In the Beginning (Sort of)

I had the hardest time trying to decide where to start blogging through the Book of Mormon.  Logically, you should start a book at the beginning, but the big question with the Book of Mormon is: which beginning?

The real beginning to the Book of Mormon was written in the 116 pages that are now lost to the ages, Joseph Smith resumed writing somewhere around Words of Mormon and Mosiah, and what appears at the beginning of the published book is actually the last part that was written.

There’s really no way to do a literary analysis without being aware of this structure.  Starting on page 1 is the fatal mistake that prospective converts make, and leads to understanding the Book of Mormon only within its own set parameters, the way all its believers understand it.  Reading in continuity from the end of the book of Moroni to the beginning of 1 Nephi reveals clues to Joseph Smith’s creative process that just aren’t evident any other way.  For instance, an apparent original idiom in the beginning of the book, “my words shall his forth”  (2 Nephi 29:2) , seems less remarkable when one knows that Joseph Smith first developed it while completing the final chapter of the book (Moroni 10:28).  The last verse of Moroni equating Jesus with Jehovah marks the real starting point of Smith’s Modalist phase that would later have to be edited out of 1st & 2nd Nephi.  The Book of Mormon reads very much like a stream of conscience in which ideas and idioms flow visibly into one another, as long as one knows what order to look for these trends.

Unfortunately, barring the Mormon history discovery of the Millennium, there’s no way to reference the original beginning from the lost pages.  Beginners can’t as easily jump into the middle of the narrative, either, so Chapter 1 of 1 Nephi is really the only serviceable, albeit inadequate, starting place.

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

It’s no “In the beginning.”  It’s not even “Call me Ishamel”, or “It was a dark and stormy night.”  One would think since this is Joseph Smith’s second attempt at writing the beginning of his book that his writing might have improved by now.  On the contrary, he seems to be phoning it in at this point.  After all, he only re-wrote the beginning because he had to, not because he really wanted to.  Unlike before, having to recreate the content from the lost pages required plotting, focus, and concentration, and after completing the initial narrative to get his Hebrews to the New World, he’s just taking up space.  At the point that he’s just reading 20 chapters from Isaiah in 2 Nephi, you can see that he’s already mentally checked out of this project and moved onto the next one.  Immediately after completing the Book of Mormon he would start work on his “inspired” translation of the Bible, continuing pretty much the same process he had started with Isaiah.

His writing style and creative process remained the same, even though he had better source material as a basis.  In the first chapter of Nephi, it’s certainly unusual for an ancient writer to identify himself in the first sentence, and even stranger to specify the language it’s written in.  Context of authorship are certainly not to be found in Genesis, and Joseph Smith appeared to view that as a deficiency to be remedied.  He even changed its famous first line to his favorite, most repeated (and most annoying) phrase, “and it came to pass.”

And it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven and this earth; write the words which I speak. (Gen. 1:1, JST)

Notice how he re-wrote Genesis 1 in the first person,

Yea, in the beginning I created the heaven, and the earth upon which thou standest. (Gen. 1:3, JST)

His “I, Nephi” now became “I, God”:

And I, God, said, Let there be light, and there was light. (Gen. 1:6, JST)

These are notable since the earliest books (Mosiah through Ether, with the exception of Mormon) were written in the third person, yet from Moroni through 1 & 2 Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni, and into the JST Genesis, Joseph Smith persisted in the first person.  It makes me wonder if the original draft in the 116 lost pages was in the first or third person, but there’s really no way to know.  What we can see clearly, though, is that by the time he got around to re-writing the Holy Bible, he was corrupting it with his own bad writing sense.  One doesn’t even have to search for Hebrew manuscript evidence (there isn’t any to support his “translation” anyway) to be able to see that this is same author as 1 Nephi

1 Nephi

1 Nephi 1 in the 1830 edition

.

Comparisons of the first line of the Book of Mormon to the Bible are inevitable, even among believers.  While they may seem like night and day to the non-Mormon, from an inside perspective one can see that Joseph Smith always intended them to be similar, even if he had to retroactively re-write the Bible to make them closer.  Unfortunately, he took a well-written passage of literature and butchered it to suit his non-literary concept of scripture.  It’s no wonder Mormons hardly even use his “inspired” translation of the Bible, just the occasional footnote, a few chapters in the Pearl of Great Price, and some excerpts in the back of their KJV Bible.  I can’t help but think that it’s not only because it would be a jarring red flag and an insurmountable obstacle to anyone remotely familiar with the Bible, but also because it’s obviously of inferior literary quality.

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