My month with the Book of Mormon – May 2017

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The Bible is really, incredibly old! The Old and New Testaments were copied by hand for centuries, if not millennia! And to interpret the Bible correctly, an expert ought to be well aware of the original languages! At least, that’s how it is with my Bible.

All the more striking, then, that the Book of Mormon (BofM) was the first scripture I have read that was originally composed in – or, according to Joseph Smith, miraculously and infallibly translated into – my own language. That is, it is the English text of the BofM that is considered divinely authoritative, beyond which version there is no further appeal.[1]

The BofM is one of the principal books of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) popularly known as the Mormons, and other related groups.[2] It is not the only one considered as new revelation; the LDS later added “Doctrine and Covenants” and “Pearl of Great Price” to their canon.

We live in an age of people giving reviews of books they have never read. The Bible is probably the most-reviewed and least-read book of our age. The Koran too, belongs on the list. Moby Dick is really long, and so seldom read that someone could actually get away with saying, “The point of Moby Dick is, ‘Be yourself.’” As I see it, if I am going to offer comments about books from other faiths, I had better read them at least once before doing so! And it isn’t just an ethical issue: this reflects the Renaissance ideal of going ad fontes, “to the [original] sources,” and not just reading derivative opinions of opinions of opinions.

And so, my 2017 reading list included The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The official Mormon site has a searchable text.[3] My first glimpse of the book was as a kid; as with a few other religions, I ran into the Mormons at the Rhode Island State Fair, where they had a booth and a featured a print of the painting, “Jesus Descending in America.”

“Jesus descending to America”

This is a case of how a picture is worth a thousand words: the Book of Mormon (first published 1830) is a long epic, which purports to tell the story of how the Israelite groups the Nephites and the Lamanites fled before the Babylonian Exile and settled in North America. The Nephites were good, on the whole, and the Lamanites evil. The Nephite prophets predicted the coming of Christ, calling him by name, and giving many elements of the gospel as we know them from the New Testament. The culmination of that revelation is the physical appearance of Jesus after his resurrection to the Nephites. The two peoples were continually at odds with each other, and they eventually fought a war in which the Nephites were exterminated at their last stand in what was later New York state; the Lamanites survived and became the ancestors of the Native Americans. The Nephites kept their records on metal tablets, and after the final battle, the plates were buried on a hill called Cumorah.

Mormon 6 – And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.

Joseph Smith claims to have been directed to the hill and to have been able to decipher their meaning through supernatural means.

The hill “Cumorah,” Manchester, New York USA

We are leaving out many important details, but one can say that the BofM is a detailed, epic, “origin story” of the LDS. If the curious reader would like to read some key elements, 3 Nephi and the Book of Mormon proper (which is a section of the full BofM) will yield some of the key elements, especially the appearance of Jesus to the Nephites in America. To my great surprise, the Book of Mormon itself hews much closer to traditional Christian doctrine than does later Mormonism and it lacks many of the later distinctive doctrines: for example, that God was once a man; that Satan is brother to Jesus; polygamy; the “celestial kingdom” doctrine.

Where to begin with a book that is longer than the New Testament, and not always an easy read?[4]

I see little good in slamming or burlesquing the scriptures of other faiths – as a follower of Jesus, I believe it my duty to represent others as fairly as I myself would like to be represented. What does it profit us to joke about the “Book of Mormon revealed by the angel Moron”? Besides, I have noticed a touching warmth of Latter Day Saints for their book, particularly among enthusiastic young people, whom one encounters on sites with names like “What is your favorite passage from the Book of Mormon?” On the side of satire, the musical “The Book of Mormon” is a Broadway hit, and despite its edginess, I have to admire how the LDS took it in stride, even taking out ads in the playbill! “You’ve seen the play…now read the book.”[5]


The acid test for the Book of Mormon is the integrity of Smith’s testimony; the book simply cannot be divorced from the story of its discovery and translation. On this everything rises and falls, even more so than in the case of other religious books – Ruth, Chronicles, Hebrews in the Bible; the Vedas; the Avesta; the Talmud; and perhaps to an extent, even the Koran – the BofM’s validity rests firmly on its origin story. One must accept or reject its authenticity and only later its theology; there is no mediating stance.

The correct question should be, “On what grounds might one accept the BofM as a true historical record and prophecy, authentically and supernaturally decoded by Joseph Smith and published in 1830? And, on what grounds might one doubt its authenticity?”

The LDS narrative runs like this: Joseph Smith was a pious but simple rural youth; it is impossible for a rational person to read the Book of Mormon and conclude that that boy could have written this perfect book out of his head. Besides, the narrative continues, the BofM predicts the future: the coming of Jesus, the rise of the Mormon faith, the destruction of the Nephites. It predicts that some people will accept its revelation, but that many so-called Christians (it seems to predict both Protestants and Catholics) will reject it and persecute the true believers.


Minor Issues

I prefer not to peck at the many small problems I find in the BofM. For example, it denotes a curved sword as a “cimeter” (a variation on “scimitar”), which weapon wouldn’t exist until a thousand years after the events of the book. But a Mormon apologist has replied, logically enough, that it was a reference to a curved sword, and that the nearest English word was “cimeter” – so no problem! The same thing happens with the fabric “silk.” More difficult for Joseph Smith is that the BofM indicates that there were later European imports such as the bow and arrow, cattle, goats, and even more out of place, horses and elephants, in America. These frequent anachronisms hide in plain sight for the careful reader, but in my opinion, are not a deal-breaker.

Right off I can spot several anachronisms in this Mormon illustration: forged iron, the bow,  the camel, the elephant

Another issue, also not fatal, is the literary style of the BofM. As someone who has read the Bible; Second Temple and Rabbinic literature; the Koran; the Analects; the Bhagavad Gita; the ancient Greeks, and so forth, I have to say that the Book of Mormon ranks very low as literature. I am hardly the first to point this out. Some books (3 Nephi, 4 Nephi, Mormon, Moroni) are relatively fast-paced and interesting; but they are scattered among chapter after chapter of the dry recounting of battles, genealogies, so-and-so did this and then said this after so-and-so did the other.[6] The phrase “and it came to pass that” occurs so often that it becomes a verbal tic; by one count, it appears 1300 times, often in verse after verse.[7] Still, I would hardly wish to discredit the claims of a book just because I happen to find it aesthetically less than pleasing![8] There are people who find parts of the Bible boring as well, and Greek classicists who find the Greek of the New Testament to be sub-par.

Major Issues

Issues which are more central are those which impinge on the question of authenticity: (1) Smith’s claim to be able to translate ancient texts by supernatural means; (2) the problem of Smith’s prior history in mystical practices; (3) the Book of Mormon’s history of revisions after the original publication; (4) its idiosyncratic use of the King James Version; (5) its inability to mesh with known pre-Columbian American history.

(1) The Book of Mormon’s dependence on Smith’s unverified – and later discredited – claim to be able to translate ancient texts by supernatural means

Joseph Smith claimed that he translated the original gold plates from the language “Reformed Egyptian” (an otherwise unknown language) into English through supernatural means. The usual narrative is that he placed two stones, called the Urim and Thummim, into a hat, and that the proper English translation appeared word by word, line by line. An alternative version is that they were a set of spectacles.[9] The Urim and Thummim, he claimed, were discovered along with the buried plates.[10]

If some historian would like to test the BofM’s authenticity, he or she would need to see the original golden plates and test their age; examine their “provenance,” that is, the place where they had been buried; an expert would have to read their texts written in “Reformed Egyptian”; and their meaning would then need to be compared to the English text of the Book of Mormon. This is now impossible to do: Joseph Smith is the only person on record who explicitly claimed to have seen the gold plates (Mormons assert that others did or may have claimed to have seen them, but their testimony is not clear); Smith is the only one who “knew” they were written in Reformed Egyptian; and so, the English text of the BofM is the only artifact that can be tested. Of course, this lack of laboratory conditions is not unusual for an ancient book, but for one printed in relativity modern times, it becomes a critical lack. Given that the validity of the “Third Testament” rests squarely on Smith’s claims for the book, it is highly significant that his claims for it are unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, and they stand on a very weak foundation.

Another manner of testing the BofM, in the absence of its plates, would be to show Joseph Smith the text of a different ancient document, written in Egyptian or some other language unknown to him, to see whether he could render an accurate English translation, using the same method whereby he produced the BofM. A third party familiar with that language would independently produce his or her own translation without the help of the claimed supernatural revelation. The two versions would then be compared and Smith’s accuracy could be quite easily tested.[11]

In point of fact, an appropriate test did take place, although not under strict controls.[12] Joseph Smith purchased from a traveling carnival 11 papyrus fragments on which were written hieroglyphic texts. When Smith saw the writings, he declared that one scroll was a hitherto lost “Book of Joseph” and another the “Book of Abraham,” both supposedly having been written in Egypt in patriarchal times. He went ahead and “translated” the Book of Abraham, which is accepted as canon by the LDS and labeled as “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” It starts: “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence…”[13]

The “Book of Abraham” that wasn’t

The fragments were thought to have perished, meaning that once again no-one could follow up on the accuracy of his translation. But in one of history’s odd twists, they were rediscovered in 1966 and clearly identified as Smith’s “Book of Abraham” documents. As it turns out, the ancient text that Smith “translated” has nothing to do with Abraham or Joseph or anything biblical, but rather is a “funerary” text from Roman times, describing Egyptian burial rituals. That is, once properly deciphered, it never mentions Abraham, and in fact it dates from perhaps 2000 years after his sojourn in Egypt. The comparison with the scrolls and the Book of Abraham is a solid proof that Joseph Smith was willing and able to conjure up “ancient writings” out of his own imagination, and that he was untroubled by the ethical problem that his faked translation entailed.

The LDS has marshalled arguments to defend Smith against the charge of fraud, but in this case they seem to be based on desperation rather than careful logic. For example: “Perhaps there was a way of understanding the Egyptian ideograms anciently that is unknown to Egyptology in our day, yet to be discovered, deciphered or acknowledged, that could yield an interpretation of a text that is different than the standard Egyptological reading.”[14] This is a roundabout way of saying that, “We cannot explain it, and, besides, who are these experts anyway to tell us what hieroglyphics mean?”

(2) The problem of Smith’s prior history in mystical practices

Joseph Smith, it has been clearly demonstrated, did not have his first mystical experience with his “discovery” of the BofM. He was known to be a teller of fantasy stories about the earlier inhabitants of his native New York; he also claimed, along with his father and other contemporaries, the ability to “divine” the location of water. He also used “seer stones” to search for buried treasure, and like many, used these abilities for income. His family had the reputation of being against the organized church and of being superstitious.[15] All together, this means that the whole narrative – the announced discovery of gold plates buried in a local hill; his claim to be able to read them with the help of “seer stones”; his ability to weave a complex tale about ancient Americans; and the BofM’s antipathy toward objectionable practices of the contemporary church – all of these elements are a piece with known features of Joseph Smith’s youth. This does not disprove the authenticity of the BofM, but it gives much credence to the alternate explanation, that the text never existed anywhere outside of Smith’s mind.

(3) The Book of Mormon’s history of revisions after the original publication

Smith claimed to have produced a supernatural and perfect translation of the BofM. As such, by normal standards, one would expect that the text of the BofM should stand unchanged for all time, at least in English. This has not been the case: the great part of the BofM is the same as originally published, but there have also been numerous and ongoing revisions, which call into question whether Joseph Smith got it perfect in the first place.

It must be understood that we are not dealing with the phenomenon of the critical text of the Greek New Testament, which changes slightly from decade to decade, because of the fresh discovery of ancient manuscripts; the latest version is the Nestle-Aland 28th edition (2012). In that field, the original autographs have been lost, and the critical text is a reconstruction. No such thing happened with the BofM, whose original autograph was supposedly extant and known at the time the book first went to the printer in 1830; and a first-hand copy of the original was the basis for the first printed edition. The LDS officially states that all errors were the result of spelling and punctuation problems introduced by the copyist or by the printer’s typesetter, E. B. Grandin.[16]

Now, I have no problem accepting that sort of explanation for typos; nor for alternate spellings, which abounded in English until spellings started to become more standardized in the 19th century. But there are more substantial changes, things which concern doctrine, which the LDS have a harder time rationalizing.[17] For example, as we will see below, some of the more objectionable references to race have been smoothed over, that is they are altered, not retranslated, since the translation is already fixed. I cannot get past the question: If the BofM is infallible, and if – setting aside spelling and printing issues – it was perfectly rendered into modern English, then how is it possible that any substantial change would be expected, necessary, or permissible? The equivalent for the Bible would be somebody adding or subtracting words from the Bible, not due to the weighing the various ancient manuscripts, but for convenience or personal taste – that is, it is a transgression against sound scholarship and an offense against Scripture.

As an example of an issue which has caused more difficult problems for the LDS is the portrayal of race in the BofM. The founders are on record: they regarded blacks as inferior, and their skin color was the “mark of Cain.” Of course, many mainline Christians have taught the same doctrine, but the BofM is particularly direct: the righteous Nephites were light-skinned, and the evil Lamanites were dark-skinned.

2 Nephi 5:21 is typical:

And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.[18]

If a member of the righteous Nephite tribe went apostate, his pigmentation would darken; and if, on the other hand, a Lamanite repented, he would turn light – not brighter or fairer, but Caucasian. The Mormons for 150 years definitely understood these verses to refer to Caucasian and African skin coloration. It is also a historical fact that the LDS did not allow black men – nor anyone with even a remote black ancestor – to be ordained as bishops until the doctrine was overturned by a fresh “Revelation on Priesthood” in 1978.

Warren Jeff, the controversial leader of a LDS splinter group, has for many years taught the Cain theory of race and the idea that Satan uses the black race and miscegenation to corrupt the world.[19] These teachings on race have been smoothed over by the more politic Mormons, but Jeff’s statements on race are a reasonable and probably necessary deduction from the Book of Mormon as originally written. But in later editions the text has been altered to match later theology. Could this really be a book, then, that was perfectly revealed and perfectly translated?

(4) The Book of Mormon’s idiosyncratic use of the King James Version

The BofM is saturated with (apparent) allusions to and quotations of the King James Bible, which was of course the Bible of young Joseph Smith and all other Christians of the English-speaking world until later in the 19th century. Chapter after chapter are quotes of the KJV Bible (its 1769 version), notably from Isaiah, and references to books of the New Testament abound (Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation are often touched on). It quotes the entire book of Malachi, and this is taken to be a proof of the authenticity of Mormon, given that Malachi was written only after the emigration of the Jews from Israel. According to one count, from Brigham Young University, “More than fifty thousand phrases of three or more words, excluding definite and indefinite articles, are common to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.”[20]

There are several official explanations of these verbal coincidences of the BofM and the KJV. The simplest and most plausible to the LDS is that, God gave Joseph Smith a translation that would make it fit into the Scriptures that already existed.

Nevertheless, there is a difficulty with this reasoning: first, the BofM follows the KJV, even in those cases where the KJV is now known to have mistranslated the original Hebrew Old Testament. A simple example is from the vision of Isaiah in 6:2, 6 – the KJV contains a technical mistranslation of the word “seraphim,” by calling them “seraphims.” In fact, “seraphim,” with the –im ending, already is plural, so that “seraphims” is redundant: it should be seraphim or seraphs. This is a tiny nicety, but a reasonable deduction is that the original BofM followed the KJV in its error in 2 Nephi 16:2, 6, not because the Urim and Thummim gave the form “seraphims” to Smith, but because he was quoting from or copying the KJV Bible; the error has since been edited out.[21] Again, in Isa 13:22 the KJV refers to “dragons”; the better translation of tan (תן) is “jackal” – hence, “Hyenas will inhabit her strongholds, jackals her luxurious palaces” (NIV). The KJV translators simply did not have the background on the Hebrew term to render it rightly. But the BofM too, apparently influenced by the KJV, has “dragons” in 2 Nephi 23:22.

Second, the BofM quotes from the King James Version in passages that are found in the so-called Textus receptus, a cluster of editions of the Greek New Testament that is sometimes said to include Erasmus’s first edition in 1516. This eclectic text is based on later manuscripts and is broadly understood to be not as accurate as the critical text (currently the Nestle-Aland 28th edition), which takes all manuscripts and evidences into account, giving greater weight, where appropriate, to the older manuscripts.

The BofM not only reflects the King James in its language; it also includes New Testament texts that are found in the Textus receptus, on which the KJV was based, but which are now generally believed to not have originally been part of the NT text. The clearest example is from Mormon 9:21-25, which contains a long, nearly verbatim reference to Mark 16:

As many Christians are aware, Mark 16:9-20 was apparently not an original part of the Second Gospel. The earliest manuscript that contains it is Alexandrinus (codex A) from the 5th century AD. The data “indicate that the section was added by someone who knew a form of Mark that ended abruptly with ver. 8 and who wished to supply a more appropriate conclusion.”[22] That is to say that, he BofM seemingly absorbs the KJV in a passage that later editions (even the NKJV) mark with an asterisk as being of dubious authenticity.

The Mormons have their explanations for these traces of the KJV and only the KJV that are all over the Book of Mormon, to justify why the BofM would go so far as to copying its mistakes. If not, then why wouldn’t the Urim and Thummim suggest to Smith that 2 Nephi 23:22 should contain “jackal” rather than “dragon”? If the Urim and Thummim can quote the KJV, they could also reflect the alternative, found in the NIV and most other versions of today.

No, the better explanation is, if there are KJV fingerprints all over the Book of Mormon, it’s because the KJV was directly taken up and used in its production, that is, that Smith knew these texts from his own copy of the Bible, not through some latter-day revelation.

 (5) The Book of Mormon’s inability to mesh with known pre-Columbian American history

The BofM teaches that the American Indians, known to Joseph Smith, were descended from Hebrew emigrants to America: “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians” (Introduction to the Book of Mormon; it is significant that in the earlier editions, they were called the “principal ancestors”). One problem for the LDS is that the DNA pattern of Native Americans is well-researched and known to reflect an origin in Central Asian. Beyond that, the ancestors of the Native Americans were on the continent for thousands of years before the events of the BofM. Still, Mormons keep evangelizing Native American with the attractive story that they are “really” descended from the Hebrews, and predicted in the BofM to return to God and to build the New Jerusalem in America. The official posture from Utah is a common one when the Book of Mormon clashes with science: “More study is needed.”

An even larger issue is the book’s claim that there was a widespread, metal-forging, chariot-using Iron Age civilization in America. Where are the mines for metal ore, which leave large and visible scars on the landscape? While we should always keep in mind the maxim of archaeology, that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and while America is under-explored in archaeology, still the stark nonappearance of anything even resembling the Nephite or Lamanite civilizations should give one pause.


Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses and certain other sects, the Latter-Day Saints tend to be educated; their education level is average compared to the general population of the USA, and somewhat higher than that of the typical evangelical. I freely admit that, if people accept the Book of Mormon as truth, it is unjust to simply brand them as being naïve, foolish, or ignorant of the greater world. And while they are dependent upon the apostolic word from their president, there are independent Mormon scholars, bloggers, writers, thinkers. Their apologists can and do respond to my observations point for point, but they have not been able to convince me that the BofM is historically or theologically credible.

Still, for the follower of Prophet Joseph, the rational discussion I offer above will fall flat. I have read the conclusion to the Book of Mormon in the text myself, but am grateful that Ross Anderson underscored this point in his Understanding the Book of Mormon. That is, that for the true believer, the BofM is authenticated through prayer, not through facts: the person who sincerely seeks God and asks for him to reveal the truth, will have a spiritual experience of divine confirmation.

Moroni 10:4 – And when ye shall receive [the texts on the golden plates], I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. 5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

That is, the proper confession of one’s faith would be that “I believe the Book of Mormon to be the true revelation of God, as given to Prophet Joseph, because of the inner testimony that God has given me.” The claim to its inspiration is again non-falsifiable, and when a nonbeliever such as myself points out the conspicuous flaws in the BofM and the Mormon narrative, the problem is taken to be my own lack of faith: I have fallen in with the apostates, the Lamanites, and the deceptions of the dark-skinned people of Satan. Or I must be a rationalist, who cannot allow himself to believe in prophecy, in inspired Scripture, in miracles – all of which I do, in fact, believe.

If we apply the LDS paradigm to another hypothetical, it would come out this way:

If Billy found no presents under the tree last Christmas,
this should not be taken as proof that there is no Santa,
but rather, proof that Billy was “naughty,” not “nice.”

A Mormon who has experienced the so-called “inner witness” or “burning in the bosom” about the truth of the Book of Mormon, and altered his or her life to follow it, is unlikely to deny the reality of that experience just because of a 19th-century carnival barker and his scraps of Egyptian papyrus.

My own impression, as a one-time and casual reader is: that Joseph Smith, like others of his day, knew his King James Bible; that he copied from it wholesale; that he was not highly educated but was literate, imaginative, and intelligent (intelligence is not the same as formally-educated); that he had the reputation from long before his “revelation” of being a teller of tall tales about the supposed prehistory of New York State and also a practitioner of mystical methods of locating buried treasure and interpreting documents; that when he had the chance to translate a publicly-available scroll of Egyptian writings, using his customary method, he completely missed out on its meaning. Ergo: extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof; the Book of Mormon lacks all credibility even as a book of  ordinary history; and completely fails the test to be considered infallible Scripture. And its predictions were so strikingly fulfilled for the simplest of reasons: they were made by someone who already knew “the future” because he lived in the 1820s.

AFTERWORD: Why, then, did Joseph Smith write the Book of Mormon?

The burden of proof does not lie with me to prove why he wrote the book, and for that reason I will merely add some thoughts in this Afterword.

The LDS narrative, of course, is that he was commissioned to do so and given the prophetic ability to translate an ancient text.

Alternate explanations will rightly point to other parallels in literary history, that, while not frequent, are common enough in every generation: it is a fact that some people tell fake stories or publish faked books as real, for a variety of personal motives.

Some people seek fame or money or credibility: there is the “Hitler Diary”; the faked memoir A Million Little Pieces in 2003;[23] the news anchor who invented or exaggerated stories;[24] the rap musicians who claim to have come from the tough city streets, but turn out to be kids from the suburbs.

Other individuals seem compelled to reinvent themselves, in order to escape the monotony of herd existence: we might cite the parade of women who claimed to be Anastasia Romanova of Russia; the people who falsely claimed they were Titanic survivors;[25] Tania Head, who for years wove a tale of how she survived the 9/11 attack on the South Tower; it turns out that she was in Spain on that date.[26] Joseph Smith, too, lived in a generation that was filled with hoaxes and frauds.[27]

Others, even deeply religious people, publish “pious frauds,” in order to promote their religious agenda – e.g., some Jewish author in antiquity wrote and circulated a book called the Testament of Abraham; there are dozens of other like books in Second Temple Judaism; in the 2nd century AD, the Acts of Paul; a century ago an anti-Semite penned The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in order to implicate the Jews in a conspiracy to control the world.[28] These books claim to be authentic and (in some cases) ancient, but they clearly reflect the currents of religious thought that were present to the actual, later, author. The Testament of Abraham, for example, teaches that salvation from God’s judgment is for all people, Jews or gentiles, who do good; rather than simply preach this message in his own name, its 1st or 2nd century AD author puts the words in the mouth of Abraham.[29] This literary device, of making ancient people “predict” the future – when in reality they are only “predicting” events that the real author knows about – is given the technical name Vaticinium ex eventu – “prediction [made] after the fact.”[30]

For its part, Acts of Paul pictures the apostle as preaching the need for sexual celibacy: “Blessed are they that keep the flesh chaste, for they shall become the temple of God”;[31] this was an issue on the church’s agenda in the 2nd century AD, but according to Paul’s genuine letters, not so much in the 1st century.

The story of literary frauds must include “The Secret Gospel of Mark,” fragments of a supposedly lost edition of the gospel published by Morton Smith in the 1950s.[32] The text coincidentally backed up M. Smith’s own interpretation of Jesus’s message, which included male-on-male sex as part of an initiation rite. Morton Smith was no “simple country lad” – he was a double doctorate and had a long tenure as a professor of history at Columbia University. Yet his reputation has been tarnished, probably beyond repair, due to what was probably an underhanded and unethical move.

The Book of Mormon too, I suggest not at all coincidentally, provides answers to many of the religious questions that were circulating in Smith’s own region in the early 19th century. One might argue that, a man such as Smith would hardly have gone all the way to martyrdom to protect his hoax, but that is not necessarily a good case: modern psychological studies chart how the human psyche tends to make itself belief in a lie before telling the lie to another, not necessarily for personal gain, but because there is a strong emotional attachment to the story being told.[33] As a minor example: The cashier at the store was rude to me; and, wrongly, bit by bit, as I retell the story to myself and to others, I “remember” that she was ruder than she really was, and I “remember” that I was more the innocent victim than I really was. Our lives are not just based on the maxim “seeing is believing,” but also “believing is seeing” or even “deceiving is seeing.”

If I had to guess, Joseph Smith wrote the book in order to reform what he and other contemporaries believed were spiritual errors and abuses in the church of New York in the 1820s. For example, one regular theme in the BofM is the condemnation of “paid clergy,” a hot-button issue in Smith’s day, one that John Nelson Darby would shortly thereafter take up on the other side of the Atlantic. The BofM says –

Nevertheless, this did not put an end to the spreading of priestcraft through the land; for there were many who loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching false doctrines; and this they did for the sake of riches and honor. (Alma 1:16).

And so, rather than just speak in his own name, he appealed to an ancient book that he had conveniently just discovered, and let Nephi, Moroni, Mormon, Alma and others do the talking for him. One could assume from such issues that Smith sincerely believed the theological message of the book (a message that was in fact fundamentally changed by the LDS) and justified its legendary origins by appealing in his own mind to the greater good; that he got caught up in his own story, and that for him, his belief rewrote his memory of how it actually came into existence.

“My month with the Book of Mormon – May 2017,” by Gary S. Shogren, professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica


[1] The only parallel I ever run across is that certain King James Only sectarians (e.g., the Ruckmanites) believe that the KJV as such is inspired Scripture, written infallibly and unchangeably in 17th century English. See

[2] There are many other related groups that trace their origin in one way or another to Joseph Smith: The Community of Christ; the Church of Christ (Temple Lot); the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints made headlines because of its polygamous marriages with minor girls.

[3] Mormon science fiction author Orson Scott Card – best known for his novel and the movie “Ender’s Game” – wrote an epic series of five novels, the Homecoming Saga, which are a projection of the events of the BofM 40 million years into the future.

[4] I highly recommend Ross Anderson’s, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Quick Christian Guide to the Mormon Holy Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009). I am charmed by this volume for three reasons: first, Anderson is a former Mormon, but not a bitter one, and he has tried out his thoughts on his Mormon friends and relatives; second, his goal is to persuade, not to bombard, people who disagree with him; third, he supplies me with certain insights into the LDS faith that I would not have easily inferred merely by reading the BofM.


[6] Here is a defense for the BofM’s “wordiness.” See also

[7] Jacob 5 is a representative passage – 14 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard went his way, and hid the natural branches of the tame olive tree in the nethermost parts of the vineyard, some in one and some in another, according to his will and pleasure. 15 And it came to pass that a long time passed away, and the Lord of the vineyard said unto his servant: Come, let us go down into the vineyard, that we may labor in the vineyard. 16 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard, and also the servant, went down into the vineyard to labor. And it came to pass that the servant said unto his master: Behold, look here; behold the tree. 17 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard looked and beheld the tree in the which the wild olive branches had been grafted… 19 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto the servant: Come, let us go to the nethermost part of the vineyard, and behold if the natural branches of the tree have not brought forth much fruit also, that I may lay up of the fruit thereof against the season, unto mine own self. 20 And it came to pass that they went forth whither the master had hid the natural branches of the tree, and he said unto the servant: Behold these; and he beheld the first that it had brought forth much fruit; and he beheld also that it was good. And he said unto the servant: Take of the fruit thereof, and lay it up against the season, that I may preserve it unto mine own self; for behold, said he, this long time have I nourished it, and it hath brought forth much fruit. 21 And it came to pass that the servant said unto his master: How comest thou hither to plant this tree, or this branch of the tree? For behold, it was the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard. 22 And the Lord of the vineyard said unto him: Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground; wherefore, I said unto thee, I have nourished it this long time, and thou beholdest that it hath brought forth much fruit. 23 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto his servant: Look hither; behold I have planted another branch of the tree also; and thou knowest that this spot of ground was poorer than the first. But, behold the tree. I have nourished it this long time, and it hath brought forth much fruit; therefore, gather it, and lay it up against the season, that I may preserve it unto mine own self. 24 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said again unto his servant: Look hither, and behold another branch also, which I have planted; behold that I have nourished it also, and it hath brought forth fruit.

[8] That goes for other books: no matter what one thinks of Darwinism as science, Darwin’s Origin of Species struck me as wonderfully written; on the other hand, people have told me I absolutely had to read Ludwig Von Mises – I found his writings unconvincing in theory and unpleasing in style.

[9] Here is a Mormon version:

[10] “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 breast plate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.” Joseph Smith, History of the Church 4:537.

[11] The “Kinderhook Plates Hoax” in 1843 was an attempt to discredit Smith by creating fake engravings and passing them along as a recent find. They were shown to Smith. The hoaxers claimed that Smith “translated” them as having to do with the sons of Noah. See The LDS site takes the stance that Smith did see the engravings, but did not translate them.

[12] See



[15] See in loc. Anderson, Understanding the Book of Mormon.


[17] The list in this article begins with the minor spelling issues, and then moves to listing the major ones: See the attack against the BofM by

[18] See also Alma 3:6 – “And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.” Mormon 9:6 – “O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day.”


[20] This is a useful scholarly article which surveys several important issues, but does not come to a clear conclusion.

[21] Here is a list of other mistranslations, some minor, some more important.

[22] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; United Bible Societies, 1994), 106.

[23] See for example


[25] See the marvelous read, Andrew Wilson, Shadow of the Titanic: the Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived (New York: Atria, 2011).

[26] See the fascinating documentary, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” (2012).

[27] See

[28] Here is a conventional LDS argument against the “pious fraud” theory.

[29] J. H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 1:877.

[30] See my article on current Bible Prophecy Experts, who do things like predict the destruction of the Twin Towers or the election of Donald Trump – but only after the event takes place!




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