,” and (iv) concludes by declaring that no other commandment is greater than these two. This fourfold configuration of a double commandment of love is found nowhere else in the OT, the literature of Second Temple Judaism, the rest of the NT, or the early patristic writings. All this constitutes a glaring discontinuity of teaching that often goes unremarked.

One could consider that Jesus’ discontinuities of religious conduct were as innovative and provocative in his day as Joseph Smith’s new prescriptions for religious conduct have been in our day. Maier’s eventual summary seems to be that in the end, it is fruitful to consider Jesus’ command to love in the same sort of strict, behavioral context that laws on purity, divorce, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were viewed: a very concrete, observable, even measurable context.

Beyond the scholarly interest — and Maier is an engaging writer, in my view — for us such an analysis also seems to raise the question: while Mormons do an excellent job of measuring conduct on a remarkably similar set of criteria (dietary restrictions, sabbath observance, purity, etc.), do we as a community treat the commandment to love with the same rigor?

Corianton’s major sin was … (fill in the blank)

[Note: In analyzing the passage describing Corianton’s sins, I do not seek to undermine in any way the Church’s emphasis on sexual purity. The benefits of chastity are marvelous and ineffable.]

I’d like to consider Alma 39:5:

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

Traditionally, “these things” has been interpreted to mean sexual sin. See quotes from a number of General Conference talks, including apparently a statement by the First Presidency read in General Conference, Oct 1942.  I strongly support the inspired counsel and warnings these messages convey. That being said, a careful reading of Alma 39 indicates that Corianton’s major sin was leading others astray, not sexual immorality. Evidence for this is as follows:

Continue reading “Corianton’s major sin was … (fill in the blank)”

The Book of Mormon on Eve

I’m pretty sure my understanding of the Fall is woefully incomplete. I’ve been still trying to square statements that pop up with frequency in the Bloggernacle and even in General Conference talks that say things like, “Mormons believe that Eve was courageous and wise” in her decision to partake of the forbidden fruit, when the scriptural texts suggest we don’t believe that. I thought it might be useful to explore just what the Book of Mormon says about Eve and the Fall.

I learned a few things.  Continue reading “The Book of Mormon on Eve”

Deliberate textual ambiguities?

Substantial effort is expended to harmonize conflicting texts, such as the Harmony of the Gospels in our Bible Dictionary, Creation account harmonizations, investigations of whether Matthew or Luke got the ordering of the temptations “correct,” and so on. But what if the writers of scripture deliberately put in ambiguities? We have some evidence for this; Joseph Smith, in his revisions, seems to have left differing versions (e.g., Luke 3 versus Isaiah 40, creation accounts in Moses versus Abraham, incomplete harmonization of all events in the Gospels, and so on). Maybe some of these were just that he didn’t have time to finish, but there are passages that he seemed to be comfortable with explicit differing accounts.

It seems possible that these apparent contradictions and ambiguities might actually be there on purpose, and in fact may not even be meant to be resolved. If so, what might the message of such ambiguities be? 

Perhaps one message is that life is ambiguous, that in many cases there is not one definite answer, no one-size-fits-all explanation or even historically accurate account. But I’m not reveling in or embracing ambiguity per se; I’m not arguing directly for a Rashomon effect; but rather that the differences might be suggestions to us that we should be looking beyond the superficial. Certainly the differing Creation accounts each have rich symbolic interpretations that I benefit from and would not want to do without. Might Mormon culture, with its firm sense of certainty, be missing a key point of the scriptures?