Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Case for the Sermon on the Mount

A few posts ago, I explained how the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew could not have appeared in the Book of Mormon without using Matthew as its source material.  My statement that it’s implausible that Jesus delivered the same sermon twice because he never delivered the sermon in that order to begin with, however, creates theological discomfort not just for Mormons, but also for fundamentalist Christians who hold a quasi-Mormon view of divine inspiration.

While the view that the sermon in Matthew is a verbatim record of the actual sermon preached by Christ on the Mount of Olives is as equally flawed as the Mormon’s, it does raise some valid questions: If we can prove from parallel passages in Mark and Luke that the content in Matthew is a composite from various sources, then how do know there ever really was a Sermon on the Mount?  And if the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are just random compilations, then how credible is that account of the life of Christ?

The above fundamentalist position (which for simplicity is associated with fundamentalism here, even though it is not necessarily shared by all fundamentalists) is a lazy defense against the slippery slope of questioning the historical Jesus, but it’s not just unliterary and illogical, it’s also unnecessary.  The answer to satisfy textual criticism doesn’t need to be sought historically or archeologically, there is suitable intertextual proof to point to a historical sermon close to the form found in Matthew.

A little known fact about the Epistle of James is that it’s essentially a transcribed sermon, but what makes it unique in Christian history is that it’s really a sermon on a sermon.  James not only has many parallels to Christ in Matthew, it is in fact an expository sermon about the Sermon on the Mount.  Starting in James 1:2,

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds”

compared to Matthew 5:11,

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Parallels abound (James 2:10, Matt. 5:19; James 2:13, Matt. 5:7; James 5:2, Matt. 6:19-20, to list a few) and continue throughout the book up to a direct quote of Matthew’s “simple ‘yes’ or ‘no'” (Matt. 5:37, James 5:12).  But while it encompasses much of the same content that we find in Matthew, we can clearly see it does not follow the same order.  Admittedly, that in itself doesn’t necessarily refute the Book of Mormon version since it only works on the assumption that the sermon in James was preached in order, which preachers are not always prone to do.  However, we now have four parallel contemporary sources in the Bible, none of which share the exact same order.  The only logical conclusion about the perfect clone of Matthew found in 3 Nephi is that its source material was in fact Matthew, and that can only be if Joseph Smith was its actual author in the 19th century.

Furthermore, while the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew has parallels in Mark and Luke 6 and 11-12, the only overlap common to James is the Luke 6 content.  Finally, the Luke 6 “woes” are evident in James, but not found in Matthew (woe to the rich, Luke 6:24, James 5:1, laughter turning to morning: James 4:9, Luke 6:25).  This suggests that there was a collected sermon comprised of content now found in Matthew and Luke that was in circulation before the gospels were written and used by James.

From this we can conclude that the sermon in Matthew 5-7 is not just a compilation of random fragments of teachings, but an approximation from a source that was known to both Matthew and James.  So what about the Mark parallels?  Or the content unique only to Matthew?  Or the Luke material in James?  How much is the “original” Sermon on the Mount?  Such is the dilemma of speech re-creation in the first century; there was no way to effectively record or transcribe a spoken lecture 2,000 years ago.  Speeches were usually re-created by authors trying to summarize the speaker’s message, but Matthew goes above and beyond such liberties, instead showing evidence of scholarly integrity to preserve the message from the available sources.   The sermon spoken on the mount was for the audience that received it, what remains in writing may have some additional content than what was given then and some less.  It should not be mistaken for a word-for-word account of the speech delivered on the Mount of Olives, but as a faithful literary version of that speech.  It’s pointless to discuss trying to find an “original” Sermon on the Mount even if I thought that could be approximated through textual analysis.  The “real” Sermon on the Mount is the version recorded for us in Matthew.

This conclusion is earth-shattering to the hyper-literalist, who erroneously believes scripture to be something it is not: literal, exact wording of spoken events.  But for those who read scripture as it is–as literature–there is no inconsistency in this reading.

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Review of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The more I can’t have something, the more I want it.  I don’t mean like forbidden fruit, I just like rare, unobtainable things.  I love watching movies that once were lost but now are found, such as Beyond the Rocks (1922, presumed lost for 80 years), Sherlock Holmes (1922), or the Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, discovered in the closet of an insane asylum); I’ll wait years for movies I want to see to be released on any home video format; but my holy grail of unobtainable treasures has to be ancient literature that’s unavailable in English, whether in part or in their entirety, specifically sacred texts.  The Mandaean John book will probably never be translated in full, I’m still searching for a complete edition of the Bhavishya Purana, and there’s little chance the Baha’i Faith will ever release any of the Bab’s full works like the Bayan (Persian or Arabic), Kitab-i-Asma, or the Qayyum al-Asma.

What’s amazing about these older books is how the faithful have preserved them over the years.  All originally written by hand, they have been tediously copied manually for centuries, generation after generation.  In our digital age of instantly downloadable ebooks we often take for granted just how time consuming it used to be to make a single copy of a book.  Even today in lamaseries across Tibet, monks are still hand-printing books from prints carved 3-4 centuries ago.  Out of hundreds of thousands of these books, only a few fragments have seen print in English, and only the Tibetan Book of the Dead has been completely translated.  There’s about as much likelihood of any of those other books being printed in the West as there is of any of the current Dalai Lama’s books being published in Chinese occupied Tibet.

I had avoided previous publications called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” because they were really only a single chapter of the complete volume, which wasn’t fully released in English until 2005.  This body of literature has been erroneously called the “book of the dead” in the West since part of it was first printed in English in 1927, named for its similarity in theme to another funerary text, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was also popular at the time.  Its real name in Tibetan is the Bardo Thodol, sometimes translated as “Liberation through Hearing.”

In the 2005 edition, His Holiness–the presently exiled 14th Dalai Lama–gives what is referred to as an introductory commentary, although it really doesn’t illuminate the Book of the Dead.  He gives a polished, commercially friendly introduction to Buddhism, but further reading of the scripture itself will show how far removed his modern, humanistic practice is from historical Tibetan Buddhism.  For starters, the Book of the Dead reveals, or rather unravels, a more mythological and religious Buddhism than Western admirers of the Dalai Lama may be comfortable in accepting; but his introduction reads more like a Buddhist gospel tract written for evangelizing.

Contrary to how it’s generally represented to the West as humanist and atheistic, this Buddhism is jarringly polytheistic.  The book operates with an assumed knowledge of the 42 peaceful deities and 58 blood-drinking wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism.  There is no explanation, backstory or folklore provided in-text for these characters; readers unfamiliar with the Tibetan mythology (or even with their Hindu counterparts sharing the same names) will be frustrated by seemingly endless descriptions of these figures and their consorts, differing only in color or articles being carried.  Some of these figures are provided a pictorial reference on colored plates in the center of the book, and although it does demonstrate the explicit mid-coitus position the text refers to when it describes these bodhisattvas “in union” with their corresponding consorts, or the horrific appearances of the wrathful deities drinking blood from cups of human skulls, they are still left a mystery.  Of course, those who’ve read any other Buddhist scriptures will be familiar with the prose style of formulaic repetition, with the same sentences and paragraphs cloned over and over with only slight word changes.  Most of the first few chapters are prayers and chants with very little immediate context, that comes later.  Not much else will be recognizable to students of other schools of Buddhism, the religion’s founder only gets a passing reference as Sakyamuni, and there’s only one single quote from any other Buddhist scripture (which, unfortunately,  the editor fails to cite in the endnotes).  The first chapters read more like a prayer book, and to the uninitiated it would be like trying to learn about Christianity by reading a hymnal.

The passage of time hasn’t been kind to the next section, a guide for recognizing and preventing the signs of death.  The editor points out that Tibetans have mostly abandoned these practices in favor of modern medicine.  Much of it is complete and utter quackery, although some of the suggestions aren’t so unscientific, such as its understanding that the first culture of urine in the morning is different from any other later in the day.  Still, this is just one correct guess out of many incorrect conclusions from a wide ranging obsession with urine, semen, and menstrual blood.  The passage on dream interpretation is the most interesting to me, in which it correlates an estimated remaining lifespan based on dreams so specific that probably only the power of suggestion within that culture could cause them.  The translation here also doesn’t transfer so well to Western culture.  For instance, when it says you will die within a year if you dream of “being disemboweled by a fierce black woman”, it’s not actually referring to “black” as in race, but more like demonic or shadow figures.  Obviously, a closed kingdom like Tibet had never seen Africans, and most today still haven’t; this is something that probably should have been explained in the endnotes.  With all its medicinal and scientific shortcomings, it’s strange that section is still included in the text today.  Adherents will point out that scriptural infallibility is not a Buddhist concept; their scriptures were penned not through divine inspiration, but from observation and precedent.  With that in mind, however, it makes even less sense to retain scientifically refuted information in their scriptures, especially if the faithful no longer even practice it.

After this comes the largest and most popular section, which was previously published by itself as the Book of the Dead, and reads like a Buddhist last rites manual.  Although descended from Hinduism, Buddha’s philosophy was a caste-less shortcut out of the Hindu cycle of reincarnation.  In Hinduism, one is locked into the caste, body, gender, and species that one is born into; one cannot advance any further in this lifetime, the only hope for advancement is in one’s next life.  Buddhism circumvented this with the revolutionary concept that regardless of birth, anyone could potentially achieve Enlightenment in this same lifetime.  Tibetan Buddhism employs yet another shortcut, because even if one didn’t attain Enlightenment in life, everyone still has an opportunity at death to reach nirvana or attain a higher station in the next birth.  As the book itself says, “it is extremely important to become skilled [during one’s lifetime] in the process of dying.”

This “liberation through hearing” is supposed to be recited by a lama or spiritual teacher with perfect clarity and pronunciation to the subject (preferably) while they are dying, and continually repeated well after death.  The procedure starts with a reading intended to guide the subject towards enlightenment.  If that fails, the next reading provides guidance to be reborn in the realm of the gods, and so on.  First it tries to make the soul avoid being reborn as a human, called “obstructing the womb,” but if that fails then it tries to guide the subject towards a new birth and avoid the realm of animals, then the anti-gods, and finally hell.  Of course, even if one fails at every turn, after a graphic description of endless torture and death at the hands of Yama (a deity lifted from Hinduism who presides as judge over the Buddhist netherworld, though not really a “devil”), the text comforts us by assuring as that this hell is just as much an illusion as the material world.  Tibet’s isolationism shines through in this passage as it specifically admonishes the subject against choosing a birth either far east or west where Buddhism is not practiced.  From that perspective, one can better understand the rationale of keeping Tibet closed off for centuries, since it was believed anyone who really wanted to go there could have chosen to be born there.  This text also displays the human-centric focus of Buddhism, despite its belief that the cycle of reincarnation encompasses all living things: one could be expected to read this funerary text to an unconscious human subject or even a corpse, but not to an animal (alive or dead), not even the part instructing how to avoid being reborn as an animal, or worse.

The book suddenly shifts to an unexpected change in genre: a lighthearted masked drama still performed by monks in the near-Tibetan regions to this day.  It’s considered “lighthearted” even though the subject is souls being damned to hell in a court of the gods, with their good and bad conscience providing evidence in the form of white (good) and black (bad) pebbles representing their deeds in life, and weighing these pebbles in a scale to determine the soul’s fate.  This section is amazingly consistent with the entirety of preceding chapters.  The descriptions of the deities make sense here as instructions for costumes and set pieces, and the prayers and mantras are incorporated into the dialogue.

Finally, the book concludes with a collection of mantras intended for use in amulets.  This serves as yet another shortcut in the system, because it is believed that even those who do not practice Buddhism can attain enlightenment through wearing these amulets.  The mantras are transliterated from a script only remotely related to sanskrit, so trying to determine the actual or supposed meaning requires dependence on the notes.  Like the complete edition, the scholarship is impeccable, but it mostly only helps to highlight how flawed a book it really is.  Roughly, a third of the book is devoted to notes and a glossary of terms.  The extensive bibliography shows how much the translator and editor have done their homework, but this book is still not suitable for casual readers, and even the most committed students would probably be frustrated even with a doctorate in Tibetan studies (one of the frequently cited sources is, after all, the translators own unpublished dissertation).  In the end, it is what it is, and this edition probably does the best it can to compensate for the limitations of the text.    It’s worth a read if you’re like me and you like forbidden books, but otherwise it’s not hard to see why the Dalai Lama’s Western fans went so long without an English translation of the most famous Tibetan book ever written.

the 100 peaceful and wrathful deities

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Enlightenment Fundamentalism

On the 8th season premiere of Family Guy titled “Road to the Multiverse”, characters Brian and Stewie, both voiced by outspoken atheist and series creator Seth McFarlane, visit several alternate realities, including an advanced utopian world where it is said Christianity never existed, resulting in an absence of the Dark Ages.  While the show has always been more renowned for its potty and fart jokes than its relevant social commentary, this below-the-belt jab at Christianity reflects an increasing trend in the atheistic revision of world history.  Christianity alone is the scapegoat for the pejoratively-named Middle Ages, and it is assumed that atheism would have advanced and saved humanity if only people had listened to reason.  Non-Christian societies, even atheist ones, are not equally held accountable for their lack of progress, which ironically, is often lagging behind Christian society.

Although Family Guy is a humorous cartoon, this myth is actually taken seriously by many people today.  The “new” atheism of Richard Dawkins has proven to be more than simply non-religious, but specifically anti-Christian.  They like to think of themselves as “enlightened” although they don’t actually mean this term in the spiritual sense that it suggests.  Their enlightenment is derived not from nonviolent Buddhism, but from the 18th century Age of Reason which led to the bloody Reign of Terror.  What this reveals is that the new atheism is purely a product of Western Civilization, and holds a revisionary concept of its history.  After all, the atheist is quick to point out the violent histories of religions, but will rarely acknowledge or even admit the violence in the history of atheism.  LIke 19th century Reconstructionist heretics, such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who avoid having to explain the dark periods in Christian history by simply rejecting it, so the new atheist has created their own historical reconstruction ignorant of actual history.  One such example is how atheists frequently quote Marx’s famous “religion is the opiate of the masses”, while ignoring the application of this credo that brought  the human rights violations of Stalin’s anti-religious purges in Soviet Russia.  And just as these proto-fundamentalist splinters of Christianity paved the way for 20th century fundamentalism, so now the new atheists have become Enlightenment Fundamentalists.

The Enlightenment Fundamentalist holds Christianity responsible for impeding all social, scientific, and intellectual progress, even though in most cases the reverse is actually true.  They commonly believe that religion is the only reason for opposition to abortion, while ignoring that anti-religious governments like Communist Romania had the most hostile policies against abortion in history.  Still, like many of their pet causes, they focus disproportionate time and energy to promote abortion in countries where it’s already legal.  Listening only to the modern atheist, one would be led to believe that gay rights had already been championed everywhere else in the world except for Christian-majority nations.  The reality, however, is that gay rights were pioneered almost exclusively in Judeo-Christian countries.  Predominately Hindu India only just decriminalized homosexuality in 2009.  Israel is the only non-Muslim nation in the Middle East, and also the only one where sodomy is not illegal, while its Muslim neighbors all have severe penalties including death and dismemberment.  Even the largest atheist nation, China, has harsher anti-gay policies than the “moral majority” United States.  Russia was fairly tolerant of homosexuality while they had religious freedom, but when Stalin came to power he purged religion and also imposed anti-sodomy laws that stayed on the books until 1993, repealed only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  While gay rights advocates celebrate the repeal of DADT in the US, mostly nonreligious and atheist South Korea still punishes gays in the military for “mutual rape” with one year prison sentences.  If the Enlightenment Fundamentalist insists Christianity is holding back human progress, one should ask them why the atheists are still trailing behind the Christians.

As a product of Western Civilization, Secular Humanism is in fact a Christian heresy, not dissimilar to how Buddhism is the atheist heresy of Hinduism.  Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have resentment for their parent ideology, and likewise Enlightenment Fundamentalists have strong resentment towards Christianity.  Also like most heresies, it reaches its conclusions through extreme addition or subtraction of its source.  Its subtractive quality is the reduction of monotheism by one, whereas its additive properties are evidenced in how most of its ideals and virtues are simply Christian principles taken to radical extremes.  Although admittedly in contrast to how it is sometimes practiced, Christianity was a religion founded on logic and reason, and the abuses and hypocrisies often identified with religion by atheists were actually addressed in its Scriptures.  A strength of atheism has been that unlike a religion, it is not a codified belief system with universal expectations; the moral shortcomings of the Soviet Union or the Khmer Rouge don’t reflect on all atheists in the same way that atheists like to hold all of Christianity responsible for equally isolated events like the Inquisition or the Crusades.  However, this lack of uniformity or orthodoxy has also proven to be a weakness that Enlightenment Fundamentalism seeks to remedy.

The Good Book: A Humanist Bible is the latest in an endless stream of publications to try to create an atheistic alternative to the Bible.  Although praised as audacious and unprecedented, in reality it was neither.  Casual browsing reveals that such a book is published about once or twice each year, and the material it includes is not as shocking or telling as the material it deliberately attempts to omit.  In trying to create a book of virtues, wisdom, history, and philosophy sanitized of religious influence, it has demonstrated a level of denial almost comparable to book burning.  While many atheists erroneously believe that Christianity suppresses alternate ideas or opinions, the irony is that these attempts to create an atheist worldview ultimately result in purging any mention of religion just like Stalin did.  All of the contents of the Humanist Bible have existed concurrently with Christianity, some of the authors like Sir Isaac Newton were in fact renowned for their faith, but you wouldn’t know that from reading through the atheists filters.  Christianity has supported secular history and ideas, but it seems the reverse is not the case.  While Enlightenment Fundamentalists have tried to make themselves synonymous with “freethinkers”, they seem more threatened by exposure to conflicting ideas than even the most cloistered monks.  Richard Dawkins goes so far as to suggest religious education of minors is child abuse, and some radicals call for the ban of all religion.

Enlightenment Fundamentalism seems to be becoming the very things atheists have criticized in religions, particularly Christianity.  Rather than supporting a true free market of ideas, it is trying to eradicate all those opposed.  It’s science is absolute, even when unproven.  For instance, Lady Gaga’s song, Born This Way, has become the new accepted theory of sexual orientation; even though science has yet to actually prove it, any dissent is unorthodox.  Steven Levitt’s abortion/crime rate connection in Freakonomics was debunked as statistical manipulation by the Wall Street Journal, yet the pro-choice movement was mostly unaffected, ignoring any science contrary to their pre-determined worldview.  Like some of the religious people they judge, what they choose to believe is more important than actual facts.

But most telling are their interpretive methods of Scripture, which like many Christian heresies, has simply taken bad hermeneutics to the extreme.  The Enlightenment Fundamentalist usually comes to atheistic conclusions not through just ignoring or disbelieving the Scriptures like traditional atheism, but actually going so far as to interpret the Bible more literally than even the most literalist fundamentalist Christians.  The infamous Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is written entirely from a hyper-literalist perspective, which expects its reader to suspend all literary understanding in Scripture.  There really are very few differences in approach to Scripture between an Enlightenment Fundamentalist and a Creationist; both insist the Genesis account of creation must be literal, the Enlightenment Fundamentalist just uses their literalism to dismiss all theism.  But they go even further, interpreting non-narrative works the same as narrative, and overlooking poetic license.  For instance, citing apparent contradictions Gospels apart can be seen as a reasonable attempt to question or discredit scriptural accuracy, but citing consecutive contradictory statements in the same book or passage, such as Proverbs 26:4-5, makes the critic look completely illiterate for failing to recognize an obvious and deliberate poetic device.  Atheists, Mormons, and Christian fundamentalists are actually all descended from the same flawed hermeneutical school of thought, yet ironically Christian fundamentalists and Mormons do have a (marginally) more literary approach to Scripture than Enlightenment Fundamentalists.

Brian and Stewie in “Road to the Multiverse”

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Overview of the Book of Mormon

For a blog about the Book of Mormon, I haven’t actually delved too deeply into the book yet.  In the next few months I plan to journal my way through it from a textual analytical perspective (but don’t worry, I’ll take regular breaks to talk about some other topics, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead that I just read).  But before I can do that, here’s a rough outline that plot my course.

Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon is organized into smaller books, and for the most part they read chronologically like a novel.  I’ll be starting at the beginning, although for a few reasons that’s not actually the chronological written order.  By now you’re already aware of the 116 lost pages that would have been the beginning; the present six first books were an attempt to recreate that content, but, as we’ll see, scholarship suggests it was in fact the last portion of the book written.  Mormons today don’t know for sure, even though the Book of Mormon is less than 200 years old, their textual history is a mess because Joseph Smith put the original manuscripts in the cornerstone of the Navou House in 1841 where it was found heavily damaged when the time capsule was opened years later (strangely, every missionary I’ve ever asked about the original manuscripts has apparently never even considered what happened to them).

First, the so-called “Small Plates of Nephi”:

  • First Book of Nephi
  • Second Book of Nephi
  • Book of Jacob
  • Book of Enos
  • Book of Jarom
  • Book of Omni

As mentioned, these first books were the second draft of the content lost in the missing pages (originally

illustration from the Book of Mormon

Lehi and his people arrive at the promised land

the book of Lehi, Nephi’s father), and were probably the last produced by Joseph Smith and a scribe.  There are striking differences between this material and the books that follow, others have pointed out that this portion reads like a “black hole” compared to the rest.  The writer seems to apologize for things that he knew were included before but are absent now (eg: “And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.” 1 Nephi 8:29), like an extensive genealogy table (1 Nephi 6:1) or few of any other names for that matter.  For instance, all the kings are conveniently called “Nephi” regardless of what their name actually was.

After establishing the time and place, Jerusalem at the reign of Zedekiah, the text references no historical dates or locations after the main character leaves the Holy Land for the duration of the lost pages.  The story follows Nephi’s family to the New World while the author persists in writing in the first person, frequently crediting himself with the phrase “I, Nephi”, and by the end of 2 Nephi seemed to be struggling to take up space, using filler like 22 chapters of Isaiah copied verbatim from the KJV.

The author seems insistent on reminding us of details usually omitted from ancient literature (how many books of the Bible name their author at all, let alone with such repetition?), emphasizing the plates that this text was allegedly written on more often than someone chiseling on brass would care to repeat.  The eponymous books from Jacob to Omni follow these plates as they’re passed down from father to son, plus others not named in the titles.  The constant mentioning of the plates gets even more ridiculous here, as they waste space to mention “the plates are small” (Jarom 1:14) and “these plates are full” (Omni 1:30, who melodramatically appears to chisel this on his deathbed), details which would be unnecessary to anyone actually reading the plates in front of them.  No, it’s not a miracle that this author knew none of today’s Mormons would be able to see these plates, it points to Joseph Smith as the author, well aware that no plates ever existed to be seen.

  • Words of Mormon

Interestingly enough, the Book of Mormon doesn’t always read like somebody just making it up as he goes along (which is problematic since it expects us to believe that ancient writers are chiseling freeform in brass, presumably with divine inspiration keeping them from needing an eraser).  It doesn’t just have evidence of editing, it has an editor who inserts comments, first Mormon, then his son Moroni.  Both are basically Joseph Smith projecting himself into the book to change its course, then close it.  In Words of Mormon, Joseph Smith addresses the lost pages in-story, letting us know we’ve just read an “abridgment” and that next we’ll resume reading from the “Large Plates of Nephi.”

  • Book of Mosiah
  • Book of Alma
  • Book of Helamon
  • Third Nephi
  • Fourth Nephi

At this point, we’ve moved beyond the lost pages, and there are noticeable differences.  For starters, the narrative shifts to the 3rd person.  Kings start to have unique names, historical dates resume (Mosiah 6:4), and the first New World place names appear.  A good case can be made that this is where Joseph Smith resumed following the distress (his words, “All is lost!  All is lost!”) of the lost pages because of discrepancies that would arise over when King Benjamin died, which would be changed in every new edition after 1837.

You can tell that Joseph Smith starts to relax a little more now that the threat is over.  The story starts to focus on the topics that Smith was fond of: kings, wars, and battles, which could only be hinted at in the previous section since he couldn’t recall all of the specific details.  Even the structure of the text becomes more creative, with more complex literary devices like chiasmus.

3 Nephi contains the story of Christ visiting the Nephites, which is basically a godsend in clarifying 19th century doctrinal disputes (“there shall be no disputations among you.” 3 Nephi 11:22) like the exact procedure of baptism (11:22-27) or what exactly to name the church (27:3-5).  The rest is plagiarized mostly from the Gospel of Matthew, but with some of Malachi thrown in for good measure.  After that, the story follows the Nephite civilization to their demise.

  • Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon, not to be confused with the Book of Mormon.  Once again, the editor Mormon interrupts the broadcast with some comments about the arrangement of the narrative.  Obviously, if the first pages hadn’t gone missing, we wouldn’t have the explanatory book, Words of Mormon, but this second insertion into the text seems planned.  Like before, plates pass from father to son, and an abrupt change to the narrative follows.

  • The Book of Ether

At this point the editor guides us to the “Plates of Ether”, a short account of the Jaredites, yet another group of travelers who find their way to the Americas, but much earlier (after the Tower of Babel, which is interesting to note here that Joseph Smith taught that Adam and Eve lived in Missouri, from which civilization moved to the Middle East via Noah’s Ark, and now back again already).

I think of the Book of Ether as Joseph Smith’s “do over” book.  The story of the Jaredites is essentially a compressed retelling of the whole Book of Mormon, compiled by the last living member of a New World civilization before his death (sorry, should have given a spoiler alert).  It seems to function as a practice run or outline before Joseph Smith could no longer put off reconstructing the lost pages from memory.  It could also be a way for him to include materials he liked but ultimately couldn’t use in the main story for various reasons.  For instance, the Jaredite’s oceanic crossing contains technical descriptions lacking in the Nephite version.  Joseph Smith is also noticeably more involved in this narrative, as his editor Mormon inserts himself into the text periodically.  By this time, some manuscripts had already been in limited circulation among his peers, and possibly after some feedback he seems to be trying too hard to give his story credibility as an ancient text; for instance, he borrows a Biblical device and drops a made-up foreign-language word like “deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee” (Ether 2:3)

  • Book of Moroni

The ever-present editor returns one final time, now as his son Moroni, to wrap up the book.  Moroni settles one final doctrinal dispute that was apparently overlooked when Jesus visited, and gives a conclusive answer on infant baptism (it’s bad, Moroni 8:8-15).  By this time, Joseph Smith had been psychologically manipulating people for years, and he closes his book with some of his most advanced tactics.  

And that’s it.  Not much literary diversity, just a lot of narrative and some letters from the editor, no books of proverbs, poetry, or prophecy.  A few doctrinal settlements in line with mainstream Protestantism, but not really any distinct Mormon theology either, which would come later from the mouth of Joseph Smith acting as prophet.  Yet this is the book that gave him the opening and clout to start a religious movement that has become a force to be reckoned with.  This seems like a pretty damaging synopsis already, but it will actually get more fun as we go along.  

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