The Book of Mormon: An Imperfect Book?

By: Mormon Heretic
June 17, 2013

ImperfectBookSignature Books sent me an advance copy of An Imperfect Book by Earl M. Wunderli, and it is due to be released today, June 17.  (Perhaps it’s a great gift for that non-believing dad for Father’s Day.)  The subtitle to the book is “What the Book of Mormon tells us about itself.”  Wunderli takes the text of the Book of Mormon, much as John Sorenson does, but seems to come to a different conclusion.  Rather than discuss Book of Mormon geography, Wunderli approaches the book as having 19th century origins, and he believes that Joseph Smith wrote the book.  He takes on many of the apologetic arguments, trying to refute them.

There are several theories about the origins of the Book of Mormon:  The Spaulding Theory, and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews to name two, but Wunderli doesn’t approach those theories with a ten foot pole.  Rather, he believes that the primary text that Joseph Smith used (plagiarized) was the Bible.  At first glance, that shouldn’t surprise most as there are large sections of Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount embedded nearly verbatim in the Book of Mormon.  But Wunderli doesn’t stop there.  He notes that there are several New Testament verses in the Book of Mormon prior to the coming of Christ, and he finds that questionable.  For example, Helaman living in 62 BC seems to quote Paul of Galatia (approximately 120 years later around 62 AD):

  • Helaman (Alma 58:40)  ”nevertheless they stand fast in the liberty wherewith God has made them free”
  • Paul (Galations 5:1)  ”Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free”

That’s just one of Wunderli’s examples.  He also discusses the problems with the Documentary Hypothesis (that I blogged about previously) and how it is a problem for the Book of Mormon.  Briefly, many scholars believe that the first 5 books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) were written by at least 4 different authors.  Moses couldn’t have finished the book of Deuteronomy because it says in 34:5 “So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.”

Wonderli makes that case that Deuteronomy was written somewhere between 620 to perhaps 180 BC, some 20-400 years after Lehi left Jerusalem.  This is a problem because if Deuteronomy was written so late, it couldn’t have possibly been on the Brass Plates that Nephi and his brothers retrieved from Laban.  I think this is potentially an important issue.  While I don’t deny that many scholars subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, here is a quote from my previous post that deserves attention here:

The hypothesis is only one possible answer.  It is merely a concept.  There is as yet no consensus on the theory.

Daniel Smith-Christopher, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Loyola Marymount University, “At this point, I would say that the Documentary Hypothesis is the best explanation for many of the difficulties that are presented to us by the first five books of Bible as we now have them.”

Lawrence Schiffman, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University, “In my mind, the Documentary Hypothesis does not really solve the problem that it sets out to solve, in which case we simply get left with the question of faith.  One who wants to believe that the Torah is a divine document and given by God, can do so; one who wants to believe that it’s a human document subjected to documentary or other types of similar analysis can do so.  I think it’s a question, a mystery, to which we’ll never really know the answer.”

To his credit, Wonderli says that LDS scholars take various positions on the issue.  For example, Sidney Sperry and Bruce R. McConkie don’t support the Documentary Hypothesis, while John Sorenson wrote that “there can be no doubt that nineteenth-century scholarship was correct in recognizing different blocks of material in the Penteteuch.”

Another problem lies in the fact that when Nephi quotes Isaiah, he seems to be quoting the Greek translation of Isaiah.  If Isaiah was on the Brass Plates, Hebrew would have been much more appropriate, and Joseph seems to rely on the King James (Greek) Version of Isaiah, rather than an earlier Hebrew version.

I was really looking forward to Wunderli’s chapter on wordprint studies.  To my surprise, Wonderli completely ignored the dueling wordprint studies at Stanford and BYU.  Briefly, some researchers at Stanford put together a peer-reviewed statistical study in Oxford University press arguing that the Book of Mormon was based on the writings of Solomon Spaulding;  about a year later, BYU posted a rebuttal to the Stanford researchers questioning their results, and proposing a more updated methodology on how to do the test properly.  For example, the BYU researchers used the same authors that the Stanford Study chose, but applied them to the Federalist Papers:

Early or late Rigdon was falsely chosen as the author of 28 of the 51 Hamilton texts with inflated posterior probabilities ranging as high as 0.9999 (Fig. 2). Pratt was falsely chosen as the author of 12 of the papers, and Cowdery was falsely chosen as the author of the remaining 11 papers.

This leads some to questions wordprint studies altogether.  John Hamer wrote “I’m saying that computerized wordprints are without value.”  Wunderli doesn’t apply any fancy statistical tests for his wordprint studies, and he make no effort to tie the Book of Mormon to Solomon Spaulding.  Instead, he notes that Jesus of the Book of Mormon seems to speak differently than Jesus of the Book of Matthew.  Mildly interesting, he notes that

The Jesus of the Book of Mormon, when he ventures beyond his saying in the Bible, uses forth fifteen times and mostly superfluously, while the biblical Jesus uses it five times with less redundancy, talking about trees bringing forth good or bad fruit.  In the Book of Mormon, Jesus uses cast ten times, repeating what the biblical Jesus says in one instance about salt being cast out and trodden under foot.  The biblical Jesus uses the word nine times.  Both Jesuses use lest twice.  (emphasis in original)

Of course Wunderli gives many more examples than I have listed here.  Wunderli also thinks he was able to identify a change in Joseph Smith’s translation style where he seems to change from the use of “wherefore” to “therefore” based on the chronology of translation.  I found the chapter hardly convincing, though I suspect that once again it will appeal to critics and not apologists.

Wunderli takes issue with the prophecies of the Book of Mormon, and I think he might have a point here.  Prophecies that occur prior to 1830 seem to have very good precision:  Christ will be born 600 years from Lehi, the Nephites will be destroyed 400 years after Christ, and also seem to have racial overtones, with Europeans “who will be led by the Spirit of God as instruments of genocide.”  (Wunderli also says that the Book of Mormon is anti-Semitic.)  Wunderli seems to go a bit too broad in his anti-Catholicism stance.  While it is certainly true that people like Bruce R. McConkie condemned Catholics as the Church of the Devil, and often used the Book or Mormon as evidence, I just don’t think that is a proper reading of the Book of Mormon, and is much more of an incorrect cultural interpretation of the Book of Mormon.  Wunderli says that events in the future of Joseph Smith are much more vague.

Wunderli also takes issues with the ages of some characters of the Book of Mormon.

If we assume normal generations so that each son is born when is father is twenty-five, Nephi lives to about 96, his son Amos to 155, Amos junior to 241, and Ammaron to 256.  Something is obviously wrong.  If we assume that each father’s son was born the same year the father died, then Nephi would have been 96, and Amos 84 years old, Amos junior 111, and Ammaron would have lived to be at least 126–although in this scenario we would have much younger mothers and gaps in the record while the babies were growing up and learning to write.

Wonderli also thinks he finds errors in translation.  Alma 31 discusses the war battles, ‘During an ensuing battle, an intrepid Nephite charges the general and takes of “his scalp” with a sword, the scalp falling “to the earth”‘.  Wunderli notes “It is, or course, an Indian scalping.  It is doubtful Joseph Smith would have known what Professor Ludlow offered, that scalping was actually invented by the British”

In summary, Wunderli does his best to take on all the apologetic arguments, and quotes them liberally.  He uses the same data they use in support of the Book of Mormon and does his best to refute their arguments.  The people at Signature Books think this book may be similar to Grant Palmer’s Insiders View of Mormon Origins in that it will appeal widely to scholars.  What do you make of some of Wunderli’s arguments that I have presented here?  Do you think they have merit?

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13 Responses to The Book of Mormon: An Imperfect Book?

  1. Will on June 17, 2013 at 6:16 AM

    To me, the Book if Mormon is a spiritual text. I go with what Elder Holland said “no righteous man would and no evil man could” write this book. My statement is soley based on my personal witness of this great book. I don’t waste my time with either side of the secular argument — critics or apologists. I would encourage you and all those that read this post to do the same.

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  2. natebergin on June 17, 2013 at 6:43 AM

    It sounds to me like most of the problematic elements Wunderli notes, are already well researched and have been responded to by apologists numerous times. Of course, the Book of Mormon may not add up from a historical perspective. Yes, it is imperfect. But we don’t study the Book of Mormon as an anthropological text to understand Native America. We read it because we feel the Spirit of the Lord through it’s pages.

    The fact that Joseph Smith borrowed from the Bible to create the Book of Mormon does not explain it’s incredible complexity, spirituality, rich theology, and above all, it’s somber, God-fearing tone, which could not have been written by anyone who was not writing in all sincerity. In the Book of Mormon, God created the perfect theological stumblingblock, simultaneously absurd and miraculous, perfect to separate the wheat from the tares.

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  3. Brian on June 17, 2013 at 7:02 AM

    I am so surprised that I have never read the long-life issue of the Book of Mormon. Is this new to others as well? Did this get raised in classes at BYU?

    Did he talk about the 2 million deaths on one side of the battle in Ether, which if the same on the other side, meant that approx 4% of the world’s population vanished without anyone taking notice?

    Thanks for the write up on this.

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  4. Howard on June 17, 2013 at 9:23 AM

    The BoM cannot be logically reconciled, it’s historicity is indefensible. It’s value lies in reading it with the Spirit as inspired fiction, inspired myth.

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  5. Casey on June 17, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    Does Wunderli have any specialist training or expertise on the things he writes about, or is he just an interested amateur? Not that either would necessarily disqualify his opinions one way or the other; I just can’t find much about the guy from a quick google search besides that he’s a former lawyer.

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  6. CJ Douglass on June 17, 2013 at 12:32 PM

    MH, thanks for the write up. Out of all the apologist arguments that Wunderli addressed, which one do you think was the strongest? (of the apologist arguments). Hole poking gets a little tired. I would be much more interested in reading the book if he addressed the best that that BoM has to offer.

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  7. Mormon Heretic on June 17, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    Brian, I did a quick review of the book again, and I don’t recall any discussion of battle deaths. Wunderli’s main problems with the Book of Ether were once again Chronological:

    Everything is truncated in order to cover approximately thirty generations and about 1,600 years, which means generations of more than fifty years on average, or twice as long as normal generations. The dating is dependent on KJV’s estimate of 2200 BCE for constructing the Tower of Babel. It is interesting that John Sorenson rejects this date in favor of an even older time period congruent with the “big pyramid-shaped temple platforms called ziggurats” in Mesopotamia, built around 3000 BC, adding 800 years to the Jaredite history if we accept his premise. This would mean average generations of 80 years.

    Predictably, Wunderli takes issue with a headless Shiz rising up after he was beheaded, but I think that’s been talked about in a lot of circles.

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  8. Mormon Heretic on June 17, 2013 at 1:57 PM

    Casey, in regards to your question about Wunderli’s credentials, here’s what the back cover says:

    Earl M. Wunderli has degrees in philosophy and law from the University of Utah. As a young man, he studied hoteliery in Lausanne, Switzerland, worked as a chef in Bermuda, and was trained as a navy pilot before studying law in Utah. He retired in 1993 as Associate General Counsel for IBM in Connecticut. He is a past member of the board of directors of the Sunstone Foundation and has published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

    I can tell you that the book is HEAVILY footnoted (I chose to leave out the footnotes here for brevity.)

    CJ, which apologetic arguments were the best? Well, Wunderli does have a chapter in which he critiques John Tvedtness, John Welch, John Sorenson, and Hugh Nibley. I didn’t quite get to that chapter yet, so I probably should hold off on giving an announcement on who I liked best. However, I will say that I am not a Hebrew scholar and I find much of what Tvetdness writes about Chiasmus personally uninteresting. I’ve already written in previous posts that I respect Sorenson’s scholarship, but I don’t necessarily agree with everything he writes, especially with regard to directions to make his central American geography model work. I’m also not a fan of some of Sorenson’s explanations for swords and horses, among other BoM anachronisms.

    Wunderli addresses many other apologetic arguments throughout the book, but he often combines similar arguments among multiple authors, making it harder to make a pronouncement on the strength of individual arguments. Wunderli doesn’t go out of his way to endorse apologetic arguments; rather he finds apologetic concessions to strengthen his case that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith, or he takes issue with apologetic arguments that he deems not credible.

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  9. Brent Metcalfe on June 17, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    Hi MH,

    You make some provocative observations, but not all are compelling or even accurate. You suggest, for instance, that

    “Wunderli also thinks he was able to identify a change in Joseph Smith’s translation style where he seems to change from the use of ‘wherefore’ to ‘therefore’ based on the chronology of translation. I found the chapter hardly convincing, though I suspect that once again it will appeal to critics and not apologists.”

    A slight correction: the lexical shift is from “therefore” to “wherefore” (in lieu of your “’wherefore’ to ‘therefore’”).

    That aside, your speculation that such an examination “will appeal to critics and not apologists” has already proven untrue. In 1993, I published a detailed analysis of the lexical shift, which I had discovered independently of Earl Wunderli (see Brent Lee Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis,” in _New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology_, ed. B. L. Metcalfe [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993], 408–15, 434–37 [available online @ http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=10431, typos not in the original]).

    At the 2002 FAIR conference, prolific LDS apologist Mike Ash noted that my analysis of Joseph Smith’s shift from “therefore” to “wherefore” was among the evidence that caused BYU professor Royal Skousen—who many consider the premier Book of Mormon textual critic—to lean “towards a possible acceptance for the priority of Mosiah,” abandoning his previous view of the Book of Mormon dictation sequence (Michael R. Ash, “The Impact of Mormon Critics on LDS Scholarship” [available online @ http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2002-fair-conference/2002-the-impact-of-mormon-critics-on-lds-scholarship, see note 89]).

    My best,

    Brent

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  10. MH on June 17, 2013 at 8:48 PM

    Brent, I appreciate the correction about wherefore/therefore–I’ll fix the OP to match. I have to admit that my eyes glaze over when anybody gets deep into grammar, and I just can’t appreciate why it matters what word one uses. So even if apologists make a big deal about wherefore/therefore, I doubt that they’ll agree with Wunderli’s conclusion that such a change provides evidence for Joseph Smith being the author, rather than Mormon or Moroni, so I think that point still stands. It’s another example of using 1 piece of data and using it to prove opposite viewpoints.

    Having said that, if Joseph really did have influence over word choice, then that seems to strengthen the apologetic argument for a loose translation rather than a tight translation. The question becomes significant because there is a school of thought that the word appeared on a stone and Joseph dictated the word. If Joseph had input (and could choose wherefore/therefore), then it seems the words weren’t really appearing on a stone. Do you agree? Is there gathering consensus among apologists that loose translation is a better argument than tight translation?

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  11. Glenn Thigpen on June 20, 2013 at 6:45 AM

    There are too many areas that you have touched on, but lightly, to make a good reoly to. However, the authors of the Book of Mormon themselves note the possibility of errors due to the imperfections of the authors themselves.
    My take on the Book of Mormon imoerfections and the statement that it isthe most correct Book is theological. I do believe that there were Nephites and Lamanites, etc. also.
    Chronology is something that can become confused dues to multiple story lines and from abridgements, etc. It is not surprisingthat there are some chronological anomalies. However, we must also be sure that any assumption on which we base a chronology is correct.
    Wordprints have been shown to be a efffective means of authorship discrimination, with limitations. The “Dueling Wordprint” studies by Bruce Schaalje et al was used to highlight some of the problems with the Stanford nearest shrunken centroid method and proffered proposed enhancements to overcome some of those problems. There remain questions even about the enhanced methods as to genre and the use of archaic language.
    It is rather difficult for a person to adequately critique all of the various apologetic scholarship that has been done on the Book of Mormon without some type of training in the respective fields, or a tremendous amount of research. Maybe Earl M. Wunderli took on a task that was a bit too ambitious for his level of expertise in those fields. One such area could be his take on the Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon. Did he respond to “Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon” by John A. Tvedtnes?
    I don’t recall Tvedtnes doing a lot on chiasmus. That seems to have become John Welch’s forte. You might find it to be uninteresting, but Welch has done a lot of research on the matter and has made some credible arguemnts for chiasms in the Book of Mormon being deliberate and often very complex.

    Just my two cents worth.

    Glenn

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