Tag Archives: 116 lost pages

When Joseph Met Pliny

While studying the book of Acts, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of historical context surrounding the Candace of Ethiopia mentioned in Acts 8:26.  According to Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 AD) Natural History book VI, chapter 35:

“They stated that a female, whose name was Candace, ruled over the district, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

This struck me as rather similar to a pivotal passage in the Book of Mormon:

Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings.  The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.  Jacob 1:9-11

This passage is crucial because it is the visible point where Joseph Smith grafts the 116 lost pages into the finished Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith had creatively avoided having to retell the stories that had been lost by simply re-writing the prophet Isaiah for most of 2 Nephi, but at some point he would have to resume his fabricated history.  No doubt, the lost pages included detailed genealogies which would be impossible for him to duplicate from memory–the retelling of the lost pages is noticeably sparse in names compared to the rest of Mormon’s book.  Calling each successive king “Nephi” was certainly a brilliant idea to avoid that embarrassment, but could Joseph Smith have received this inspiration from Pliny?

I can already hear the Mormon apologists combating with the usual defense that Joseph Smith was an uneducated man and this theory requires an academic level beyond the reach of a poor farmer.  First of all, this theory is not essential to proving the Book of Mormon a fraud, the lost pages alone are sufficiently incriminating for that.  This theory is merely further ammunition against a fraud, but even if this theory were proved false it wouldn’t make the Book of Mormon true.

Mormons will typically say that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known Pliny’s Natural History, but that’s rather impossible to prove.  It could logically be argued that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known the Great Gatsby or 50 Shades of Grey, but the works of Pliny chronologically precede Joseph Smith and had been available in English for over 200 years at that time.  If an idea existed in print anywhere in the world at a certain time, then we can conclude that anyone could have known it at that time; to argue that somebody could not have is futile.  I don’t have to prove that a copy was available at his local library.  Of course, Mormonism is handicapped in this sort of logic considering how they explain away anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, like quoting the Sermon on the Mount verbatim, through divine inspiration.

Was Pliny unknown in Joseph Smith’s immediate community?  Unlike today, even unlearned, nominal Christians were more Biblically literate, and educated Christians were more familiar with other ancient works.  Josephus was the most frequently owned book by Christians after the Bible.  Given that the name Candace appears in the Bible, this historical background from Pliny could have easily been communicated by a knowledgable preacher to a congregation, and from there absorbed by an avid churchgoer like Joseph Smith.

Curiously, Joseph Smith had practically given up his golden plates project after the loss of the 116 pages, but he resumed after meeting his second scribe: Oliver H. P. Cowdery, the “P” standing for “Pliny”.  Even curiouser, Oliver Cowdery discontinued using his middle initials right after the Book of Mormon was published.  While I’m usually not given to conspiracy theories, this seems to suggest Cowdery could have provided Joseph Smith the catalyst to complete his book and then covered their tracks after it was published.

Olivercowdery-sm

Mormon scribe Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery

 

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The Transition

Skipping over 2 Nephi, probably the most useless book in the Book of Mormon, I’ll resume with the minor books of the so-called small plates of Nephi: Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni.  For those interested, 2 Nephi isn’t worth covering because half of the book is text copied nearly word for word from Isaiah, with some occasional changes.  Two facts are evident at this point in Joseph Smith’s creative process:  First, he had mentally moved on from his project of “translating” the gold plates and had already started his next project of re-writing the King James Bible, which he would commence after writing these last few books.  2 Nephi’s Isaiah is a precursory exercise, identifiable by Smith’s obvious obsession of removing all the italicized words from the KJV text, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness.  An in-depth study of his process isn’t really very interesting or reader-friendly, however, and would be more suitable if this blog ever gets up to what’s known as Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible.  The second and more obvious fact is that Joseph Smith is just filling space at this point.  Apparently, even in this supposedly abridged version he felt he had to cover a certain number of pages to make up the lost material.

With the original manuscript conveniently lost, we can only speculate why Smith decided at this moment that he had rambled on enough to resume the narrative.  Whatever the reason, he abruptly abandons the character Nephi and for these next few transitionary books, pretends to pass the plates down from father to son.  I call these transitionary books, because during this period Joseph Smith is decidedly trying to connect this re-told beginning with the rest of the book he had already written after Mosiah.  This transition is far from smooth, making the grafting point one of the most confusing sections of the whole book, as we’ll see later.

The books get progressively smaller, and by the time we get to Omni the plates are supposed to have passed through five different authors in one book.  This suggests that Joseph Smith was aware that he had rambled a little too long in Nephi’s voice, and if he was going to bridge a gap of hundreds of years then Nephi’s descendants could not be so long-winded.  He lets the character Jacob ramble on a little, interestingly making the Book of Mormon the only sacred text in the world to explicitly condemn polygamy (Jacob 2:27), and giving an early glimpse into Smith’s own psychological preoccupation with plural marriage.  Enos and Jarom aren’t given nearly as much space, but Smith still had not learned to economize words, these still read like the same ramblings only shorter.

Finally, we get to Omni, perhaps one of the most fascinating sections of the Book of Mormon.  As Jerald and Sandra Tanner have pointed out, this is the very moment that Joseph Smith safely passes the black hole made by the 116 lost pages.  In this book, the plates pass from Omni, a self-confessed “wicked man”, to son Amaron, to son Chemish, and Abinadom.  These writers tell us practically nothing, and only seem to etch a paragraph or two on their death bed.  My theory of the Book of Mormon as a parallel Bible suggests that Joseph Smith has arrived at the book of Judges in his Bible reading and is influenced by accounts of the lesser judges: Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.  Interestingly, the passages here seem to be considered Mormon scripture solely because they were written on the same plates as the others, as Chemish even suggests that divine revelation has ceased altogether at this point (Omni 1:11) .

Finally, we get to Amaleki, the point where the “small” plates crash awkwardly into the (as of yet) incomplete book of Mosiah and the finished book of Ether.  Here it helps to have read the rest of the Book of Mormon first, but even then it can be difficult to understand, especially if one tries to abide by the Mormon interpretation.  The Nephites venture out to the land of Zarahemla, populated by another group of Jews who crossed to the Americas during the reign of Zedekiah.  Not only this, the people of Zarahemla had been in contact with Coriantumr, the last survivor of the Jaredites, and had the plates of the book of Ether.  What Joseph Smith attempts to do here is rather brilliant, by tying together his post-Tower of Babel Jaredites to the Nephites in a form of foreshadowing; his actual execution, however, is lacking and raises a lot of questions.

First, this Amaleki serves a king named Mosiah, the father of king Benjamin.  In the next book, however, we’re introduced to king Benjamin, who has a son named Mosiah, who in turn sends a man named Amaleki to Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:6).  The LDS explanation, unsupported by the text, is to refer to these duplicates as Amaleki I and II, and Mosiah I and II.  While this certainly helps the narrative flow, I think the more logical explanation is that Joseph Smith intended these characters to be the same person, but his memory had faded in the re-write process.  The book of Mosiah is the actual point where the lost pages cut off, but where exactly is unknown; nevertheless, it had been almost a year since Smith had worked on Mosiah until the time he wrote Omni.  Furthermore, we also know that Mosiah received substantial editing by Joseph Smith before the printers manuscript was delivered, but even then, Smith had failed to catch errors in the first edition, as he continues to refer to King Benjamin (Mosiah 21:28, 1830 edition) well after his death.  I suspect he originally intended Mosiah to be the father of Benjamin, but by the time he came back around he accidentally reintroduced them in reverse order and killed off Benjamin prematurely.  Although the narrative makes less sense that way, I think it seems much more likely to conclude that these were supposed to be the same people in different tellings of the story.  The Mormon interpretation, after all, presupposes that this is a story that’s supposed to make sense to anybody other than Joseph Smith.

Omni ends with Amaleki wasting precious space to tell the reader that the “plates are full”, which would have been obvious to the reader had there actually been any real plates.  Time and time again, purported authors describe parameters about the plates that are not only unnecessary to anybody who would have actually handled them, but rather tedious to chisel into metal.  For unknown reasons, Smith seems to have paced himself to fill up a precise amount of pages and once that is accomplished he brings it to an abrupt end.  Mormons struggle just to derive a coherent narrative from this transition, yet without the LDS church’s guidance I think most Mormons would be at a loss to make sense of these different characters.

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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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116 Pages that change everything

It doesn’t get talked about by Mormon missionaries.  If you so much as ask the missionaries about it, it puts them in defensive mode.  Any hopes of winning an easy convert are suddenly crushed.  They realize this target knows too much, and could present difficulties or resistance.  It’s the  elephant in the room, and when they know that you know about it, it changes everything.  I’m referring, of course, to the 116 first pages of the Book of Mormon that were lost after Joseph Smith permitted his scribe Martin Harris to take them home with him.  This missing manuscript is a damaging smoking gun that’s caused millions of people to stop reading the Book of Mormon before the missionaries can even schedule a follow-up.

Like I said, it changes everything.  More, probably, that Mormons are prepared or willing to accept.  Losing those pages didn’t just interrupt Joseph Smith’s translation work for several months, it changed the entire direction of Mormon history.  Not knowing who, if anyone, possessed this manuscript put Joseph Smith in a vulnerable position.  His whole credibility was on the line, the situation apparently required him to re-translate an extensive passage from the plates he claimed were in his possession that nobody, not even his scribe, had ever seen.  Joseph Smith’s bluff was called and his hand was forced.  Faced with the impossible, the steps he would take to back out of the corner into which he had been painted would radically define the Mormon concept of “translation”, establish Joseph Smith as a divinely inspired prophet in his own right, and set a precedent in Mormon scripture.

Rather than resume work on translating a supposedly existing holy book, Joseph Smith decided to start writing his own.  The oldest surviving Mormon scripture is not actually part of the Book of Mormon, but Joseph Smith’s own proclamation, now collected by the LDS Church in Doctrines & Covenants section 10 (to make a long story short, this was originally two different revelations from 1828 and 1829, first published in the Book of Commandments, then reprinted in the 1835 Doctrines & Covenants section 36 in close to its present form).  By pre-emptively claiming through divine revelation that the missing pages had been altered in a conspiracy to discredit him, he had won a small reprieve.  But damage had already been done, the shadow of the missing 116 pages would hover over the Book of Mormon through the remainder of its completion. When the “translation” work did resume, Joseph Smith began on what would be considered an abridgment, or a shorter, parallel reading of the same passage (confusingly, also called the plates of Nephi).  A special preface would be included in the original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon to cover his bases just in case the lost manuscript turned up.  But they never did, which is a shame for both believers and critics alike.  No longer a threat, the preface was dropped in the next edition in 1837.  This scandal is all but forgotten by the LDS church now, and we can only wonder how the account of this first draft compared to the published (but still not final) edition of the Book of Mormon, and how Mormonism could have been so much different without this incident.

Later, I’ll try to piece together some of the missing contents of the 116 lost pages using educated guesses from the existing version of that narrative, but now I’ll focus more on the very first Mormon scripture.  You see, the first Doctrines & Covenants passage is more of a watershed moment in history than the Book of Mormon is.  It shows that from the inception Joseph Smith’s intent was to be a prophet himself, and the Book of Mormon was really just the stepping stone for his credibility.  It’s my belief that if Mormons were truly honest about their religion, they would acknowledge the impact of the missing pages, and include this prophecy of Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon.  Too many people have innocently joined the LDS church with no knowledge of these missing pages at all, and as we’ll see, these pages are the real key to understanding the Book of Mormon as literature.

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