Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gospel Topic: Book of Mormon Translation

The Church just published a new Gospel Topic called Book of Mormon Translation.  This is the latest in a series of gospel topics addressing less-known aspects about the Church.

I've previously written about the translation process of the Book of Mormon when I reviewed Rough Stone Rolling.  I'll simply copy that review below.

The traditional story of how the Book of Mormon was translated is Joseph putting on the breastplate and Urim and Thummim, casting his gaze onto the plates and seeing the reformed Egyptian turn into English words.  Furthermore, it would seem that Joseph just knew to "put on" the breastplate and spectacles and begin the translation - but this was not so.  As Bushman states on page 63, "Developing a method took time."

The whole process is not really known.  But we do know that he copied characters; had them sent to scholars to translate and to verify.  There is also this passage from Bushman: "Neither Joseph nor Oliver explained how translation worked, but Joseph did not pretend to look at the 'reformed Egyptian' words, the language on the plates, according to the book's own description.  The plates lay covered on the table, while Joseph's head was in a hat looking at the seerstone which by this time had replaced the interpreters.  The varying explanations of the perplexing process fall roughly into two categories: composition and transcription.  The first holds that Joseph was the author of the book.  He composed it out of knowledge and imaginings collected in his own mind, perhaps aided by inspiration.  He had stuffed his head with ideas for sermons, Christian doctrine, biblical language, multiple characters, stories of adventure, social criticism, theories of Indian origins, ideas about Mesoamerican civilization, and many other matters.  During translation, he composed it all into a narrative dictated over the space of three months in Harmony and Fayette."

Bushman describes the 'composition' method, but I'm not going to quote that here.  I will quote what he wrote about 'transcription.'

"The transcription theory has Joseph Smith 'seeing' the Book of Mormon text in the seerstone or the Urim and Thummim.  He saw the words in the stone as he had seen lost objects or treasure and dictated them to his secretary.  The eyewitnesses who described translation, Joseph Knight, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, who was in the house during the last weeks of translation, understood translation as transcription.  Referring to the seerstone as a Urim and Thummim, Knight said: 'Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters.  Then he would tell the writer and he would write it.  Then that would go away the next sentance would Come and so on.'"

"Joseph himself said almost nothing about his method but implied transcription when he said that 'the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book.'  Close scrutiny of the original manuscript (by a believing scholar) seems to support transcription.  Judging from the way Cowdery wrote down the words, Joseph saw twenty to thirty words at a time, dictated them, and then waited for the next twenty to appear.  Difficult names (Zenoch, Amalickiah) were spelled out.  By any measure, transcription was a miraculous process, calling for a huge leap of faith to believe, yet, paradoxically, it is more in harmony with the young Joseph of the historical record than is composition.  Transcription theory gives us a Joseph with a miraculous gift that evolved naturally out of his earlier treasure-seeking.  The boy who gazed into stones and saw treasure grew up to become a translator who looked into a stone and saw words."

A word about the seerstone (or seer stone as found on lds.org).  The image of Joseph putting his head into his hat to see his seerstone is not a common image in the Church.  I've never even seen an image of Joseph using the Urim & Thummim and breastplate.  Rather, the image that does come to mind is Joseph gazing on the plates (sans seerstone or U&T) while Oliver sits across the table writing.  But the fact that a stone Joseph found in 1822 was being used in the translation of the Book of Mormon is an interesting one.  Bushman talks about this in his book - the theory is that Joseph learned of the Gospel in the context of the treasure and magic culture that existed at that time.

Comparing my childhood/teenage view of the translation
of the Book of Mormon with this new (to me), more accurate description of the translation is interesting. In my mind, the two views are vastly different.  My childhood view is simple and very clean.  The reality view is more enticing.  But my fundamental question is this: why, as a child, did I have to be taught the clean version of the story?  If anything, it would have been far easier to believe as a child, the story of Joseph finding a stone while digging a well and then using that stone to translate the Book of Mormon.  Perhaps the "clean" version is told so as not to distract the learner with the idea that there are seerstones just laying around the earth - rather the focus should be on the work of God.  That's just a thought.  But to finish that thought - why would the Church jump to that conclusion?  Is it because others found a seerstone too?  And to prevent others from from finding a using a seerstone (a true one or a false one)?  I don't know.  But the fact remains - the version I was taught was not the whole truth and this is not an isolated example - it's a pattern.

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