There was a conference that went on recently that my brother-in-law brought back to my attention called New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation (His in-law are co-founders of FaithMatters.org). I was interested to hear what this panel of speakers had to say and compare it with an enjoyable MormonMatters podcast I listened to a couple of years back. If you are interested in theories about the mechanics of Joseph Smith’s translation process, these are intriguing resources.
Terryl Givens was a featured speaker at the New Perspectives conference, and I found his association of bricolage with the translation process to be intriguing. Bricolage is a French term that describes the construction of ideas by using whatever is at hand. (Merriam-Webster) In the past, Givens has regarding Joseph Smith being an “inspired eclecticist” and a “sponge.” (An Approach to Thoughtful, Honest and Faithful Mormonism) An eclectic will select “what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles” or will compose from “elements drawn from various sources; (Merriam-Webster)
The Book of Mormon came down to us with a mix of voices. Most notably we see King James English, almost direct quotations from the Old and New Testaments, hints of Joseph, possibly other outside influences, and some forms of speech common to his day.
These facts prove to some that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century document that isn’t what it claims to be. But what does “translated into modern speech by the gift and power of God,” (source) mean? Perhaps we expect that something inspired by God would be without flaw and have some sense of miraculousness to it, that it wouldn’t bear the fingerprints of mortals.
The title page of the Book of Mormon indeed states that it will come forth “by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof…” but if you keep reading to the end, you will find the words “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.” Moroni, who Joseph said was the author of the title page also wrote “And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault…” (Mormon 8:17)
Even Moroni anticipates the possibility of errors in a translation process that involves the power of God. I think this tells us something worthwhile to consider: even though God’s power produces something with which mortals interact, it will probably still bear the fingerprints of man. After all, the vast majority of God’s interactions with man take place with using a mortal proxy. God revealed to Joseph that “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language…” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24)
I then thought of the ten commandments. Exodus 31:18 states that God “gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” I then wondered what language God wrote in; was it Egyptian? Phonecian? Perhaps Paleo-Hebrew? If God wrote them in some angelic tongue, what good would they have been if the people could not read them? Personally, I think it is likely that they were written in some form that would be recognizable to the people.
I’m sure that if we examine the ten commandments, we will not find many things that are that new or revolutionary. Most cultures at the time would likely have had rules about worship, blasphemy, holy days, honoring parents, killing, stealing, lying, etc. One could make the case that many aspects of the Israelite faith were appropriated from other cultures. Does that mean that God wasn’t involved? One might ask where those cultures got their ideas in the first place. If there were truths revealed over the course of many generations beginning with Adam and Eve and followed by periods of apostasy and restoration, then maybe we should expect to see fragments of those original teachings scattered everywhere.
An examination of Joseph’s translation process may cause one to conclude that he was a fraud, while to another it may say something about the human fingerprints we should expect to see in revelations that pass through human hands. Avraham Gileadi made a profound point about this in his book Isaiah Decoded:
“…it sometimes seems that God includes enough ambiguity in his revealed word to provide an “out” to those who resist his invitations to seek the truth. At virtually every level, in effect, God has built into the scriptures two ways that you can interpret them: one for those who want to fall back on established views, right or wrong, that may have some element of truth but not the whole truth; the other for those who want to search out all God has revealed no matter how great the paradoxes. God makes that a test for us – a “snare” for the self-righteous, but a path into his presence for his “disciples”.” (269)
On this and many other subjects, it always seems to end at this fork in the road. Personally, I’m far too curious to give up when I feel like I’ve hit a dead end. I like puzzles, and I enjoy the act of figuring them out and eventually solving them. I have found that it is worthwhile to wrestle with these paradoxes.
As I have searched, pondered, and prayed, the heavens have opened for me. Those rewards have kept me going, and some of the best answers and rewards for faith are also, not surprisingly, the most difficult and often impossible to put into words.