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Translation Troubles

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. D&C 9

Joseph Smith is the most famous American contemporary version of a Seer, or one who makes lost knowledge become known. He claims to have translated a book or two by the help of some heavenly beings. That’s worth more than an asterisk in the history compared to simply mystics who claim to see the beyond. The most fascinating and simultaneously difficult part is that we have the text in front of us to examine and research. It can provide tangible inspiration, as well as a laughable proof of fraud. That’s probably why it remains so controversial.

The same arguments and scenarios that cover the First Vision accounts should cover the accounts of Moroni’s visit as well. The depictions show Joseph viewing a being who his hovering above his bed. He even explains it this way. The fact of the matter is that his bedroom was too small for an angel to fit in the objective world. He would have to have been transfigured into another realm. Thus, we have a slightly different understanding of the Moroni vision, but that's okay. It can still work.

From there, we can move on to his translation of the Book of Mormon. To be clear, it’s very apparent that Joseph Smith wasn’t “translating” anything, whether it be reformed or any quasi-Egyptian script into modern English from the scholarly standpoint. What’s left of the papyri in his possession (Anthon transcript) that he translated from gives that much. To complicate things, his dictation technique doesn’t involve using the gold plates for the most part. So, if he wasn’t translating, what was he doing? Why call it a translation if it was more of a revelation or a channeling? Was it possible he was simply lifting inspiration from contemporary books and calling it a translation to dupe people? Or was he experiencing some sort of ephemeral spiritual experience but misinterpreted it as an objective process? And was it also a problem of 1830’s semantics regarding the word, “translation?”

First, we have the issue of mechanics. Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon process was a queer, esoteric system that one still can't easily explain. It is said he placed a rock in a hat, which upon doing so, saw glowing words written upon the rock. Several people [1]witnessed this or told accounts of their witnesses, even apparently, some detractors. While some have suggested that the historical record proves that he had a [2]tight translation process (i.e. he claims God put a word onto his seer stone which he read to his scribe) perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the dictation process was tight. We still don’t know much about the translation process by the journals and histories. According to his revelation to Oliver Cowdery in [3]D&C 9, it appears that there is some work and study that went into the process as he understood it. That would suggest that a human element has some involvement, and therefore, subject to error.

In trying to explain the process, we can deconstruct it into 5 basic options.

Option A (Huckster fraud): He (or others alongside him) wrote the book elsewhere, he memorized long passages, and then repeated them back through the seer stone in the hat charade. He fabricated the gold plates as a talisman to make his story seem more real.

Option B (Pious fraud): He used a process that was called [4]“automatic writing” that is the psyche exploiting the existing systems within the person to develop a well-crafted and “automatic” story-line that seems to appear out of mid-air but includes elements within the person’s environment. This system would coincide with a diet of meditation and possibly ingesting substances like mushrooms. The experiences may have been real, but not interpreted objectively. It also requires the plates to be an actual relic that he found because he could not fabricate a fraud if he believed it. At this time there were lots of pre-Columbian relics like this in early America, and it's inside the realm of possibility that he stumbled across golden writings which influenced his reverie.

Option D (LDS Seminary): He was getting messages from a benevolent being, who utilized some tools to help the process, just as Joseph’s story states. But the details of how that worked is not given to us and allows many arenas of conjecture, but the nature of the effort was miraculous and true and was meant to help jump-start an organizational effort to prepare mankind for the Second Coming.

Option C (Demonic possession): He was receiving messages from other beings, but they weren’t the good kind (apparently, there can be other sorts of highly evolved beings that aren’t so nice) – This is the position of some in the Evangelical movement like [5]Ed Decker.

Option E: A combination of B and D and possibly C.

Option A (Huckster Fraud) This is the most common Occam’s Razor answer for Joseph Smith. The entire enterprise most likely was a ruse, where he would memorize long passages either he or someone else wrote beforehand, and then with painstaking timing and impeccability, including spelling concerns, repeat them back while a scribe wrote them down. The translation process would be nothing but theater. He even constructed some plates to haul around to give it even more authenticity. While it IS the simplest explanation, the problem with Option A is that there is little evidence that he did anything of the sort as a setup beforehand. People have tried to nail Oliver Cowdery and other authors such as [6]Solomon Spaulding to the authorship of the Book of Mormon, presumably because Joseph Smith was so unlearned. But Spaulding’s works are not derivative enough. There are stories told by his mother of how he would describe the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, as he saw them in vision, years before he translated the book. In essence, he could have been compiling the book over a long period of time and then constructed the translation ruse to make it look supernatural. The four-year span of time it took to get the plates from Moroni could have been the time he used to get the narrative accurate while building suspense with his family and friends. So the buildup is at least plausible.

The bigger problem with Option A has to do with the nature of Joseph Smith himself. He doesn’t seem capable of carrying out that kind of deception, and the motives and results don’t match up. He acts as a true believer, to the point of sacrificing his family, his comfort, and his business enterprises as to make this fraud very poorly carried out, if it indeed was a fraud. True, he was the head of a church, and had prestige and power. But he never seems to fully execute power and prestige in the way one would expect from a true huckster. Instead he often comes off as incredibly naive and a poor judge of character with those he invites into his inner circle. He is Rousseauian in this fashion, believing the the goodness of everyone he meets. He gives away too much to others, bringing right-hand men into his inner circle with little vetting, who at times seem to overwhelm him, school him, hound him to either retire, or attempt to murder him. In Missouri, he turns himself in to the authorities to protect his people against such threats, some of which he brought upon himself. To be that careful in the setup but that poor in execution seems hard to swallow. Historically, he mostly comes off as a true believer, not a trickster trying to cash in on religious dupes. Option A is hard to accept when the totality of the Mormon story is taken into consideration.

Option B (The Pious Fraud) This option was first pioneered by Dan Vogel in his book, [7]The Making of a Prophet. He postulates that Joseph Smith was a “pious deceiver” or in other words, believed his own lie. He sees Joseph as very imaginative, perhaps with some gifts of tapping into a stream of conscious thought in his brain to cook up wild stories that seem to be coming from another source. In other words, he simply had a very active imagination that maybe was so active, he believed that it was real. Perhaps he tapped into a higher stream or dimension even, but with an incorrect and objectively false interpretation. And thus, when he gets on to translating the Book of Mormon, he meditates into a sort of dream-like trance to tell a story that is Bible-like in its language, perhaps even so lifelike in places that it begins to take on a sheen of authenticity. Vogel calls this “automatic writing,” and it comes from the subconscious.

The Vogel model is compelling, and probably the most compelling of the secular arguments. Yet, it too has some challenges. The Biblical passages of Isaiah, for example, would have had to have been correlated in a fashion that did not use automatic writing processes. Some of the Book of Mormon would have had to been approached in such a way, which brings us back to Option A (pre-correlative) or other options, such as a post-test correlative mask over dictated Isaiah prose by another source such a printer or scribe. The other problem is that while it would seem like the internal stories could have come about in such a manner, the introduction of Mormon as a compiler of a rather disjointed work, with the description of small and large plates, seems to take upon a more rational approach to a work in a somewhat non-fiction pattern. It seems too thought-out to be imaginative writing.

The other problem with the automatic writing pattern would be the scribing pantomime of repeating back proper nouns and asking questions during the process which would seem to interrupt such a reverie. The very process of the stage act of translation comes across by the actors as semi-scholarly in its approach. If automatic writing, then why a scribe? One idea could be that he came up with it initially in a reverie sub-conscious approach, but then used the dictation process to make it seem more concrete in others’ eyes. But then we’re back to trying to assess how “pious” he was in the deception. He would need real plates, which he could have found at some point that sparked the entire process. However, the mechanics Joseph goes through seem to be too pre-meditated to be an act of sub-conscious imaginative piety. Had he simply written the Book of Mormon in a cave describing a dream-like stance, this would be more plausible scenario.

Option C (LDS Seminary) Option C is closest to the traditional Mormon narrative, that God helped Joseph translate the Book of Mormon. But even within that narrative, many like to make suppositions that may or may not be truly available. For example, most Mormons would assume God is all powerful and that he simply gave the most accurate words available to Joseph Smith, thus in the eyes of many Mormons, making it the most perfect book on the planet. In the eyes of ex-Mormons and non-Mormons, however, this black and white approach makes it rather easy to lampoon since there are problems with some of the language and even stories in the Book of Mormon. And it just seems outlandish. The [8]anachronisms are everywhere. Why would God allow such to exist in the most perfect text?

Each of these suppositions deserved to be addressed. Let’s first discuss the issue of the who was helping Joseph translate supernaturally. We all assume it was God Himself. Joseph declares it came from the Gift and Power of God. But does that mean that God, the Being, helped with the translation? Aside from God, other beings could have done the work using God’s authority, but not perfectly. Perhaps it was Mormon himself that did the bulk of the work on the other side to prepare the verbiage.

Why would that make a difference?

Well . . . people assume God doesn’t make mistakes. But what about angels? Could they? Could Mormon have been the principle actor, passing along with the mistakes that he admits are present in the text, mingled in construction with Joseph Smith's language barriers? It would allow for the exaggeration of some of the war stories, the cultural racist elements, and even the mythology of some of the foundational stories that commence the Book of Mormon, being as they were over 3,000 years from Mormon’s time frame. Consider the Brother of Jared story here and how much of it could have been allegorical that got passed along to Ether, and then Mosiah. This is an example how the Book of Mormon was translated through a metaphysical third-party actor or actors on the other side of the material world, as it stood in 400 AD. There may be hundreds of options, especially when you consider the fantastic. We don’t consider the fantastic enough when we contemplate what an extra-dimensional world would look like. And it may be similar to this world in terms of differences, actors, and morality. It’s well to contemplate such possibilities. The world is our oyster when we contemplate how such an effort could have been attempted with the end result. We no longer must be married to an exactness that Mormonism has sold to us pertaining to the Book of Mormon translation.

Let’s consider the textual anachronisms.

We assume, because of the tight dictation process, that each word was given by God to Joseph Smith. All he had to do was read them. We know Joseph was reported to have the words appear on the seer stone, but what if there was a more complicated process that got the word to appear (or seem to appear) right in front of him? The accounts are limited so we don't have much to go on. Perhaps a Bible-reader like Smith was using his own recollections in a prior vision to interpret passages he was downloading or viewing, while bringing in his own 19th century colloquialisms to images or visuals that he was receiving. This looser interpretation finds Joseph studying the characters on the plates in secret, seeing something in vision through study and meditation, then later while placing his face into the hat, the words “appear” on the rock in succession, partly as a creation of language in his mind, focused through the rock as it was acting as a channel, of what he saw earlier in vision. So, when Joseph sees a sword that appears to be steel, he channels the word, “steel,” since true "steel" didn’t exist until the Middle Ages. When he constructs sentences, it’s his grammar and experience he leans upon, as balls get passed by agents on the other side. We certainly presuppose if an advanced being was helping Smith, he would probably not make such 19th Century errors—the passages would be a 5th century AD origination in the best interpretation English could provide. But that’s not allowed to us in some of these instances because we do find 19th century flavors in the Book of Mormon. This gives us reason to believe there were limitations with any other being helping Joseph, if we chose to go down this path. Perhaps inter-dimensional translation has similar quandaries as academic ones. Perhaps this process is just as taxing on the multi-dimensional end. Perhaps it resembles “looking through a glass darkly,” as Paul once put it. The suppositions need to be re-examined at the very least. It’s quite possible the other side of the veil is a large world that is just as complicated, if not more so, than ours. We can’t create an imaginary ideal of another dimension simply to create a straw man of how we expect it to operate. That’s not afforded us, especially if Occam's Razor tells us it doesn’t exist.

For further review let’s take specific examples of Bible anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. Yes, it’s true that errors show up in the Book of Mormon that are copies of the contemporary King James Bible. What can account for this? We know that [9]EB Grandin punctuated the text and perhaps correlated it to his Bible (since he used a Bible often to help him assemble the typeface as it made the process quicker). What many don’t know is that there are numerous errors between the existing translation manuscript and the printer’s manuscript used in the print shop and from there errors through printer processes and shortcuts. This is one reason Joseph Smith was working on a cleaner version before he died and published some of those adaptations in 1840. He was trying to repair it back to the original script. As well, Joseph or one of the scribes, could have also recognized the passages through this process and correlated it to 17th century King James to avoid confusion. With respect to these passages, he either prepared the memorization of the passage before-hand during the charade, or he recognized it after the fact and correlated it. Or EB Grandin made the changes and Joseph either didn’t care, or didn’t remember how exact his Isaiah extractions were, or didn’t have time to correct the mistakes until later (he did some editing to the Isaiah passages in the 1940 edition). But if we presuppose that it was work, this makes much more sense, as it would expedite things much if Hyrum were to copy the passages he was told to copy to prepare for the manuscript. The opening salvo of the CES Letter has many things to consider in a new light with its Isaiah criticisms.

Which brings us to Option D - The Demonic Option Ed Decker of [10]Godmakers fame has no problem with Joseph getting help translating the Book of Mormon from an inter-dimensional being. The only difference is that Decker believes that those beings were demonic, that evil was deluding Smith to create something that would cause mankind to stumble, and perhaps even be a conduit for evil spirits to possess those reading the book. Like Option C, Option D would be entirely possible and should be considered. However, given the context of the Book of Mormon and the volumes of Christian theology one finds in its pages . . . which is even more Pauline and evangelical that modern Mormon teachings, It’s a hard stretch to give Decker and those like him . . . their due. The Book doesn’t allow us to stray far from the teachings of faith, repentance, grace, the Godhead, as opposed to what one finds in the New Testament. Thus, the Satanic influence seems a bit incredulous.

However, . . .

Option E gives us a pathway for revelatory nuance Joseph Smith once received a [11]revelation to take the Book of Mormon copyright to Canada to sell it to raise money for the Church. It was a failed endeavor. Upon return, he figured that it was a false revelation from the devil. When one understands this, it brings all other revelations into question, and it should. It may have implications for the translation of the Book of Mormon as well. If we believe that true revelation also occurs, knowing that this also occurred helps one understand that there is some difficulty in obtaining revelation, and that it takes work and that it can be subject to error.

If one were to undertake obtaining a revelation, where would one start? We would have to presuppose that it is partly biological, since the brain uses its cells to create intelligible ideas that can be communicated. Perhaps the idea of “automatic writing” from the subconscious is a materialist comprehension of the process of revelation. At some point, who is to say that another being from another dimension cannot reach through some energy conduit into some gland to activate or “guide” the vision that began as a subconscious effort or dream? Perhaps all revelation starts as a subconscious drift that then develops into a full-blown guided vision. Perhaps this is part of the “work” that it takes to get revelation from the other side. Furthermore, say that once the conduit is opened, that it opens the way for all sorts of beings to communicate, not simply the good kind, or better yet, the best kind. Maybe there are layers that must be unlocked that take practice, time, and effort, like any other thing we do as human beings. Would this seem that far-fetched?

Given such a scenario, what if the Book of Mormon translation process occurred in much of the same manner, partly a subconscious drift, partly guided vision, with perhaps some influence from other beings that were attempting to either thwart the process or tell their own version of the story. Thus, what we are left with is a book considered scripture by millions, that has a 19th century flavor through the medium in Joseph Smith, with some assistance from an angel through the power of God, with perhaps a little mischief thrown in for good measure when Joseph got tired or drifted a little. Is that stranger than anything else we've considered?

Knowing how we obtained the Bible, and how it’s considered scripture with much more meddling in this realm, not to mention the same issues that could have possibly occurred from the other realm, even this mixed review is better than such an enterprise as the Biblical canon when it comes to approaching a revealed work. The bottom line is that when one undertakes to think through some of this stuff, the simplest explanation becomes much more elusive. We have many questions that still plague us. If there was a good theory about who wrote the Book of Mormon, there wouldn’t be so many competing theories out there, with new ones coming out every other year. In the name of having a sense of awe, in considering the other three options, the C, D, and E scenario mix work best in light with implications that are like wondering about how gravity works or the wonder of dark matter in the universe. Is it possible and could it be true that other beings in other dimensions, higher more evolved dimensions, can reach out and touch man, but rarely, like the frequency with which men take trips to Everest or Antarctica because of the lack of tools to take everyone there? Even imperfectly, it’s worth considering.

Finally, should we give difference to other works? Prophets who bring forth teachings, be they Jesus, Joseph Smith, Muhammed, or Ellen G. White, should all get a possible pass for their efforts at least. Is it possible to have extra-dimensional processes going on that are not all explained by the material or the deceiver’s ethic? That’s always worth considering, and it would be unscientific to conclude that simply since one can’t see outside of the room of their own material existence, that it must be a fraud. What follows later though application of the work is often a better device for that determination.












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