The Book of Mormon and Other Translated Documents
In an article in his “Defending the Faith” column in the Deseret News, BYU scholar Daniel C. Peterson offers a rebuttal to an objection he says some people make against treating the Book of Mormon as an ancient book: “Some argue that since we lack the original plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, it should be read as a 19th-century English-language text rather than as an ancient one.”1 Peterson’s rebuttal consists of a litany of other texts that scholars accept as translations of ancient works even though the original-language versions are not extant. How does this defense hold up?
Restating the Objection
Before considering Peterson’s defense, something should be said about the argument he claims to be refuting. Neither in this newspaper column nor in his earlier journal article from which the column is taken2 does Peterson identify any critics who make this argument. Granted that it is possible to find individuals making the weakest possible arguments on almost any issue, Peterson’s representation of the critics’ reasoning appears to be a straw man. That is, few if any critics of the Book of Mormon’s antiquity allege that the simple “lack” of the original plates precludes accepting it as an ancient text. Rather, what most argue is that serious questions about the existence of the gold plates are collectively one of many considerations that cumulatively lead to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is a modern fiction. One can cite many other facts about the gold plates alone that support that conclusion: their connection with Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking, his secretiveness about the plates, the fact that Joseph did not use or look at the plates when he was supposedly translating them, the lack of any clear information as to what happened to the plates when the translation was finished, and more. And of course there are other considerations pertaining to the contents and style of the Book of Mormon that persuade many people that it was composed in the nineteenth century.
Imagine two scenarios. In the first scenario, a manuscript written in early modern Italian is found in a storage room in a convent in a small town in Italy. The text purports to be a translation of an ancient letter from Alexander the Great, presumably originally written in Greek. No information is available about the source of the extant Italian manuscript; it could be a copy of an earlier Italian copy, or it could have been translated directly from a Greek manuscript, whether the original or a copy. In the second scenario, the manuscript written in Italian contains a preface by the Italian scribe, dated June 12, 1747, breathlessly claiming that he translated it directly from the original Greek letter by Alexander. The scribe further claims to have had access to a cave (the location of which he says he was sworn to keep secret) containing a small library of otherwise unknown ancient documents by the likes of Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch. Sober historians would be much more skeptical about the document in the second scenario than about the similar document in the first scenario. To characterize the issue in both cases as simply the “lack” of any manuscripts of the Greek text would be a gross misrepresentation.
Perhaps Peterson’s argument can be reconstructed as a response to one point, more properly stated, of the cumulative case against the Book of Mormon. That is, we may restate the objection in a more appropriate fashion and then see if Peterson’s article offers an effective or cogent rebuttal to the objection. For example, we might restate the objection as follows: Given Joseph Smith’s secretiveness regarding the gold plates and their mysterious disappearance along with the fact that the earliest extant version of the Book of Mormon is the nineteenth-century English text that he dictated, its claim to be a translation of a Reformed Egyptian text completed in the fifth century is so implausible as to bear a substantial burden of proof. Stating the point in this way puts the “lack” of the gold plates in some context and avoids either overstating the case (as if the lack of the original-language text were by itself an insuperable difficulty) or understating the case (as if that lack were merely an inconvenience or mild difficulty).
Peterson indirectly points the way to such a formulation of the objection in his summary response to the objection as he had expressed it: “But scholars routinely test the claims to historicity of translated documents for which no early original-language manuscripts exist and then, if satisfied of their authenticity, regularly use them as valuable scholarly resources for understanding the ancient world.” Even without looking at Peterson’s examples, it is clear from this statement that some burden of proof is placed on such works. Yet what Peterson seems to suggest without saying so directly is that the lack of ancient original-language manuscripts never poses any particular problem. That implication or subtext is incorrect.
Criteria Relevant to the Objection
There are three core elements to the objection, properly stated, that Peterson needed to address: (1) the linguistic distance between the earliest extant text and the supposed original text; (2) the chronological distance between the earliest extant text and the supposed original text; and (3) the number of independent extant copies that may be counted as witnesses to the text in any form. Separating these three aspects of the problem results in a complete misunderstanding of the issue.
Linguistic difference has to do with how closely connected historically the two languages in question are. For example, French and Italian are much more closely related languages than French and Mandarin Chinese. If the earliest extant version of a supposedly original Spanish text is in Portuguese, that situation poses far less of a difficulty than if the earliest extant version is in Urdu. Linguistic difference may be understood as a function of the historical relationship between the two languages, the frequency with which texts in one language were read and translated by speakers of a different primary language, or both.
Chronological distance may seem to be an easier concept. The simple formulation would state that the longer the time gap between the supposed original text and the earliest extant version, all other things being equal, the less confidence one may have that the extant version authentically represents the supposed original. A gap of a century is far less of a problem than a gap of a millennium. This formulation may seem to be little more than common sense, but it requires some qualification. The significance of the chronological gap increases the closer to the present the alleged original is dated. A gap of a century between a text dated 1850 and an earliest extant version in 1950 is far more troubling than between a text dated 350 and an earliest extant version in 450. The raw chronological gap is the same in both cases but the significance of the gap is not. One reason this is so is that, in general, the survival of textual materials up to the present increases with the passing of time. Manuscripts produced ten centuries ago are far more likely to be extant today than manuscripts produced twenty centuries ago. For that reason, a manuscript produced in the year AD 1015 of a work originally written in AD 515 bears a greater burden of proof for its authenticity than a manuscript produced in the year 15 BC of a work originally written in 515 BC.
The third factor is the number of independent extant copies that may be counted as witnesses to the text in any form. Suppose the earliest extant manuscript of a work purportedly written originally in Greek in AD 15 is a Latin manuscript penned in AD 1015. Two completely different scenarios need to be distinguished. In one scenario, all later versions and copies of the work derive from that one Latin manuscript. Perhaps there is a Spanish version extant in two manuscripts dating from the fourteenth century, a fifteenth-century French translation based on the Spanish version, and so on, all of which are demonstrably based on that one Latin manuscript. In another scenario, the 1015 Latin manuscript is just one of a dozen Latin manuscripts dating from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, several of which clearly represent a different manuscript tradition than the 1015 manuscript, along with a Spanish version from the fourteenth century that appears to have been based on a very different edition of the Latin text than that found in the extant Latin manuscripts. The evidence for the antiquity of the text is far stronger in the second scenario than in the first. In the first scenario, the entire known history of the text begins with that one Latin manuscript from 1015. In the second scenario, the extant manuscripts represent several independent “branches” of the “tree” of the textual history of the work. Those “branches” prove that there is a “trunk” that appeared in history much earlier than even the earliest of the branches.
The combination of these three factors can work either to the credit or discredit of the text in question. A gap of a thousand years between extant version and original text is largely offset if the extant version is written in classical Latin and its supposed original-language text was classical Greek. An assortment of independent Latin manuscripts representing two or three distinct versions is even better. The difficulty increases greatly if the two languages are, say, modern German and classical (i.e., medieval) Arabic, and if there is a single German manuscript from which all known versions and copies derived.
The situation in the case of the Book of Mormon is far more extreme. The chronological gap is 1,400 years, and the two languages are modern English and an unknown language sometimes called Reformed Egyptian. No one can say precisely what Reformed Egyptian was, but if the Book of Mormon is assumed to be authentic then it was a language that owed something to both Egyptian and Hebrew of the early sixth century BC but had evolved a hemisphere away for about a millennium. The linguistic distance between English and Reformed Egyptian is undefinable but must therefore be much, much greater than the difference between modern English and ancient Egyptian or ancient Hebrew. The number of independent extant copies is one—the original manuscript (known as O) dictated by Joseph Smith to his scribes (the printer’s manuscript, P, was of course based on O).
With this preliminary analysis in place, we will next consider Peterson’s lead example to see if it establishes the precedent he claims for accepting as historical a modern document purporting to be a translation of an ancient text written in a very different (and actually unknown) language.
Slavonic Enoch (2 Enoch) and the Book of Mormon
Peterson refers to 2 Enoch as “the classic example” of a text for which the only extant manuscripts (until recently) were copies dating from many centuries later.
Coptic fragments of this work, commonly dated to the first century, have been found only recently. Although generally regarded as having been written in Greek, or perhaps even originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, the entire book survives only in Old Church Slavonic, in manuscripts dating from the 14th to 18th centuries.3
Peterson’s point here is that prior to the discovery of the ancient Coptic fragments, which were found in 2009, the antiquity of the book was not in question. That is not quite true. Prior to the discovery of the Coptic fragments, a minority of scholars argued for a medieval origin of the book. J. T. Milik famously argued in an academic study published in 1976 for a tenth-century origin of 2 Enoch.4 Now, of course, such theories have been put to rest since we are no longer dependent solely on the Old Church Slavonic translation.5 On the other hand, there is no denying that prior to the discovery of the Coptic fragments, the mainstream view was that 2 Enoch was of ancient origin. While that is true enough, a brief recitation of the facts will explain why 2 Enoch offers no precedent for accepting the Book of Mormon as ancient let alone authentic.6
First, the chronological distance between the original writing and the earliest manuscripts (prior to the discovery of the Coptic fragments) is somewhat better for 2 Enoch than for the Book of Mormon. For 2 Enoch, the gap is about 1,300 years (first to the fourteenth century); for the Book of Mormon, the gap is about 1,400 years (fifth to the nineteenth century). Again, the difference here is not merely the raw length of time but the proximity to the present of the earliest copies. While this difference is somewhat unfavorable for the Book of Mormon, it is not dramatically or radically so different as to invalidate the comparison Peterson makes. However, other factors do invalidate the comparison.
Second, the linguistic difference for 2 Enoch is extremely narrow as compared to the linguistic difference for the Book of Mormon. The book of 2 Enoch is extant primarily in Slavonic, more precisely a late form of what is known as Church Slavonic; it was evidently translated from a Greek text. Church Slavonic was a Slavic literary language developed by Greek-speaking missionaries in the ninth century for the purpose of translating the Bible and other Christian literature into a written form of the native language of the Slavs. The Slavs and the Greeks were, geographically speaking, neighbors, and their languages were both Indo-European languages. A wealth of Jewish and Christian literature written in Greek (and other ancient languages) is extant in Church Slavonic. Thus, the fact that the primary manuscript evidence for 2 Enoch comes in the form of medieval and early modern Slavonic manuscripts is absolutely no objection whatsoever to its having existed much earlier in ancient Greek.
By contrast, as has already been explained, there is no connection whatsoever, in historical linguistic terms, between modern English and whatever the alleged ancient language of Reformed Egyptian might have been, even assuming it ever existed. Only one ancient text is claimed to have been translated from Reformed Egyptian (the Book of Mormon) into English (or for that matter into any other language); the two languages are not part of the same linguistic family (English is an Indo-European language; Reformed Egyptian, if it existed, whatever it was, would have had its roots in the Afro-Asiatic language family); and no Reformed Egyptian text is extant anywhere in the world.7
Third, the number of independent extant copies (again not even counting the recently discovered Coptic fragments) is radically different in the two cases. For the Book of Mormon, as explained above, there is only the one original manuscript (O) dictated by Joseph Smith, from which all subsequent copies and printed editions of the Book of Mormon derived. By contrast, there are more than twenty Slavonic manuscripts of 2 Enoch produced over a period of some four to five centuries. The genetic relationships among these manuscripts is complex and in some ways still debated, but everyone agrees that they represent at least two very different recensions or editions of the work, one significantly longer than the other, and perhaps as many as four distinct recensions. None of the recensions attested in the extant manuscripts is directly dependent on another; rather, they represent different traditions of the Enoch material dating back centuries earlier than the earliest of the extant manuscripts. What this means is that none of the extant manuscripts was a forgery; all of them were copies of an existing work.
Finally, although the evidence shows that 2 Enoch is ancient, it does not show that it is authentic. The fact that none of the extant manuscripts was a modern forgery proves that the book of 2 Enoch is much older than the earliest of those manuscripts, and in fact the evidence shows that the book was ancient. As Peterson mentions briefly, most scholars trace the origin of the book to the first century AD. The usual view is that the earliest version of the book likely originated prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, while allowing that some of the material in the two or more recensions were incorporated into those recensions at later dates. However, this ancient, first-century date by no means establishes the book as historically authentic. For those who don’t know, the book is called 2 Enoch or Slavonic Enoch because it is attributed to Enoch, a patriarch mentioned in Genesis 5:18-24 living between the time of Adam and Noah. (It is possible to argue that the book claims not to have been written in its final form by Enoch but to be based on Enoch’s writings. That doesn’t make any material difference to the point here.) On any chronology of the Bible, Enoch must have lived more than three thousand years before Christ (perhaps much longer than that). Thus, all scholars agree that 2 Enoch is a pseudepigraphal text that was neither written by Enoch nor based on anything Enoch had written. (Indeed, it is questionable whether writing had even been invented by the time of the Genesis figure of Enoch.) Moving the date of origin of 2 Enoch from the fourteenth century AD (when the earliest extant Slavonic manuscript was copied) to the first century AD (when most scholars think it was written) does nothing to establish the authenticity of the content of the book. There remains a gap of more than three millennia between the supposed origin (the time of Enoch) and its actual date of origin.
Historians view the Book of Mormon as a nineteenth-century pseudepigraphal text on the basis of the same sorts of internal considerations that lead them to regard 2 Enoch as a first-century pseudepigraphal text. For 2 Enoch, these considerations include the linguistic evidence of a Greek original and likely Semitic influence, references to Jerusalem as the central place of worship and as the destination of pilgrimage, and so forth. For the Book of Mormon, such considerations include its dependence on the King James Version, its Methodist revival style of sermons, its addressing religious and cultural issues of early nineteenth-century Anglo-American society, and so forth. In both cases, the burden of proof is entirely on the side of those who might claim that 2 Enoch derives from the antediluvian figure of Enoch (which virtually no one actually does) or that the Book of Mormon was translated from ancient scriptures written by Israelites living in the Americas. One major reason for that burden of proof on the Book of Mormon is the fact that the 1829 English text is the earliest extant version—a problem exacerbated by the set of issues pertaining to the non-extant, highly dubious gold plates.
Other Translated Documents
Peterson cites several other examples of texts known only, or known primarily, in translation. We will review several of these examples in a more cursory fashion to illustrate that they also do not constitute precedent for accepting something like the Book of Mormon as historically authentic.
The Book of Enoch is extant in its entirety only in modern Ge’ez (also called Ethiopic) manuscripts. Most scholars think it originated in parts or stages between about 300 BC and AD 100 and was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Ge’ez was an ancient Semitic language, as were ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. As with 2 Enoch, the Book of Enoch exists in multiple manuscripts, which scholars group into two textual “families,” giving multiple and independent attestation to the book’s existence. Moreover, the book was known and quoted by various authors throughout history, including the New Testament epistle of Jude in the first century (Jude 14-15), several church fathers beginning in the second century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has always accepted it as scripture. In short, there has never been any doubt about the antiquity of the book. On the other hand, no modern scholar thinks the Genesis patriarch Enoch had anything to do with writing the book.8
The Apocalypse of Abraham is usually dated ca. AD 70-150, that is, in the generation or two following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 (which it mentions). Six modern Slavonic manuscripts are extant, grouped by scholars into two families. Scholars generally agree that it was originally written in Hebrew but may also have passed through Greek translation. It is therefore part of the body of ancient literature that has come down from ancient Christianity and (in this instance) Judaism through Slavonic translations. No scholar thinks Abraham was in any way responsible for the contents of the book.9
The Gospel of Thomas, written originally in Greek, is known primarily from a fourth-century manuscript written in Coptic, a form of Egyptian in use then and for centuries later. It is one of many Coptic texts that are extant, including manuscripts of New Testament writings that were also translated into Coptic. Scholars have dated the Gospel of Thomas from the mid-first century to the late second century, but a near consensus today dates it to the first half of the second century. Thus the gap between the book’s composition and its Coptic manuscript is only about two centuries (and only a century or less for the Greek fragments). Virtually no one argues that it was written by the apostle Thomas.10
The Discourse on Abbatôn is attributed to Timothy, an archbishop of Alexandria at the end of the fourth century.11 Peterson refers to this work erroneously as the Discourse of the Abbatôn, a variant form of the title that appears to come from Hugh Nibley12 and to be used only by LDS writers (though Nibley and some LDS writers also use the usual title). Although LDS writers generally refer to Timothy as the author without any qualification, non-Mormon scholars’ assessments of the work’s attribution to Timothy range from at best uncertain to most likely spurious.13 The work is known only from a single tenth-century Coptic manuscript, which may have been translated from an earlier Greek text. It purports to be an account by the late fourth-century Timothy of a story he found in a book in the Jerusalem library. According to the account, Jesus told his disciples the story about how Abbatôn (i.e., Abaddon, also known as Apollyon), the angel of death, became the ruler of humanity following the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. Of course, no one (at least outside of Mormon circles) thinks Jesus actually told this story to his disciples.
Peterson also cites the Sepher Ha-Razim (book of the secrets or mysteries) as an instance of a text originally written in one language (Egyptian) but known only in translation (Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic fragments and a medieval Latin translation). The work probably originated about AD 400, give or take a few decades.14 What Peterson neglects to mention is that the book purports to originate from instructions in magic given by an angel to Noah, thousands of years earlier than anyone dates its origin.
Peterson lists ten other examples that will not be discussed here, in order to keep this study from getting any longer than it already is. None of these other examples are any closer to being legitimate precedents for accepting a text like the Book of Mormon as authentic. The mere fact of a work being known only or primarily in translation is not, abstracted from any context, the issue. One must place this fact in some context in order to understand its relevance as part of the overall picture for each written work. When one does this, it becomes evident that Peterson’s examples offer no precedent whatsoever for the modern translation of the Book of Mormon from a non-extant alleged ancient source (the gold plates) in an unknown language (Reformed Egyptian).
2. Daniel C. Peterson, “An Unapologetic Apology for Apologetics,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): xii (ix-xlviii). (The link is to a PDF document.) Indeed, in this 40-page article defending Mormon apologetics, Peterson does not mention one specific critic by name.
3. Peterson, “But Where Are the Golden Plates.”
4. J. T. Milik, The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).
5. See New Perspectives on 2 Enoch: No Longer Slavonic Only, edited by Andrei A. Orlov and Gabriele Boccaccini, with Jacob Zurawski, assoc. ed.; Studia Judaeoslavica 4 (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
6. For the facts adduced here concerning 2 Enoch, see especially the convenient overviews of Grant Macaskill, “An Introduction to 2 Enoch,” University of St. Andrews, 2007; Andrei A. Orlov, “2 (Slavonic) Enoch,” Marquette University, 2009. Macaskill is one of the leading experts on 2 Enoch; see Grant Macaskill, The Slavonic Texts of 2 Enoch, Studia Judaeoslavica 6 (Leiden: Brill, 2013). A somewhat older but more detailed introduction is F. I. Andersen, “The Second Book of Enoch,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 516-22.
7. Not even the “Anthon transcript,” which is purportedly a copy of some of the characters from the gold plates (a different portion of the plates than the Book of Mormon) but which does not present a coherent language script. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Anthon Transcript: Did Charles Anthon Authenticate the Book of Mormon Characters or Translation?” (Institute for Religious Research, 2016).
8. See further R. H. Charles, trans., The Book of Enoch, introduction by W. O. E. Oesterley (London: SPCK, 1917), especially vii-xix; Matthew Black, The Book of Enoch or I Enoch: A New English Edition, with Commentary and Textual Notes (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 1-7; Michael A. Knibb, “The Book of Enoch or Books of Enoch? The Textual Evidence for 1 Enoch,” in The Early Enoch Literature, edited by Gabriele Boccaccini and John J. Collins, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 121 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 21-40. There is a growing wealth of academic studies on the Enochian literature.
9. See G. H. Box and J. I. Landsman, The Apocalypse of Abraham: with a Translation from the Slavonic Text, Translations of Early Documents (London: SPCK, 1918); Alexander Kulik, Retroverting Slavonic Pseudepigrapha: Toward the Original of the Apocalypse of Abraham, Text-critical Studies (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).
10. There is now an enormous body of literature on the Gospel of Thomas (much of it extremely speculative); for representative academic studies reflecting different viewpoints, see Elaine H. Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003); April D. DeConick, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and Its Growth, Library of New Testament Studies (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2006); Nicholas Perrin, Thomas: The Other Gospel (London: SPCK; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007); Mark S. Goodacre, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012); and Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Origins: Essays on the Fifth Gospel, Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 84 (Leiden: Brill, 2013). For an accessible treatment of the case for dating the Gospel of Thomas to the late second century (a position argued strongly by Perrin), see also Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 52-77.
11. E. A. Wallis Budge, Coptic Martyrdoms, etc. in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: British Museum, 1914); see the introductory material, x-xii, lxviii-lxxii; the Coptic text, 225-49; and the English translation, 474-96.
12. Hugh Nibley, “A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch, Part 8,” Ensign, Dec. 1976; reprinted in Enoch the Prophet, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret; Provo: FARMS, 1986), 173.
13. Brian Murdoch, The Apocryphal Adam and Eve in Medieval Europe: Vernacular Translations and Adaptations of the Vita Adae et Evae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 15, says it is probably spurious. Marinus de Jonge and Johannes Tromp, The Life of Adam and Eve and Related Literature (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 81, say that its authorship by Timothy “is not certain” and agree with an earlier scholar in saying that it might have been written “anywhere from the fourth to the sixth century.” Michael Eldridge observed in 2001 that the attribution is not “necessarily genuine” and that the work’s date “has not yet been investigated.” Michael D. Eldridge, Dying Adam with His Multiethnic Family: Understanding the Greek Life of Adam and Eve, Studia in Veteris Testamentii pseudepigrapha 16 (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 25. Scholars sometimes cite the book’s author as Pseudo-Timothy.
14. See Michael A. Morgan, Sepher Ha-Razim: The Book of Mysteries (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983).