The prevalence of a spirit of contention amongst a people is a certain sign of deadness with respect to the things of religion. When men's spirits are hot with contention, they are cold to religion. - Jonathan Edwards “The Book of Mormon does not supplant the Bible. It expands, extends, clarifies, and amplifies our knowledge of the Savior. Surely, this second witness should be cause for great rejoicing by all Christians.” - Joseph B. Wirthlin

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Translation and "anachronisms"

In the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith declared that "With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God."
(Times and Seasons III.9:707 ¶5–6)

We might think this is one basic idea believers in the Book of Mormon could unite around. 

Certainly during Joseph's lifetime, people did unite on this issue.

But not lately.

Intellectuals in the Church are telling us that Joseph didn't really use the Urim and Thummim, didn't really use the plates, and didn't really translate anything. Instead, according to them, Joseph merely read words that appeared on a seer stone he put in a hat (or read words that appeared in vision). They're trying to persuade us that the "actual translator" was some unknown supernatural being who, inexplicably, used Early Modern English combined with early 1800s expressions, complete with anachronisms that critics have long claimed are evidence of 19th century composition.

Nevertheless, many of us Latter-day Saints still believe what Joseph and Oliver taught about the translation.

Some critics claim that dictating a text from a vision (or from words that appeared on a stone) is equivalent to a composition, and this explains the anachronisms.

It shouldn't be difficult for critics (and the LDS intellectuals who agree with them) to understand that the same evidence they cite to show modern composition is also evidence of modern translation. 

Every translator draws from the words, phrases, and concepts in his/her own mind. A translator could do nothing else. I call this the mental language bank, an analogy to the way banks work. We can only withdraw from a bank account the money that we first deposited. That's why, as we learn new vocabulary and concepts, we can incorporate them into our own expressions. 

It's a simple concept that corroborates Joseph's claim that he translated the plates.

Related to that is the purpose for anachronisms; i.e., a translator seeks to make the original material accessible to his/her contemporaries. 

I doubt anyone believes that Nephites between 600 BC and 400 AD spoke (or thought) in King James English. If the Book of Mormon were re-translated today, it would surely read much differently than the way Joseph translated it in 1829. 

Brigham Young explained that the scriptures reflect the language of the prophets through whom they are revealed.

When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities. He spoke to the children of Jacob through Moses, as a blind, stiffnecked people, and when Jesus and his Apostles came they talked with the Jews as a benighted, wicked, selfish people. They would not receive the Gospel, though presented to them by the Son of God in all its righteousness, beauty and glory. Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to rewrite the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be rewritten, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiffnecked, the Lord can tell them but little. (emphasis added)[1]

[1] Brigham Young, “The Kingdom of God,” JD 9:311, July 13, 1862 


A good example of this is the way artists have depicted Biblical events in their own cultural context. 

Here's an example from circa 1603, when Caravaggio depicted the "Sacrifice of Isaac."

A commentator noted that "In the background is a hilly, Mediterranean landscape, with small roads and farm animals, and a small village.... In the past, this work has also been subject to a symbolic interpretation according to which the building on the hill is a church with baptistery, a reference to the future birth of the Catholic church, while the light diffused over the backdrop, symbolises the light of divine grace." 

Another example is The Calling of Saint Matthew, also by Caravaggio  (1599-1600), now in the
Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

Here, Christ calls Saint Matthew to be an apostle, but instead of ancient Palestine, the scene is set in a 17th century Roman tavern. This anachronism presumably made the event more relatable to viewers in Caravaggio's day.

Based on his own testimony and surrounding circumstances, we can see that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon "after the manner of his language," drawing on the Christian vocabulary, phrases and concepts he had learned his entire life. He translated the ancient plates in a manner that made it accessible and understandable to his contemporaries.

What about this is so difficult to understand and accept?

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