Book of Mormon Evidence Evaluated
Brent Metcalfe, Ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993, 446 pages, hardcover, ISBN 1-56085-017-5.
This book brings together the work of ten contemporary scholars who reflect on challenges to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon in a manner that is rigorous but fair. Most of the contributors are LDS, and a number have advanced degrees in fields relating to their topics. The central question under consideration in New Approaches is whether the Book of Mormon is a translation of ancient scripture, or is a nineteenth-century creation of Joseph Smith. The authors employ a number of scholarly disciplines to weigh the evidence, including textual criticism, archaeology, and ancient languages.
In "Book of Mormon Christology," Melodie Moench Charles considers a puzzling question: If Jesus and the Father are separate Gods, as the LDS church now teaches, why does the Book of Mormon repeatedly present them as one and the same person? For instance, in Alma 11:38-39 we read: "Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father? And Amulek said unto him: Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth." Or consider Mosiah 15:1-4:
And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son — The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son — And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth (see also Mormon 9:11-12; Mosiah 16:15; Helaman 14:12; 16:18).
"Modalism" is the best description of this early Mormon view of God, according to Charles. Christ and the Father were not considered separate beings, but simply different "modes" in which the one God reveals himself (New Approaches, pp. 100, 110). This fits with Joseph's original First Vision story, in which he claimed to see only one divine personage (New Approaches, pp. 103ff). However, five years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph began teaching in the Lectures on Faith (1835) that the Father and Son — but not the Holy Ghost — were distinct beings. Then, his teaching changed yet again in 1842 with the publication of chapters 4-5 of the Book of Abraham, which introduced the full-fledged plurality of Gods doctrine.
In another chapter entitled "The Historicity of the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi," Stan Larson uses his training in textual criticism (he holds a Ph.D. in New Testament studies) to compare Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 with the almost identical sermon in 3 Nephi 12-14. Larson's thesis: If 3 Nephi is a translation of an ancient account of Jesus appearing in the New World, it wouldn't copy minor errors that occur in the KJV that are the result of the late, inferior Greek manuscripts used by the KJV translators. While these minor errors affect no point of doctrine, they allow us to test the claim that the Book of Mormon is a translation of ancient scripture:
... if the Book of Mormon text sides with the later Greek text as seen in the KJV, this dependence would be strong evidence against its historicity. The reason for this is that the Book of Mormon on the American continent should know nothing of changes and additions to the Sermon on the Mount made in the Old World centuries after the original sermon, but should be a direct link to the real words of Jesus (New Approaches, p. 117).
For purposes of comparison, Larson takes eight verses from Matthew 5-7 in which scholars have detected minor errors in the Greek text that was used in 1611 to produce the KJV Bible. One example is the KJV rendering of Matthew 5:27, paralleled in 3 Nephi 12:27, where Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery." The earliest Greek manuscripts do not contain the phrase "by them of old time," which indicates that these words were not a part of what Matthew wrote. Thus, the phrase is omitted from all modern scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament, and from modern scholarly translations of the Bible such as the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version.
All the modern scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament have identical readings of these eight verses, thanks to the superior — that is more ancient — Greek manuscripts of the New Testament now available. Larson selected these verses for his study because we can be confident they are identical — or virtually so — with what Matthew originally wrote. However, Larson found that in all eight test cases, 3 Nephi consistently follows the erroneous readings of the KJV, and never agrees with the original text or any known variant from the earliest Greek manuscripts. Larson's verdict: 3 Nephi 12-14 is not an ancient account of a sermon given by Jesus in the Americas, but instead was plagiarized by Joseph Smith from the King James Version:
"The Book of Mormon account of Jesus' sermon in 3 Nephi 12-14 originated in the nineteenth century, derived from unacknowledged plagiarism of the KJV" (New Approaches, pp. 131-132).
New Approaches also contains excellent chapters that investigate other key issues, including Book of Mormon archaeology and geography (Dr. Deanne G. Matheny) and the claim that the Book of Mormon reflects Egyptian or Hebrew literary features (Edward H. Ashment).
Readers willing to consider the work of thoughtful individuals who are honestly grappling with fundamental questions about the Book of Mormon, will find New Approaches of considerable value.