Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The scholarly re-translation of the Book of Mormon

Among some LDS scholars, mainly those who promote a Mesoamerican setting, the text of the Book of Mormon is inadequate. They seek to "improve" the translation by supplying their own terms and putting it into a Mayan context that contradicts the text.

A case in point is Matthew Roper. He has a blog called "Ether's Cave," accessible here. The title comes from his version of Ether 13, in which he substitutes the word "cave" for the text's term "cavity." Roper made this part of his argument here, which was part of his response to Andrew Hedges' paper which you can find here.

Why a cave?

This may seem like a minor point, but it's not. Ether's cave, instead of Ether's cavity, is a cogent example of the way Mesoamericanists seek to re-translate the Book of Mormon.

Here's the difference in meaning between the two terms. "As nouns the difference between cavity and cave is that cavity is a hole or hollow depression while cave is a large, naturally-occurring cavity formed underground, or in the face of a cliff or a hillside." Reference here.

This may appear to be a slight difference in definition, but the difference is at the core of the efforts by the Mesoamericanists to undermine the credibility of two of the three witnesses.

Here's how. Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were unambiguous when it came to Cumorah--the scene of the last battles of the Nephites and Jaredites--being in New York. Mesoamericanists claim that a New York Cumorah is inconsistent with a Mesoamerican setting, so they reject the New York Cumorah. One of their arguments is that the New York hill, being a glacially created drumlin, cannot contain a cave. FairMormon has a long article on the topic here. It's worth reading to see how far they go to cast doubt on Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Brigham Young, and Joseph Fielding Smith.

Because they claim a cave is impossible in the New York hill, the Mesoamericanists like to refer to Ether's shelter as a cave as well. Hence, the title for Roper's blog.

Roper and other Mesoamericanists want people to believe Joseph Smith speculated about Book of Mormon geography, that he had no prophetic or revelatory insights on the topic, and that he made factual errors because he relied on the secular knowledge of his time. They claim Joseph's speculations led to confusion among his followers that has persisted to this day. They further claim that Oliver Cowdery was misleading people when he claimed it was a fact that the final battles of the Book of Mormon people took place in New York, that David Whitmer was an unreliable witness regarding Cumorah, and so forth.

The Mesoamerican theory cannot survive if Joseph, Oliver and David are reliable, consistent witnesses.

By contrast, most believers think the reliability and consistency of Joseph, Oliver and David are key aspects of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

Here is the entire text of Roper's piece, with my comments in red and his use of cave in bold.

Ether, the Cave, and the Record

In his abridgment of the twenty-four plates recovered by Limhi’s people, Moroni tells us that Ether dwelt in a cave (a “cavity of a rock”) during the final years of the Jaredite conflict and that he went out at night to witness events and then would return to the cave to record them. After fleeing for his life, he wrote the remainder of his account in the cave (see Ether 13:13–14, 18, 22).[14] Hedges acknowledges the potential implications of this point but dismisses the argument. “A careful reading of the text,” he suggests, “shows that Ether’s cave actually drops out of the story long before the final battle is fought.” 
[Hedges did use the term, but only because he was quoting John Sorenson and then continued to write in that framework. Sorenson, like Roper, quotes the scriptural "cavity of a rock" but from then on uses the term cave. This is typical of Sorenson's translation of the text. I call this the Sorenson translation, or, more recently, the RAGS translation (for Roper, Ash, Gardner and Sorenson).]
Does it? Moroni wrote, “And he hid himself in the cavity of a rock by day, and by night he went forth viewing the things which should come upon the people. And as he dwelt in the cavity of a rock he made the remainder of this record, viewing the destructions which came upon the people by night” (Ether 13:13–14; emphasis added). 
[The term cavity appears 4 times in Ether 13 and once in 1 Nephi 3:27 (where Nephi and his brothers hid from Laban). The term cave appears once in the entire text, in a quotation from Isaiah 2 found in 2 Nephi 12:19. From this we see that Joseph Smith knew both terms, but specified cavity, not cave, for both Nephi and Ether.]
In addition to providing personal protection, the cave also provided a place where Ether could write in peace and would save him the trouble of having to carry the plates with him when he went out to observe. After witnessing the final showdown between the two rivals, “the Lord spake unto Ether, and said unto him: Go forth. And he went forth, and beheld that the words of the Lord had all been fulfilled; and he finished his record; (and the hundredth part I have not written) and he hid them in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them” (Ether 15:33; emphasis added). 
[The cavity of the rock is not mentioned after Ether 13.]
In these passages Moroni tells us how Ether accomplished his work. He dwelt in the cave for safety during the day and went out nights to witness and observe. After doing so he then would return to the cave to record what he had witnessed. Moroni does not say that he stayed there every day or that he went out every night or that he even came back every night, but he does indicate that Ether came and went from the cave frequently enough to witness the events and return to his refuge to record them. This is inescapable. 
[Actually, since the cavity is never mentioned after Ether 13, Ether could have been anywhere when he was recording the events after Ether 13. Ramah is mentioned only in Ether 15. Notice in the next paragraph how Roper invents a geography in chapter 15 based on his assumption that Ether never left the cavity for very long.]
He is close enough to Ramah to keep track of the numbers of survivors after each day of battle, to hear their mournful cries and witness the final melee between Coriantumr and Shiz. Taken together, both passages (Ether 13:13–14 and Ether 15:33) do suggest that after he saw Coriantumr kill Shiz, Ether “went forth” upon the land to witness the fulfilment of the Lord’s prophecies and perhaps confirm that none of the other combatants were left and then returned to the cave as he always did. He then “finished” the “remainder” of his account as Moroni says he did in the cave and hid the record itself “in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them” (Ether 15:33). Since Limhi’s people found the record in the land of Desolation (see Mosiah 8:8; 21:26; Alma 22:30), Ether must have hidden it near the final battle scene. Why would he have taken it anywhere else? Hedges argues “that the idea expressed in [Ether]13:14 that he actually ‘finished’ the record there is not to be taken completely literally,” but given what the text says it is difficult to see why it should not be, nor is it clear how not taking this passage literally represents a more careful reading. The proximity of the cave to the final Jaredite movements and the final battle at Ramah clearly place the Hill Ramah near the narrow neck of land, not several thousand miles away.
[This "several thousand miles away" is another classic Roper argument. He assumes a Mesoamerican setting, so for Cumorah to be in New York, the distance would be several thousand miles away. This makes Oliver Cowdery a liar. However, if one accepts Oliver's statement that it was a fact the Nephite Cumorah was in New York, then it is Mesoamerica that is "several thousand miles away" and therefore impossible to be the setting of the Book of Mormon. One must decide to believe either Oliver Cowdery or Matthew Roper. If it's not obvious by now, I believe Cowdery. Hence the name of this blog.]