Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Blake Ostler on the Book of Mormon

I absolutely love the Book of Mormon. My testimony of the Book of Mormon is that it is authentic. However, I’m very intrigued by Blake Ostler’s theory about it being a partial modern expansion of an ancient source. I haven’t studied his theory out completely to see how far he takes it, so I can’t say how much I agree or disagree. I’ve only read Updating the Expansion Theory, but I definitely think he may be onto something. It seems to fit well with what I understand about the translation process of the Book of Mormon. This is his final statement:

“I believe that the Book of Mormon is precisely what it claims to be: a book translated by the gift and power of God that tells us about the record of an ancient people. However, translation by the gift and power of God isn’t translation based upon an isomorphic rendering of an underlying text into English based on a knowledge of the ancient textual language; rather, it is a revelation from God which involves necessarily the limitations of vocabulary, conceptuality and horizons of God’s servant chosen to render it into English for us.”


Anonymous said...

This is much different from Royal Skousen's view of translation, which is a revelation from heaven as an already-translated text. His view was convincing as I heard him talk about it, but it does leave a few questions unanswered. Perhaps Ostler can offer some more.

An advantage Skousen's view has over a 19th century "translational" view is the explanation of many expressions which fit more in the 14th-15th-16th centuries that fit neither the KJV English nor that of the 19th century. But, on ther other hand, it is a pretty weak answer to D&C 9:8, "study it out in your mind…"

So yes, I'll have to look at Ostler's work too.

Clean Cut said...

Good points. Yes, it's very different than Skousen's view of translation as very tight control of the text. Yet, Blake's model isn't discounting evidence of antiquity. In fact, in Bridging the Divide he explains his view a little further while also mentioning the "ancient aspects of the Book of Mormon, such as genuinely ancient Israelite prophetic call forms, exact Israelite judicial procedures, and ancient covenant renewal festivals in the Book of Mormon"--aspects that Skousen himself noted. Blake too sees that as proof that Joseph Smith translated an ancient record by the gift and power of God.

However, his model allows much more flexibility in accounting for evidence of 19th century influences, and this seems very wise to me. "The Book of Mormon and other Latter-day Saint scriptures could contain phrases, words, and even concepts influenced by the nineteenth century, and still have originated with ancient texts as the source of the translation, because they were translated "by the gift and power of God" by a nineteenth-century prophet. Once we have acknowledged that interpretation is a part of the translation process, modern influences and interpretations in the text are no longer proof that the pretranslated text was not ancient."

I found it interesting that while Stephen Robinson initially disagreed with Blake's theory, Blake notices that Robinson makes essentially the same argument in "How Wide the Divide?" regarding the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible. Ostler asks: "If Joseph Smith could provide commentary, midrash, explanation, and clarification of the biblical text as part of the inspired biblical text itself, then why couldn't he do the same for the Book of Mormon translation?...If [Robinson] limits such prophetic expansion, interpretation, and commentary to the JST, then I would inquire as to why such inspired "midrashic commentary" is all right with the Bible as evidenced in the JST and not in the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith also felt free to modify and clarify in subsequent editions."

For me, revelation is revelation. It makes sense that it would be a consistent process regardless of what scripture is being brought forth through Joseph Smith. Jospeh didn't actually know and speak those ancient languages, so he didn't "translate" in the conventional sense. It was given to him through revelation/inspiration. Yet there were still angels and gold plates. Although the gold plates were physically present during the translation process, Joseph seldom referred to them. He "translated" through revelation, usually by looking at the seer stone which was placed in a hat, while the plates were wrapped up in a cloth sitting on the table.

All in all, I'm completely comfortable with the idea that some of Joseph's modern understandings and interpretations influenced the translation of the ancient text into the English language as we now possess it. I just see no reason to believe that that would have been out of the question; in fact, it seems quite probable to me. Either way, there was still an actual ancient text AND it was given to us by the "gift and power of God".

Clean Cut said...

Correction, those quotes are from "Bridging the Gulf", not "divide". It is, however, Oslter's review of "How Wide the Divide?".

Clean Cut said...

I have to say, I really like that you brought up D&C 9:8 (ie: "study it out in your mind") because that was precisely in reference to the translation of the Book of Mormon. I think it might give a glimpse of insight into the process Joseph had to follow in order to translate the Book of Mormon.

It also seems to conflict with the "teleprompter" or "tickertape" view (assumed by some) of looking into the seer stone for translation and having all the words given perfectly to Joseph. Based on that section alone, I do believe that there was more effort and thought involved in the translation process.

Anonymous said...

On a slightly tangential point - what purpose do you think the plates actually served? You say yourself that JS rarely referred to them. It seems like an incredible amount of work on the part of Nephi, Mormon, et al for JS to not really use them. FWIW, I really like Ostler's theory. As you explained, JS had no problem taking other texts and adding to them.

Clean Cut said...

Anonymous, I actually really appreciate that question. It’s a very good question, and one that I’ve asked to myself as well. I don’t know that there’s one “right” answer, but I’m open to some possibilities. I believe the “revelation” had to be rooted in actual fact—hence the reason I believe in angels and gold plates. Otherwise it would be easy to go to the extreme and view the Book of Mormon merely as inspired fiction. That view creates a lot of other problems in and of itself. For example, one role the plates served was to allow for witnesses of the Book of Mormon. How could the three or the eight have shared their “witness” unless there were actual, physical plates to be witnesses of? This is the part that is pretty black and white to me-—either they were lying or they were telling the truth.

Parenthetically, it’s striking to realize just how young Joseph was during the translation process. He was barely out of his teenage years! What was he, 21 years old? That’s just amazing no matter how one views it. It was very significant when Joseph was finally able to allow 11 other witnesses to bear some of the burden he had carried on his own concerning the reality of the plates.

But what other purpose did the plates actually serve if he didn’t even need to view them during the translation? Surly the work of Nephi and Mormon and all the other Book of Mormon prophets went through in making and preserving the record wasn’t for naught. After all, the record had to actually exist in order to spark its translation. Perhaps faith feeds off of faith.

Perhaps the plates had to at least be physically present to spark the faith in Joseph in what he was actually translating. Perhaps there was a spiritual connection that made their presence necessary. Perhaps it was similar to how two magnets don’t have to physically touch in order for them to work; they just have to be close enough. Who knows? In the meantime, I can go on faith while thinking through the possibilities simply because it’s the end result that truly matters and which we can judge and benefit from.

Naturally what matters most is the actual divinity of the Book of Mormon that we can currently hold in our hands and read from today. But it is a good question and I’d certainly be open to hearing from the insights and thoughts of others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response. I understand the need for a physical object for the 3 and 8 witnesses to see. But the Liahona or sword of Laban or just something that didn't require 1000s of hours of work could have served that purpose. My own thoughts lie closer to your spiritual magnet theory.

Perhaps to explain I can use an example from my own life. I remember visiting a friend of mine who is an artist. He had a piece of work in his front room that I found quite disturbing but I couldn't put my finger on why. So I asked him about it and he said it was a gift from a former art teacher he had. He had created the piece while he was going through a messy divorce and had a lot of anger inside him. It seemed to me that piece of art was a store of the anger and bad energy used to create it.

I have further thoughts about this phenomenen, for example as it relates to the sterility of mass produced art, or the potency of places of genuine historical interest to inspire. But they are too muddled to expound upon now.

Needless to say (in harmony I think with your magnets idea) I think the gold plates contained an enormous amount of spiritual energy because of the 1000s of hours of work that had gone into producing them and the history they represented. I think it is this energy that was key in expanding Joseph's mind.

Joel said...

How do we know that Mormon was a reliable narrator, if he existed?

Clean Cut said...

Thanks "Anonymous"--I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

Joel--perhaps you could humor me here and take a stab at answering your own question. I bet you could come up with some good thoughts on the matter, and I'd like for you to share them.

Clean Cut said...

For the record, in answer to the question "To what degree did the Lord control the dictation of the Book of Mormon?", Skousen proposes "three possible kinds of control over the dictation of the Book of Mormon text". These are (and I quote):

1. Loose control: Ideas were revealed to Joseph Smith, and he put those ideas into his own language (a theory advocated by many Book of Mormon scholars over the years)

2. Tight control: Joseph saw specific words written out in English and read them off to the scribe—the accuracy of the resulting text depending on the carefulness of Joseph and his scribe;

3. Iron-clad control: Joseph (or the interpreters themselves) would not allow any scribal error to remain (including the spelling of common words).

"One can also conceive of mixtures of these different kinds of control. For instance, one might argue for tight control over the spelling of specific names, but loose control over the English phraseology itself"

I particularly appreciate that last paragraph--it sounds like a pretty fair "compromise" to me. I lean toward that "combination" view.