Dr. William Davis uses his training in Shakespeare (and chiasmus) and applies it to the Book of Mormon. Is chiasmus less unique that some claim? Dr Davis says yes. We’ll also talk about translation in general. Bill assisted with translation of LDS Scriptures into the Maori language. Check out our conversation….
William Davis on Book of Mormon Translation
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From Shakespeare’s Chiasmus to Sermon Culture (Translating D&C into Maori)
GT 01:09 Welcome to Gospel Tangents. I’ve got a person I’ve been trying to get on the podcast for a long time, and I’m glad that we finally got him on here. Can you go ahead and tell us who you are?
William 01:21 My name is William Davis. I am the author of Visions in a Seer Stone.
GT 01:27 Go ahead and show us.
William 01:28 Alright, so Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the making of the Book of Mormon, which is, I guess, what we’re going to talk about today.
GT 01:35 Yes, that’s why we’re here. So, this is fantastic. So, I always like to get people’s educational background. Tell us where you got your bachelor’s and Master’s and Ph.D. and all that.
William 01:46 Okay. I bounced around a lot in my undergraduate years. I started at BYU, but then I shifted up to the BYU Extension Center. Then, I went over to BYU-Hawaii. I came back and I went to the University of Utah, where I finally decided to get a degree. So I’m a Ute.
GT 02:02 Okay, so do you vote for BYU or Utah when they play each other?
William 02:05 Utah.
GT 02:06 Oh, I’m glad to hear that. I’m very glad to hear that.
William 02:11 (Chuckling) So, I finished up there. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
GT 02:18 What was your major?
William 02:18 At the time, [my major was] in film studies, but I was also in an actor training program. So, I went on. I pursued the acting. I first went to the American Conservatory Theatre, in San Francisco. After I was there, for a year, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC started a new classical Acting Program. They invited me to be part of the first class. So, I moved from one side of the United States to the other, and I did my degree. My first master’s degree was in classical acting. Then I went up to New York, where I started to do a little bit of acting, but I didn’t–even when I was in school, I wasn’t sure that that’s what I really wanted to do. It’s just something I kind of fell into.
GT 03:06 So classical, is this just like Shakespeare kind of stuff?
William 03:08 Mostly Shakespeare, but that type of period where you had to learn not just acting, but acting with verse and there’s a lot of technical skills that come along with being able to handle Shakespeare verse and also the plays that were around that time period. A little later, the Jacobean plays or earlier, because you’re dealing a lot with metered language, like poetic forms, and so [you have to learn] to be able to speak that, to have it makes sense, but also to make it flow. These are all these things you did. Anyway, that’s where I got my master’s degree. That’s where I started getting interested, too, in…
GT 03:51 What was the name of the school?
William 03:53 Well, it was George Washington University, officially, in terms of who gave the degree. But all of our time was spent at the Shakespeare Theatre, in their rehearsal halls. They’re one of the major regional theaters. So, that’s, that’s where I studied. I got my masters there. Then, up in New York, I pursued a second master’s degree in digital imaging and design.
GT 04:20 That was probably a lot more useful, monetarily, right?
William 04:23 Well, except, I’m at that age where I didn’t grow up with computers. So, I was surrounded by a lot of younger cohorts who grew up on it, and so it was just a second language, and they were running circles around me. So, I said, “This is really nice. I’ve learned some fun things, but I’m not going to be able to have the kind of career I want.” It was in the course of doing all this, I have been doing a lot of work on research on Shakespeare and classical rhetoric. I started getting some papers published in academic journals, about the nature of Shakespeare’s language and rhetoric. So, I thought, I really enjoy this. So, I took all of that theater background, but also the study of the text and decided to put it together. Then, I went to UCLA where I got my doctorate in theater and performance studies. Most of my time, while I was there, I was split between being in the theater program, but also being in the English Department, because I was taking a whole bunch of my classes over there. I spent about half my time in the English department, half my time in the theater department, and then that’s where I finished.
GT 05:48 Wow. So, is this the result of your dissertation?
William 05:53 In part, I mean, what happened with my dissertation, it was a really wide, broad view of oratorical culture in the early 19 th century, and then how Joseph Smith, growing up, what was the environment like for oral performance at that time? And how did that relate to the text of the Book of Mormon? So, it was a really broad, wide look at all the different types of pathways or ways that people learned about oral performance, that informed the way that someone was trained in public speaking, or in delivering sermons or exhortations, that sort of thing.
William 06:38 The book, then, it took that really broad swath of ideas, and I narrowed it down to focus almost exclusively on sermon culture. So, I had to leave out a lot. I decided I would just go deep on the one, because that seemed to be one of the most prominent–sermon culture seemed to be one of the most prominent areas where what you’re seeing in the text of the Book of Mormon has a lot of things that are related to sermon culture at the same time. And that’s in terms of the mechanics of production, the way that the text is produced. I didn’t hardly work on content at all, at that time. It was just techniques about speaking and dictating a text.
GT 07:27 So, did this relate to your Shakespeare training at all?
William 07:32 Only in a broad sense. I would say where there is a relationship, and part of what –the one thread of interest that brought me over to looking at the Book of Mormon from Shakespeare is Shakespeare uses complex chiasmus. It’s everywhere in his works, as small as one to two phrases, to where it expands up to where it’s the shaping of entire plays, and everything in between, long speeches, scenes, and whatnot. So, I’d been working with that. Some of my early publications were on Shakespeare’s use of complex chiasmus, but then, also, in terms of how he used it, in ways that he incorporated devices from classical rhetoric. So, when I started looking at the Book of Mormon, a part of it was because it had that interest in chiasmus, as well. I had been studying chiasmus before. I first heard about it when I was on my mission. So, it always kind of stuck with me.
GT 08:40 Where did you go?
William 08:42 I went to New Zealand and the Cook Islands. Then after my mission, there was a short time when I helped the translation department with some translations of Cook Island Maori.
GT 08:54 Did you speak Maori?
William 08:55 Yeah.
GT 08:56 Oh, you did?
William 08:57 Yeah.
GT 08:57 Oh wow, did you make the faces and everything? (Chuckling)
William 09:00 Well, that’s New Zealand Maori that…So I don’t speak New Zealand Maori, but I understand quite a bit of it. I can speak haltingly. I actually can communicate with someone better, who is in Hawaiian, of all things, than the New Zealand Maori, especially if it’s an outer island. They have a dialect that’s very similar to, not the main one that they have in the Hawaiian dictionaries, but out on the outer islands, things switch around, letters and stuff. Sometimes, it’s identical phraseology.
GT 09:33 Wow.
William 09:34 Yeah, but anyway, so that’s where I first learned about it. I wasn’t technically an employee. I was a contract person who just came in to help them with some other projects on Cook Island Maori.
GT 09:48 Was this for like, the Book of Mormon translation or something else?
William 09:51 Doctrine and Covenants.
GT 09:52 Oh, really?
William 09:52 Yeah.
GT 09:53 So, you helped translate the Doctrine and Covenants into Maori.
William 09:56 No, I wasn’t translating. What I was doing is I was helping. The person who was doing the translation was a guy named Manu Cummings. He was an elderly gentleman in the Cook Islands. So, what happened is, he was sending in translations, and then I was reviewing the translations to see if…
GT 10:20 If it made sense.
William 10:21 Yeah, for example, if there was something said, was it translated too literally? Or maybe the translation, the sense, or the meaning of it wasn’t quite being captured. So, what I would do, oftentimes, is I would, when I was talking to Manu—we would call him Papa, Papa Manu Cummings. What I would do is I’d offer about three or four different translations back to him to say, “This is kind of where it’s going, and I see what you were doing. But, they had a guide on what you wanted to go for with translation. I’d say, “This is what they’re looking for.” So, I’d give him some options. But that, usually just giving him options would then kind of let him know, “Oh, this is where it’s kind of going.” Then, he would either choose something that I had offered, or he would just kind of tweak it another way. So, yeah, we worked on that for quite a while. Then, it was one of my supervisors there, who first really talked to me about what chiasmus was. Now I’d heard about it on my mission, but I really didn’t know, actually didn’t care at the time. But then one of my supervisors there, he…
GT 11:41 When you say your supervisors, is this at the Church?
William 11:43 At the Church.
GT 11:44 Okay.
William 11:44 Yeah. His name was Joe. He was really smart, a really wonderful guy. He was such a great mentor. He, essentially, taught me a ton of stuff about linguistics. I had actually been pursuing a minor in linguistics at the University of Utah. I never finished it because I wanted to graduate and get out. I was just, like, one or two classes away from having a minor. But he took me under his wing, and I learned so much more informally about linguistics, and that got me really excited and interested.
William 12:21 So, it was later, when I was doing this classical acting program in Washington, D.C., and I was looking at the text, when all this other information and background was still present and alive. That’s when I started noticing all of these patterns in Shakespeare. I said, “Wait a minute. Shakespeare was using chiasmus? I thought this was some ancient Hebrew thing that nobody else wrote in. How come Shakespeare is speaking in chiasmus all over the place?” I mean, it’s almost habitual, to the point where, sometimes it looks really intentional, because it’s so precise in the complex structure of it, and other times, it’s just loose to the point where you think, “Well, maybe this was such a habitual, unconscious structuring that it would come out even when he wasn’t trying to.” So, that’s what were my early publications.
GT 13:10 I know that some critics are like, “Well, Dr. Seuss uses chiasmus.”
William 13:15 Yeah, well, he does. I know that…
GT 13:20 I mean, the idea is, this isn’t that big of a deal. We shouldn’t be making that big of a deal with the Book of Mormon. Would you agree with that or not?
William 13:26 Yeah, I think people have got to be really careful. I understand why people will say, “Look, we have this form of– look at Alma 36, this great big forum that goes over this entire,” well, modern chapter, “That covers this conversion narrative, and wow, we find some things on one side and some things on the other side.”
William 14:04 Complex chismus is not the nail in the coffin that people think it is. That’s because, when you go out and you look around at the way that people express themselves, particularly when they’re expressing themselves through the spoken word, and not just the written word, complex chiasmus comes up all over the place. I’ve said this elsewhere, and I’ll say it again. There are a lot of people who are now thinking that there must be some sort of default mechanism in our cognitive structure and architecture, that for a lot of people, there’s a tendency to speak in a way that is something they would kind of call a ring pattern, where you start to state an idea. Then, to emphasize that idea, there’s repetition of the idea. These complex chiastic structures are emerging all over the place with people who have no idea that they’re doing it.
GT 14:56 Even today?
William 14:57 Even today, oh absolutely. But when you when you look at someone, like for example, I’ve done a lot of work with Shakespeare. When Shakespeare does one of these complex classic forms, it’s really precise, it’s really tight. So, when you’re going through and moving from the A level, the ABCD, DCBA, they’re really tight. And there’s not a lot of repetition in such a way that there’s bleeding of one idea into another idea. When it happens, it’s minor, if at all. So, they’re very tight, very precise. So, when you go over and you see someone who’s doing something that is not planned out or structured, you can still have these sometimes very tight chiastic structures, but then there’s more ideas that tend to bleed in. It tends to get loose, and not so tight anymore. So, you can start to see differences between ones that are really planned out, really carefully planned out versus ones that are not. So, if I were to compare, like the Book of Mormon chiastic patterns, the large ones, the complex chiastic patterns with large scale chiastic patterns that you see people writing with, they don’t have the kind of precision you would expect from a literary project that’s been planned out. It’s closer to the types of large-scale chiastic structures that I see with people who have just been speaking, through just patterns of oral presentation. So, yeah, that’s what I mean, does that answer that question?
GT 16:37 Oh, let me make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying. So, it sounds to me like you’re saying…
William 16:45 Complex chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is not strong evidence of ancient Hebrew origins.
GT 16:52 Okay.
William 16:52 It’s just too common. And the structures that…
GT 16:56 It’s more common than the apologists would lead us to believe.
William 16:58 Yes, absolutely yes. And also the type of structure–but let’s do something here. Because one of the things, I know that when you start talking about those evidences, people feel like it’s an attack on the Book of Mormon or an attack on faith. I don’t go to faith questions. The work that I do with academic study is, I just say, “Look, here’s the information. Here’s what we have.” People get to decide how they want to interpret it, and how they want to use it, in terms of their belief systems. So, when I’m talking about these chiastic structures, it’s not like I’m out to tear down the Book of Mormon or something. Some people respond that way or feel threatened when we talk about that. That’s not what we’re doing. But we have to be careful when we’re doing these complex structures.
William 17:05 What I observe is that a lot of times when people are trying to build a structure, there’s a lot of cherry picking going on. So, they’re looking at a passage, and then they’ll say, “Okay, this little phrase here has similar or the same phrase down here.” But there might be seven or eight other types of topics or ideas that just get dismissed and overlooked and discarded. So, there, it’s keeping the information where it’s parallel and conveniently discarding other information that should be there. When that starts happening, that means that somebody is making a decision about what’s included and what’s not included. When you have a really tight chiastic structure, you don’t have that kind of ambiguity or choice to..
GT 18:44 To throw out little phrases.
William 18:46 Because, the text will force you into a shape when it’s really tight and really done really well. And what’s happening like with Alma 36, there’s a lot of cherry picking going on. I think that there is, definitely, an overall chiastic shape.
Oral vs Written Chiasms-Tight vs Loose Translation
William: But let’s look at it through the viewpoint of someone who believes the Book of Mormon is real history and written by ancient prophets. Okay. So, you look at the text of the Book of Mormon, where in the Book of Mormon, like Alma 36–let me back up a little bit. So in this, we have the conversion narrative, and this is where Alma is talking to one of his sons, correct?
GT 19:35 Uh huh.
William 19:36 Or am I totally missing out on it now?
GT 19:38 I don’t have the chapters down really good.
William 19:40 Let’s grab it.
GT 19:41 But yeah, you’re talking about the sons. Is this the one where Corianton and the harlot– is that the other story you’re talking about?
William 19:49 Yeah. No, only it’s the oldest son. The reason why I’m confused is because Alma actually tells this story twice, once in a condensed form and once in this longer form. So, in the first one, he’s talking about his conversion. So, he’s doing it with his older son, it’s Helaman. So, what happened? Let’s just look at the Scriptures. So, if you say, was this intentional? Was it planned out and written? Or was this a spoken chiasm? That’s what I would argue, it’s a spoken chiasm. So, it’s not going to have the kind of precision you’d have with the literary chiasm. Now, when we look at the text of the Book of Mormon, does the text say that I, Alma spoke to my son, Helaman, I told him my conversion narrative, and later when I recorded it, I decided not to say what, word for word, I told him. But I decided that I was going to take what I said to Helaman, and I’m going to change it and create this chiastic structure with it, in order to record what was said. Or, did he just say, “This is what I said to my son,” and he tried to faithfully reproduce what he said to his son.
GT 20:59 Okay.
William 21:00 So, if he’s trying to faithfully reproduce what he said to his son, then that does not involve a process of trying to construct it in a literary form. He’s just going to try to repeat what he said, to Helaman. So, if he’s brought up and trained in this kind of chiastic world, but if he did not sit down and write out what he was going to say to Helaman before or after, but just spoke it and just told him what essentially was his conversion narrative, then you might expect to get this general chiastic shape, but not a precise chiastic structure, not one with a lot of precision. So, that’s what I would argue is that when you see this chiastic shape in the Book of Mormon…
GT 21:48 And that’s in which chapter?
William 21:50 Alma 36.
GT 21:51 Alma 36, okay.
William 21:53 What we’re getting here is that the actual shape and structure and development of the text, reflect someone who has spoken a chiasm without preparing or writing it, or trying to figure out how it’s all going to work. And the text actually supports that. There is no evidence in the text, that Alma went back and restructured what he said to Helaman. In fact, the way it’s presented in the text, is that what we have in Alma 36 is what Alma actually was trying to reproduce what he said to his son.
GT 22:26 Okay.
William 22:27 Am I just kind of going off on there, Rick?
GT 22:29 Well, I’m trying to understand. So, you’re saying that what’s in the Book of Mormon is evidence of an oral presentation rather than a written presentation? Because the written presentation would be tighter with the chiasm,
William 22:42 Much tighter.
GT 22:42 Whereas time, oral presentation, it’s more of a loose [presentation.]
William 22:46 Yeah.
GT 22:46 Ok.
William 22:47 So the kind of structure that we see in Alma 36, is the kind of structure that looks most similar to oral performances, where someone kind of naturally falls into this kind of repetitive pattern of a complex, chiastic pattern. It’s much more characteristic of that kind of presentation than someone who plotted it out carefully. And I joke about it. But I’ll say it again, because, even though I’m joking, I’m dead serious. And that is, if this were an intentional, literary chiasm that Alma wrote, then he was skipping school and skipping chiasmus class, because there are huge blunders he’s making, if he were intentionally trying to create this as an intentional chiasm.
GT 22:47 Okay.
GT 23:49 Well, so there are two questions that I see coming up. The one is, I don’t know you probably don’t know, I interviewed Dr. Thomas Wayment, from BYU. He’s a New Testament scholar. He was of the impression, and so tell me if you agree or disagree, that like the apostle Paul would use chiasms. He said, “While there is a very technical structure, when you’re speaking extemporaneously, those rules aren’t as strict.” Would that be true, in Paul’s case, as well?
William 24:28 Yeah. Then, but the only problem is, we can’t always tell by looking at a text. Because sometimes if we see a chiasm, and it looks really tight, that’s not necessarily evidence that it was written. But, otherwise, because there’s some people who do these incredibly precise, chiastic structures.
GT 24:49 Orally?
William 24:49 Just orally, off the cuff orally.
GT 24:51 Really?
William 24:52 I mean, some really precise ones. One person I’ve done a lot of work on was Andrew Jackson Davis, the prophet of Poughkeepsie. He was born later than Joseph Smith, when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon. No, he was born later. Andrew Jackson Davis performed a text, The Principles of Nature. He did it when he said he was kind of in a trance state, although we don’t know exactly what that trance was, because he described several different layers of trance. So, he just went off. His process was he put on a blindfold. So instead of putting his head in the hat, and using a seer stone, he put a blindfold on and went into this kind of trance state. He equated that trance state, though, to the same thing that went on with seer stones, because one time someone brought him a seer stone and said, “Can you make this work?” So, he kind of started looking at it, and, eventually, he started making it work the same way he did his own process.
GT 25:56 With the blindfold.
William 25:57 With the blindfold, but he just preferred to have a blindfold instead of using this. Anyway, so he did this vast work, The Principles of Nature, which is roughly about 320,000 words, and in that, he has chiasms of all sizes that start to crop up. It’s really clear that it’s not conscious. It’s really clear that what he’s doing is he’s just trying to express certain ideas, and then he winds up following, indeed, certain patterns of repetition. But some of them are really big, really long and extremely precise in certain sections of them, in such a way that I would have never thought, myself. Even after looking at them for all these years, I would have never thought was possible for someone to do an oral presentation where it’s not planned out. It’s not written. He just spoke it off. So, with those long, tangent caveats…
GT 26:49 We’re all about tangents here.
William 26:51 Yeah. So going back to what Thomas Wayment said, I would say that, yeah, when someone is trying to write one out intentionally, it tends to be more precise than someone who is speaking them and creating them. It can be conscious or unconscious. People will still fall into these patterns. It’s really widespread. It’s across all kinds of cultures. It’s across all kinds of time periods. So, I would just caution people, that if you’re going to say that evidence for the Book of Mormon being ancient is chiasmus in it, it’s not really. It’s not a slam dunk. It’s getting more like an air ball. It’s not the kind of evidence, that people think it is.
GT 26:51 We’re going from slam dunk to air ball. Wow.
William 26:56 Slam dunk to–yeah.
GT 26:58 Wow.
William 26:59 Anyway, I know people have a problem with that. But the point is, I’m not really interested in duking it out with people and debating and arguing. But I will say that people need to be more cautious the way they represent some of this material. I know that it’s just like this wonderful piece of evidence for a lot of people, but it doesn’t have the strong evidentiary value and support that I think people really wish it had.
GT 28:23 Okay, so the other question that leads to, at least in my mind is, there are several times in the book that it says, “We’re not very good writers in the Book of Mormon, and if you could hear what we were saying, this would really make a lot better sense,” and it would be more, it would cause you to convert better. “We’re mighty in speaking, but not in writing.”
William 28:49 Yeah.
GT 28:51 Because I think your thesis is, the Book of Mormon is evidence of an oral tradition, rather than a written tradition. Is that right?
William 29:01 Yeah, yeah. But more specifically, I’d say it’s the text of the Book of Mormon, the words of the Book of Mormon, the way that all these stories are expressed. The process that brought those words into being more reflects an oral dictation or oral composition than it does a written composition.
GT 29:25 Is that would explain why, when the 116 pages were lost, Joseph’s using an oral thing, and so he’s not going to be a perfect translator of those 116 pages, which is why he didn’t re-translate them?
William 29:40 I would say that, yeah. I would say, yes. Because what happens when you’re dealing with the type of technique that I’m talking about here, so say, we’re Joseph Smith. Right? And we’re translating, and, this is where we’re going to talk about the two different camps of translation. Now, some people say that translation, they believe that Joseph Smith was doing nothing more than reading the words off the seer stone, or else having some kind of vision that the seer stone helped induce, where he got everything word for word. The other side of the coin that you find in LDS theorizing is that Joseph Smith participated in the process, so that through visions of seeing past events, through using the seer stone, and whatever the process was, that he was experiencing the stories of the Book of Mormon that his own language was where the source of the words were, as he tried to express what he was experiencing.
GT 30:40 This is know as loose translation, and the former was tight translation, right?
William 30:43 Yeah, so that’s tight versus loose translation. So, when we’re talking about the translation of the Book of Mormon, and coming back to the 116 pages, and what the text really shows again and again, is that there’s this process of oral production of words, in an effort to articulate whatever he’s experiencing through vision or the seer stone or both. So, what’s happening then is if you don’t have this word for word, perfect script, so you’ve done the 116 pages, and then they’re gone. There’s a very good chance that Joseph Smith could have gone back, and then done all that translation again. But, more than likely, a lot of the words that he used to express those ideas would have been different. So, the concern was that someone would have this text and come along and say, “Well, it might be the same story, but it’s told in two different ways, so, this is fraudulent.”
GT 31:45 So, this really casts a lot of doubt on the tight translation, because, well, if he got it word for word, he should have gotten it word for word again, right?
William 31:54 Yeah, and that’s what the concern was at that time. Because that was one way to say, oh, there’s variants. And if it’s word for word tight then–and if someone were really trying to do that, they could have tried to find some other way to alter it, yet further again. So I think, ultimately, scrapping the 116 pages, not trying to do them, again, turned out to be just the best way to try to circumvent all the potential problems that might have come up. But yeah, so…
GT 32:29 So, you’re definitely in the loose translation camp.
William 32:32 Absolutely.
GT 32:33 I think that’s where most people are. I think Royal Skousen is in the tight. There are some other people that are in the tight camp, but from my experience, it seems like most people are in the loose translation category. Would you agree with that?
William 32:48 Well, my impression is that, that is the case. It does seem to me that there are more people who are kind of gravitating to that position. But, then again, that’s just the circle of people that I interact with and read about. So, I don’t know what’s going on in the wider population and popular Mormon thought.
GT 33:07 My experience is most people are going with loose. The reason why is because if you’re going to go with tight translation, how do you explain horses and steel and wheat and all the so-called anachronisms? Those are more easily explained with, “Oh, well, Joseph was using his own vocabulary, not that the word steel was on the rock.”
William 33:34 Yeah. I think, for me, it’s not so much those anachronisms, or getting around the anachronisms, that’s the real issue.
GT 33:44 That’s not a big deal to you?
William 33:45 No. but, and again, I’m talking from the viewpoint of someone who would be believing in the Book of Mormon as an actual historical record, then, it seems to me that loose translation, like what you just described, that Joseph Smith is seeing things and he’s trying to articulate what he’s seeing within his own experience, his own vocabulary, his own frameworks of reference, that that goes a long way to explain a lot of the anachronisms that are in the text.
William 34:18 I’m a little surprised that people are actually so gung ho about this tight translation, that Joseph Smith wasn’t even participating, because it seems to contradict, not only the textual evidence itself, but even the descriptions of how the process took place from someone actually doing it, as opposed to someone who is an outside observer. Then, plus, from an apologist point of view, it’s so much easier to explain some of those difficulties. It just seems that the tight control creates more problems than the benefits.
GT 34:58 That’s why I think most people are going to loose. I mean, there are people like Royal Skousen that are just, that’s the hill they’re going to die on. But I think Royal is in the minority, in that case.
William 35:08 Well, and I don’t want to peg. Everybody can change and evolve. I don’t know. I mean, and I could be wrong, but I thought I read somewhere that Royal was keeping the door open in some of his earlier stuff. I can’t speak for him now. I don’t know what he thinks today. But I know that there’s…
GT 35:32 I’m trying to get Royal on, but I know he’s really busy. So maybe, maybe he can..
William 35:36 But Royal has done a ton of work, and it’s really fascinating. The type of work that he’s done just takes–it’s just an enormous amount of time. I’ve done similar type of work on other texts, and it is just immensely beyond, otherworldly difficult. Plus, you’re dealing with things that are so mundane, and in some ways, just kind of–unless you’re really into textual studies.
GT 36:06 And he is. Oh, my gosh.
William 36:07 But I love it too. I love reading it just to see, wow, this is so much fun. I kind of nerd out over his work and stuff.
GT 36:17 (Chuckling)
William 36:18 The only concerns I have, though, is sometimes that when you have something on the page when you’re looking at the original manuscript, and you see some types of corrections or things and the interpretation of what that could be is, I think Royal Skousen has been trying really hard to reconcile the textual evidence with the historical observations of people, describing words.
GT 36:53 Because isn’t it John or Peter Whitmer? I always get them mixed up. Wasn’t he the source of the seer stone? Do you know?
William 37:00 Oh, you mean about seeing something?
GT 37:01 Seeing the words in the rock?
William 37:02 You know, I’m not sure who the first person was to say that. I want to say David Whitmer, but I’m not so sure.
GT 37:13 Probably. I get all the Whitmer brothers mixed up.
William 37:15 Yeah, but there were several people. I’m not sure who the first one was. Then, there are a lot of things that aren’t always taken into account. Like, if you have five different people who are describing the same process, were these independent statements or was someone influenced by something someone else said, and they just kind of lean that direction. I mean, some of the work on what people are saying hasn’t been as fully, critically examined, as I think it probably should be. Then, even in the end, none of them actually saw what was on the seer stone when Joseph Smith was doing what he was doing. So, it’s hearsay evidence, and no matter how badly we want it to be evidence, it’s still hearsay evidence. The only one who really knows is Joseph Smith, and Joseph Smith never said, what was happening.
GT 38:10 Well, I know Jonathan Neville– I’m trying not to misuse his words. But he almost referred to it as a parlor trick. Like, “Hey, he just did this one time. But he used the urim and thummim most of the time, and it was more of a loose translation. But there was one time.” Can you comment on that? I don’t know if you heard that conversation.
William 38:35 No, I don’t. I missed that part. So, I’m not sure.
GT 38:39 Yeah, Jonathan was like, “Well, I think David Whitmer was the only one who talked about the seer stone. But Joseph didn’t really use the seer stone most of the time.” So, Jonathan Neville is more of the opinion that it was more–he’s a loose translation guy, as well. And that he was influenced by people like Jonathan Edwards and Adam Clarke, and people like that, with the Book of Mormon.
William 39:06 Yeah, I can. I mean, I would say that when you’re talking about someone who’s a translator, and that’s what Joseph Smith said he was. He was a translator. If we take Joseph Smith at his word, then what that means is when he is trying to translate something, he is going to be using material that he was exposed to, in his own lifetime, in an effort to articulate what is in the text. So, if he had come across the writings of Jonathan Edwards, if he had heard that, if he’d been in a sermon and someone had quoted Jonathan Edwards, that information could potentially find its way into the translation of the Book of Mormon. So, yeah, that’s how a loose translation could operate. But, because I’m always playing devil’s advocate, you can say the same thing about the tight control, because then all you’d have to say is, “Well, where did this translation on the surface of this stone would come from?” Is it more than just an object or like Google Translate? Or was there, as some people have proposed, like God or His angels were doing the translation, then feeding it into the stone? If that’s the case, why couldn’t the angels say, “Oh, these 19 th century audience might understand this better if we use on of Jonathan Edward’s words.”
GT 40:24 So, we’re going to use steel or horses, or…
William 40:26 So, we’ll use steel or horses and inject that in and Joseph Smith just read the words off.
GT 40:32 Oh, that’s interesting.
William 40:33 So that’s a possibility. I would say that there’s a point, though, where you have to start doing some really serious mental gymnastics to keep making the tight control work. Because then when you start seeing mistakes, in the King James version from the 1769 version of the King James Version, all of a sudden, they start popping up in the Book of Mormon, then you have to say, “Well, this tells us something about the angels of God and the angels and their process of translation. They’re willing to include a mistake. They’re willing to do something that’s imperfect.” Then, you have to start saying, “Well, what’s the nature of God? Is the nature of God, trickery or producing mistakes?” See, because ultimately, what people aren’t doing is they’re not they’re not following some of those issues to their logical end, and what the logical end of tight control is that you have a God who’s a trickster god, or you have a God that is doing something that’s imperfect. Right?
GT 41:38 Which is why the Book of Mormon has all these anachronisms and we can’t find any archaeological evidence because God is a trickster god.
William 41:45 Are we going to attribute all of that to God? We’re starting to get on shaky doctrinal ground.
GT 41:51 Right.
William 41:52 I just think that we just have to be cautious, because sometimes I think that we compartmentalize theories, and we don’t realize the way that we try to get an answer for this particular question is going to ripple out.
GT 42:07 Causes a problem elsewhere.
William 42:08 And it’s going to–but, that’s not–I don’t do theology. I don’t do doctrine. People are going to have to work that out themselves. But I’m just kind of sending out a little caution here. Be careful when something’s compartmentalized.
GT 42:24 Okay.
William 42:24 I’ll give you another one. (Chuckling) This is going way off of wherever I thought we were going to talk about. One more thing, and then we’ll get back to the book.
GT 42:33 (Chuckling)
William 42:34 One thing people do, where they compartmentalize something that seems to be an answer, where we can say, “Ah, we can reconcile what’s going on,” is like the Egyptian papyri and the Book of Abraham.
GT 42:48 Right.
William 42:49 All right. So, we have the catalyst theory.
GT 42:58 Right.
William 42:59 So, now it’s really clear from Joseph’s point of view that he was translating these texts. All right, in his mind, he was looking at the texts and saying, “Okay.”
GT 43:07 Looking at the Egyptian.
William 43:09 Looking at the Egyptian, and then receiving… So, that was a catalyst in which he received this inspiration. So, he thought he was translating the Book of Abraham, when in fact, he was doing something else. He was receiving a revelation. But, if you step back, and you say, “Okay, here’s Joseph Smith. Here’s the prophet. He thought this was happening, when in fact, it was something else.” Let’s give one application of this. Let’s say, the Book of Mormon. What if we applied the same exact translation to the Book of Mormon? Now, I’m not saying people should do this or not. But I’m just showing how when you have an answer in one place, and then you move it to another thing, how it suddenly starts to become a problem. Joseph Smith thought he was translating an ancient record, when in fact, he was writing an inspired allegory.
GT 44:10 There are some people who reconcile it that way.
William 44:12 Yeah, and some people do. But see how it suddenly destabilizes? When people compartmentalize an explanation for one area, and then you say, “Okay, well, we can extract some of the principles of the nature of like, what Joseph Smith thought he was doing, what he was doing with his prophetic calling.” When you extract those principles, and then project them back on to another similar situation, all of a sudden, it’s going to cause a problem. So, I think, anyway, that’s just another caution that when we come up with an explanation for one situation, we should be aware of how that might be applied to other situations and be equally valid. And if they’re equally valid, then what does that say, for example, about the text of the Book of Mormon? You know, maybe…
GT 44:58 Well, I know a lot of people, lose their testimony because of the Book of Abraham, because it doesn’t match. Therefore, they do apply it to the Book of Mormon. I heard a woman, one time, she’s like, “The Book of Mormon literally fell apart in my hands.” So, certainly, that does happen with some people. But other people are fine with that explanation, that it’s non-literal. I know, in the in your book, you claim to be agnostic on that issue of Book of Mormon historicity.
William 45:38 Well, what I did is, I’m not going to take a position in the book.
GT 45:44 Okay.
William 45:44 Yeah, because, I think if I come out, and I say, “Well, this is what I think ,” in the opening of a book, then you’re kind of turn pushing the audience to think a certain way. What I prefer to do is just kind of lay out all the evidence and let people draw their own conclusions. I don’t want their conclusion to be manipulated in any way, by me trying to say, “Look, go this way, go this way, or go that way.” You know, because people will take evidence, and like you’re saying, one person might look at the information around the Book of Abraham and completely lose their testimony, where someone else with the same exact evidence, it might strengthen their testimony.
GT 46:35 Right.
William 46:35 And it’s all about perception. It’s all about people’s personal background and experience and what they bring to the table and the way they interpret.
GT 46:43 Well, and it gets into this idea, and that’s why people like Kerry Muhlestein try so hard to say, “Well, there’s a missing scroll.”
William 46:51 Yeah.
GT 46:52 Because clearly, what we have doesn’t match, and so Joseph must have been translating something else.
William 46:58 Yeah.
GT 46:59 So, I don’t want to put , or words into Kerry’s mouth. But I would assume that Kerry would be more of a tight translation guy, although I haven’t heard him talk about that. So, maybe, I might be mistaken there. But, in my mind, “Well, if we have this missing scroll, and we don’t have the plates. Therefore, we’ve got a legit translation, according to Kerry. The same thing, I would assume he’s probably more of a tight translation guy, but I haven’t asked him, so I don’t know.
William 47:39 Yeah, I don’t know for sure. And the Book of Abraham is not…
GT 47:43 Not your focus.
William 47:44 Not what I focus on. But what I have looked at, I would say that when people try to say, “Oh, there’s a missing scroll out there that’s being missed.” No. No. The textual evidence does not support that.
GT 48:00 I think most scholars would agree with you and that Kerry is kind of the minority opinion.
William 48:09 Yeah, I haven’t read a whole bunch of his work. I mean, I’ve seen some stuff, and I know…
I know, there’s the big Brian Hauglid thing, that
he kind of more supports Dan Vogel now than Kerry Muhlestein, for example.
William 48:23 Yeah, you know what? I once, for Brian, I would say that it’s not that he supports Dan Vogel more, it’s just that as he’s been talking to people about the evidence, he now sees that the evidence more strongly favors the idea that Joseph Smith was trying to translate from texts that we still have, and that we can, of course, verify whether or not it was or was not. So, I know, when I’ve read, people even kind of attack Brian. It seems like they’re saying, “Oh, he’s gone from our camp to their camp and their camp to our camp.”
William 48:59 And I’m saying, you guys, if we’re doing scholarship, it’s not–this is all about tribalism. This is all about ad hominem attacks on Brian, because he’s not on our team anymore.
GT 48:59 Yeah, exactly.
William 49:10 And, you know, I think…
William 49:15 Just go where the evidence leads.
William 49:17 Go where the evidence leads, and there’s a lot of really good evidence coming out. I’m always terrible with names, but there’s some excellent essays on this very topic in Producing Ancient Scripture.
GT 49:31 I’ve been trying to get Brian on.
William 49:33 Brian, but also there’s, there’s another scholar who just wrote a fantastic essay in the book, Matthew Gray. He goes in and where he tracks against the historical record of Joseph Smith and when he started taking lessons in Hebrew.
GT 49:50 Yeah, I read that last night.
William 49:52 Joshua Seixas.
GT 49:53 That’s a good one.
William 49:54 Then, he’s showing how the course of the translation, also, the Book of Abraham, all of a sudden when he starts taking lessons in Hebrew, all of a sudden, we start seeing this increase in the use of Hebrew terms. He’s able to track that in such a historical way that he can actually start showing that when certain aspects of the Book of Mormon had to have been translated, and the most likely scenario, given what evidence we have. It’s just phenomenal research. I had a chance to write a review for Producing Ancient Scripture, and one of the things that I said at the very end of that is to say, “New things will come up. New information is always coming to the forefront.” That kind of tribalism, that kind of polemic, where, it seems that scoring points and attacking becomes more important than trying to find out the most accurate possible information about the past. That seems to get sacrificed in favor of winning. That’s one of the reasons why I steer clear, as much as I can, from those debates.
GT 51:12 Yeah, me too.
William 51:15 Because–and it’s hard. Because like with this book have been a lot of situations where people have not understood what I wrote, and then in their critiques of my work, have misrepresented what I’ve said. I don’t think it’s intentional. I think, in most cases, they just didn’t understand what I was saying or didn’t understand the evidence. But, anyway, we’re really kind of going around.
[End of Part 1]
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