Non-LDS Scholars and the Book of Mormon
By John A. Tvedtness
In the first century and a half after its publication in 1830, the Book of Mormon was the object of attacks by non-Latter-day Saint laymen, clergy, and scholars alike. That most of them were unacquainted with the book is evident from the various straw men they set up and then demolished, claiming to have debunked the volume. Laymen and some clergymen continue the attack, repeating some of the same absurdities published by earlier critics and since answered by defenders of the Book of Mormon. From time to time, one sees a new criticism raised, but even many of these are built upon the sandy foundation of the falsehoods and misunderstandings propagated by their predecessors. 1
But there are changes in the wind and though the number of critics seems to be increasing exponentially because of the internet, some serious non-LDS scholars have begun seeing the Book of Mormon as a valid topic of investigation, though most reject its claim of divine origin. This change in attitude may have played a role in prompting Doubleday to come to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2004, seeking permission to publish the Book of Mormon for a non-LDS audience. Meanwhile, Oxford University Press has published two books on the Book of Mormon by Terryl Givens, an LDS professor at the University of Richmond, Virginia. These were his 1997 history of anti-Mormonism, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy , and his 2002 book, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion Out of the Dust: Saints, Scholars, Skeptics, and the Book of Mormon , which is a serious look at the Book of Mormon and its skeptics, along with a survey of the scholarly work being done in regard to it. 2
In 1970, I received a letter from an acquaintance, Robert F. Smith, then a non-Mormon, who had just started studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He told of a lecture given to American students at the university (there are usually several thousand of them) by Professor Haim Rabin, President of the Hebrew Language Academy. Rabin, who has regrettably passed away, was an expert in the history of the Hebrew language. One of his points was to illustrate the abundant use of the conjunction w- in Biblical Hebrew. To do this, he began reading an English text that was replete with “ands,” “buts,” “thens,” and “nows,” words frequently used to translate the Hebrew conjunction in the Bible. Smith recognized the text as a passage from the Book of Mormon and was surprised that one of the world’s foremost Hebrew experts would use it. When he finished reading his example, Rabin said, “Now, I know that some of you know the Bible rather well, and you don’t recognize the passage I just read. The passage came from the Book of Mormon, which is a much better example of this phenomenon than the English Bibles.”
I went to Jerusalem with my family in 1971 (just after Smith returned to the USA) to work on a doctorate in Egyptian and Semitic languages at the Hebrew University and remained in there until 1979, at the same time teaching in the BYU Jerusalem semester-abroad program. Rabin was one of my foremost professors. I took some of his classes in Hebrew morphology and etymology, comparative Semitics, Geez (an old Ethiopic tongue), and Epigraphic South Arabic. In the Hebrew etymology and comparative Semitics classes, we were assigned various research projects on which we had to write papers. From time to time, I was able to draw on the Book of Mormon to illustrate some of the grammatical and lexical points I was trying to make. Rabin dutifully read my papers, checked my Book of Mormon references, wrote favorable comments in the margins, and gave me high grades for my work.
On one occasion, Rabin asked that each student prepare some original work on new etymologies for words found in the Hebrew Bible. I wrote a particularly detailed paper proposing new etymologies, based mostly on comparisons with Arabic and Egyptian (which are distantly related to Hebrew). I quoted from the Book of Mormon to illustrate some of the proposed etymologies. Rabin returned the paper to me with the usual favorable comments and added in pen that he regretted that he was so busy that week that he had not yet had time to check out the Book of Mormon passages, but noted that he had made a photocopy of the paper to keep for later reference.
One of the Hebrew words examined in that particular paper was maqom , usually translated “place,” but which clearly is a noun of place (with the usual m- prefix) deriving from the root qwm , “to arise.” In the Bible, the word sometimes means “tomb,” which is its meaning in some ancient Phoenician tomb-inscriptions and almost always in Arabic (both of them related to Hebrew). I listed a number of instances in the Book of Mormon where the word “place” was used to denote where someone died, was buried, or where his spirit went after death. Rabin seemed particularly impressed by these illustrations, which clearly provided evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. A few years later, I expanded that particular etymological study into an article published by the Society for Early Historic Archaeology. 3
During the mid-1970s, Greg Wright, one of my BYU Jerusalem students, did some work on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price (Joseph Smith-Matthew). His interest had been sparked by John W. Welch’s research on the subject. 4 He wanted to speak with some Israeli scholars about the subject, so I put him in contact with Professor Rabin, who told him that Professor Yehudah T. Radday of the University of Haifa was an expert on chiasmus. Greg made contact with Radday and set up a time to show his work (via a slide show) to both Raday and Rabin. They were rather impressed. Later, Radday contributed to a book on chiasmus edited by Welch, which included some Book of Mormon research. 5In his preface to the book, the late David Noel Freedman, then of the University of Michigan and renowned general editor of the Anchor Bible series, wrote, “The editor is to be commended for his catholicity and courage and for his own original contributions in several domains including a unique treatment of the Book of Mormon.” 6
Another Israeli scholar interested in the Book of Mormon was Professor David Flusser. When David Galbraith introduced me to Flusser, he had already retired as chairman of the Department of Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University. He was an avid fan of the Book of Mormon and especially of Joseph Smith, whom he regularly called “the prophet.” He referred to Jews and Mormons as “us” and the rest of the world as “them.” He often spoke to our BYU semester-abroad groups in Jerusalem, depicting Joseph Smith as a prophet inspired by God. One evening, after one of his lectures, I drove him home and decided to inquire about his assertion that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Though I didn’t tell him so, I really wanted to know why a man like Flusser could say Joseph was a prophet, but not join the Church. He explained that Joseph Smith’s first vision was not a unique experience, that it was shared by a number of early Christians in the centuries after the time of Jesus. Flusser accepted Joseph’s account of the visit of the Father and the Son as authentic and also believed that he had been inspired in his translation of the Book of Mormon, which Flusser saw as an authentic Israelite record from the New World. But he did not believe that Joseph had received other revelations from God, and that his stories about the restoration of the priesthood and the Church were unfounded.
In August 2001, I was invited by Professor Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University to return to Jerusalem to deliver a paper entitled “Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon” at the 13 th World Congress of Jewish Studies. 7One of the speakers drew our attention to another attestation of the Hebrew name Sariah (the name of Lehi’s wife) in a Jewish text of the fourth century BC found in the Bosphorus region and mentioned only in a Russian publication. Another Bar-Ilan professor noted that there was a possible Hebrew etymology for the name Cumorah other than the one I proposed. My paper was well-received by those in attendance. 8
Israeli scholars are not the only ones to speak approvingly about the Book of Mormon and its translator. In 1966, Grant Heward, an obscure critic of the restored Church wrote a series of inflammatory letters designed to elicit negative comments about the Book of Abraham from prominent Near Eastern scholars. In his response, William F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University expressed doubts that Joseph Smith could have learned Egyptian from any early nineteenth century sources. Explaining that he was a Protestant and hence did not believe in the Book of Mormon, Albright observed, “It is all the more surprising that there are two Egyptian names, Paanch [Paanchi] and Pahor(an) which appear in the Book of Mormon in close connection with a reference to the original language being ‘Reformed Egyptian.'” Puzzled at the existence of such names in a book published by Joseph Smith in 1830, Albright suggested that the young Mormon leader was some kind of “religious genius” 9 and defended the honesty of Joseph Smith and the good name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His comments suggest that Albright was more than superficially acquainted with the Book of Mormon, even if he was not a believer.
In March of 1978, Truman G. Madsen of Brigham Young University chaired a symposium that resulted in the book Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels , which he edited. 10 All of the speakers were renowned historians and theologians of various faiths, none of them Latter-day Saints. Among those who spoke on Book of Mormon topics were James H. Charlesworth (“Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon”) and Krister Stendahl (“The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi”). Charlesworth, who had taught a number of Latter-day Saint students who had become prominent scholars, was head of the Pseudepigrapha Institute at Duke University; Stendahl was dean of the Harvard divinity School.
In 1981, while serving as chair of the annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures and Allied Fields at BYU, I invited renowned Jewish scholar Raphael Patai of Princeton University to speak on his book The Hebrew Goddess (1968), in which he suggested that at least some Jews in ancient times believed God was married. 11 His presentation at the symposium was well received, and Patai later returned to Provo for other presentations.
In some of his books, Patai drew on the Book of Mormon. For example, in The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book , published by Princeton University, a note to the story of thirteenth-century French alchemist Nicolas Flamel reads, “The idea that sacred texts were originally inscribed on metal tablets recurs in the Mormon belief that the Book of Mormon came down inscribed on gold tablets. Important documents were in fact inscribed on metal tablets and preserved in stone or marble boxes in Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.” 12 The note cited an article by LDS scholar H. Curtis Wright 13 in a two-volume tribute to Hugh Nibley to which Patai and other scholars (including some who were not LDS) contributed, 14 and he thanked one of the editors of that book, John M. Lundquist, for bringing this information to his attention.
Later, Patai credited Lundquist for breaking the “writer’s block” that enabled him to complete his book The Children of Noah: Jewish Seafaring in Ancient Times , published by Princeton University in 1998. In the Preface, Patai wrote:
Then, in the late 1980s, I was asked by my friend Dr. John M. Lundquist, head of the Oriental Division of the New York Public Library, to contribute a paper to the Festschrift he, together with Dr. Stephen D. Ricks of Brigham Young University, planned to publish in honor of the eightieth birthday of Hugh W. Nibley. Thinking about what would be most suitable for a collection of essays in honor of an outstanding Mormon scholar, and knowing that according to the traditions of the Mormons their ancestors [ sic ] sailed to America from the Land of Israel about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, I felt that a paper discussing some aspect of Jewish seafaring in ancient times would be most appropriate. So I went back to the seafaring typescript, and reworked the chapter that dealt with Rabbinic legal provisions related to seafaring. It was published in volume one of the Nibley Festschrift in 1990, and is reprinted here in a slightly changed format as Chapter 10.15
Referring to the first sailors to leave the Mediterranean Sea and enter the Atlantic Ocean, Patai wrote:
This daring feet of striking out into unknown waters is dwarfed by what the Mormon tradition attributes to a group of Jews who lived in the days of King Zedekiah in Jerusalem, that is, in the early sixth century BCE (the same time in which the Phocaean skippers were supposed to have sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar). According to Mormon tradition, their venture into unknown waters took place in the year 589 BCE, that is, three years before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and it was thanks to this extraordinary feat that the American continent was populated by a remnant of biblical Israel. In friendly response to my request, Dr. John M. Lundquist has summarized for this volume the Mormon version of the origins of the Mormons [ sic ] from sixty[ sic ]-century BCE Palestine, at which period, according to the Mormon tradition [ sic ], the biblical Hebrews had a highly developed seafaring trade (see Appendix).16
The appendix by Lundquist is entitled “Biblical Seafaring and the Book of Mormon,” and the volume’s title page attributes the book’s authorship to “Raphael Patai With Contributions by James Hornell and John M. Lundquist.” Counting references in Lundquist’s appendix, Patai’s book mentions seven books published by FARMS and Deseret Book, of which five are about the Book of Mormon. More recently, Douglas Robinson of the University of Mississippi included the Book of Mormon as one of his case studies. 17
The range of views expressed by non-LDS scholars is vast. It ranges from those who reject the book as scripture yet find it a worthwhile topic of scholarly discussion to those who acknowledge the Nephite record as an authentic ancient text. In the latter category, I have, to date, encountered only one such scholar who believes that Joseph Smith actually translated the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God” (D&C 135:3). The others, while impressed with the evidences for the book’s antiquity, have not sought to explain its coming forth in 1830.
I suspect that some Latter-day Saints would be disappointed with those scholars who see value in studying the Book of Mormon but reject its divine origin. Still, the restored Church has been adding roughly a million adherents every three years, so the number of people who accept this keystone scripture is increasing daily. None of this proves that the Book of Mormon is true, however. That kind of assurance comes only by accepting Moroni’s challenge to read it and ask God for a spiritual confirmation of its truth (Moroni 10:4-5).
Some of the material used herein previously appeared in my article “Scholarship in Mormonism and Mormonism in Scholarship,” posted at: http://www.fairlds.org/pubs/conf/2001TveJ.html and in my 2001 World Congress of Jewish Studies paper, “Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon,” posted at: http://www.fairlds.org/pubs/HebrewNames.pdf
1 From time to time, I am asked to provide the names of non-LDS archaeologists who believe there is evidence for the Book of Mormon. My response is always twofold: 1) There are no non-LDS archaeologists who fit this description; the ones who have come to accept the Book of Mormon have joined the Church, so they are no longer non-LDS. 2) I ask them to give me the name of a Buddhist or Hindu archaeologist who accepts the archaeological evidence for the Bible; only believers accept this kind of evidence for their own scriptures.
2 In 2007, Oxford published Givens’s book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture .
3 “Burial as a Return to the Womb in Ancient Near Eastern Belief,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology No. 152 (March 1983).
4 See the article by Robert F. Smith (by then a convert to the Church), “Assessing the Broad Impact of Jack Welch’s Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/2 (2007). In the same issue, see Welch’s article “The Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: Forty Years Later.”
5 John W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1981). The book was reprinted in 1999 by Research Press, a publishing arm of BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. One of the articles Welch contributed to the volume was entitled “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.”
6 Ibid., 8.
7My paper, “Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon,” has been posted at: http://www.fairlds.org/pubs/HebrewNames.pdf.
8 This was the second time I had been invited to present a paper at a scholarly venue in Jerusalem. In 1981, I had been invited to present a paper on “Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale,” which later published as Number 2 in the Special Papers series of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology in September 1989. It is currently posted at: http://www.fairlds.org/apol/misc/misc23.html. I later expanded the paper and it was published as “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” in Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, The Temple in Time and Eternity (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999).
9 William F. Albright to Grant S. Heward, Baltimore, Maryland, 25 July 1966. I am indebted to Boyd Peterson who, under a grant from FARMS (now part of the Maxwell Institute), was able to photocopy this and many other pieces of correspondence (mostly about the Book of Abraham) held in various university library collections.
10 Truman G. Madsen, Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels ( Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1978).
11 Patai was surprised that Mormons would be interested in this topic, so, in advance of his arrival, I shared with him material on Latter-day Saint beliefs in eternal marriage and God as the Father of our spirits.
12 Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), 573 (note 19).
13 H. Curtis Wright, “Ancient Burials of Metal Documents in Stone Boxes,” By Study and Also by Faith, Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley , edited by John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books and FARMS, 1990), 2:273-334.
14 Volume 2 of the set includes one of my articles as well.
15 Raphael Patai, The Children of Noah: Jewish Seafaring in Ancient Times (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), xii-xiii. My comments here were drawn from my review of the book, “Jewish Seafaring and the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998).
16 Ibid., 21.
17 Douglas Robinson, Who Translates: Translation Subjectivities Beyond Reason (Albany: State University of New York, 2001.