Monday, October 16, 2017

Top 10 Literary and Linguistic Evidences for the Book of Mormon

In an article begun in May, 2017, I summarized the ten archaeological evidences for the Book of Mormon I find most convincing. This article will summarize ten literary and linguistic evidences for the Book of Mormon that strike me as compelling.

1. Chiasmus. Ancient literary traditions in largely oral cultures used narrative structures as mnemonic devices in their texts. One of the best known is chiasmus, aka reverse parallelism, associated primarily with Semitic texts and in recent decades widely recognized throughout both the Old and New Testaments. . In a chiasm, narrative motifs build up to a climactic center, then repeat themselves in reverse order in the second half of the pericope. A good example is Mosiah 5:10-12. This beautiful six-element chiasm, the first one recognized in the Book of Mormon in modern times, was discovered by Jack Welch in the early morning hours of August 16, 1967 while he was serving as an LDS missionary in Regensburg, Germany:
A whosoever will not take upon him the name of Christ
      B must be called by some other name;
            C therefore, he findeth himself on the left hand of God.
                  D And I would that ye should remember also,
                        E that this is the name ...that never should be blotted out,
                              F except it be through transgression;
                              F therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress,
                         E that the name be not blotted out of your hearts
                  D ...I would that ye should remember to retain the name ...
            C that ye are not found on the left hand of God,
      B but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called
A and also, the name by which he shall call you.
There are dozens of impressive chiasms in the Book of Mormon, including the masterful Alma 36 which may be the most elegant chiastic structuring of any passage known from any ancient literature.
See the article entitled "Recent Book of Mormon News" for links to excellent videos shown during and resulting from the remarkable Chiasmus Jubilee held on BYU Campus on August 16, 2017. The Jubilee followed the first-ever academic conference on chiasmus where eminent scholars from Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, and Latter-day Saint faith traditions presented their research.

2. Paronomasia. Ancient writers were masters of puns and other plays on words deployed for rhetorical effect. In recent years, many profound examples have been found in the Book of Mormon. Matthew Bowen, a member of the BYU-Hawaii Religion faculty, has led this scholarly endeavor, publishing several influential articles in Interpreter. See for example "Father Is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the Name Abish in Alma 19:16 and its Narrative Context." Here are some examples of naming word play I find particularly insightful:
  • Alma in Hebrew means "youth." When Almais first introduced in Mosiah 17:2, he is described as "a young man."
  • Alma can also carry the connotation "hidden" and in Mosiah 18:5 he explicitly hides from King Noah's troops.
  • Noah in Hebrew means "rest" with the pejorative connotation "lazy." Mosiah 11:6 accuses Noah and his priests of laziness.
  • Jershon in Hebrew means "inherit." The first time Jershon is mentioned in the text the land is given to the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi for their inheritance Alma 27:22-24.
These gems are just the tip of the iceberg. More are being discovered all the time. According to Taylor Halverson and Brad Wilcox, such plays on words demonstrate the "brilliant literary sophistication" of the Book of Mormon authors. See "The Surprising Meanings Behind 'Enos' and 'Noah': Insights into Book of Mormon Names."

3. Early Modern English. Through the diligent efforts of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack, we now know that the language of the earliest Book of Mormon translation was closer to the Early Modern English spoken when Shakespeare was a youth than the Jacksonian American English codified in the 1828 Websters Dictionary. See the articles "Early Modern English" and "English in the Book of Mormon." Without help from an external (divine) source, a mono-linguist simply cannot dictate a long (268,000 words) and complex text over the course of approximately 65 working days in a language that neither his mother nor his father nor their mothers nor their fathers spoke.

4. Stylometry. Computerized statistical tests run against blocks of text can often distinguish the words of Author A from the writings of Author B. Authors have writing styles that consciously or sub-consciously pervade their work. Many such tests run by different teams over decades demonstrate with high degrees of confidence that the Book of Mormon was written by multiple authors whose varied styles differ in statistically significant ways. The work that launched this area of inquiry was published by Wayne A. Larsen, Tim Layton, and Alvin C. Rencher. See "Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints" in BYU Studies 20:3, Spring, 1980. Layton, a friend of mine, is currently serving as Mission President in California, Bakersfield.

John L. Hilton, a physicist who taught at UC Berkeley and worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, took up the challenge of verifying the Larsen, Layton, Rencher results using improved statistical techniques. He worked for years with an interfaith team of colleagues in the East Bay area. In the end, they not only verified but strengthened the 1980 results. See "On Verifying Wordprint Studies: Book of Mormon Authorship" in Noel B. Reynolds, editor, Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited (Provo: FARMS, 1997).

The current standard-bearer in this area is Paul J. Fields, a statistical analyst who holds a PhD from Penn State. See Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and G. Bruce Schaalje, "Stylometric Analyses of the Book of Mormon" in Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21/1 2012.

5. Intertextuality. Book of Mormon authors had access to a version of the Hebrew Bible contained on the plates of brass 1 Nephi 5:10-13. When the Savior visited the Nephites in land Bountiful after his resurrection, he shared additional scriptures with them 3 Nephi 23:6 which were recorded in official national annals. Therefore, it should not be too surprising that Book of Mormon writers quote, allude to, echo, and expand upon biblical passages. The Book of Mormon is remarkable for the sheer volume of intertextual references, and for the creative, meaningful ways the Nephite record weaves the two texts together. David J. Larsen is an Old Testament scholar who holds a PhD from the University of St Andrews (Scotland). His 104 page "Overview of the Use of Biblical Psalms in the Book of Mormon Text" is currently in private circulation. Larsen has identified 60 instances of intertextuality between the Book of Mormon and the Psalms, many of which also interweave phrases and concepts from additional sources such as Proverbs, 2 Samuel, and Ezekiel.

Some "Royal Psalms" extol David. The writers on the small plates (Nephi and Jacob) tend to avoid them and seem influenced by the Deuteronomistic reforms that had recently been introduced in the Jerusalem of Lehi's day. Psalms generally attributed to the exilic or post-exilic period in Judaism are far less frequently referenced in the Book of Mormon than earlier compositions, as we would expect.

6. Semitic and Egyptian Influences in Mesoamerican Languages. Brian Stubbs is a noted linguist, one of the world's experts on the Uto-Aztecan language family which includes Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. In his 2015 Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan (Provo: Grover Publications), Stubbs finds hundreds of cognates as well as syntax, morphology, and pattern shifts over time that all point to Semitic contributions into Uto-Aztecan at about the Book of Mormon time period. My Jewish-LDS philologist friend, Adan Rocha of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, corroborates Stubbs via somewhat different methodology. Robert F. Smith extends Stubbs by showing Semitic and Egyptian influences in the Otomanguean language family which includes Oaxacan Mixtec and Zapotec. See Sawi-Zaa 2016 Version 3.

7. Internal Consistency. The Book of Mormon is large and complicated with many plot twists, flashbacks, and literary genre changes. Specialists have studied it for decades using the tools of various disciplines. Most diligent students come away with a profound appreciation for its integrity and constancy bordering on predictability. The Book of Mormon has a high, even astonishing degree of internal consistency. Nibley, Welch, Sorenson, Skousen, the Hardys, the Rosenvalls - people who know this text very well - have all commented on its steady uniformity and dependable rationality. It demonstrates strong editing for conformity to persistent organizing principles.

My own work has dealt largely with geography and potential correlations between the text and the real world. Across several hundred phrases with geographic implications, I have found only a handful of irreconcilable passages. See the article "Scribal Error." I seldom compose a single page without an egregious faux pas. The Book of Mormon's near perfection is simply breathtaking. I have no problem accepting Joseph Smith's description of the Nephite text as "the most correct of any book on earth."

8. Source Complexity. When we first organized Book of Mormon Central in 2015, one of our first projects was what we call the "Book of Mormon Redaction Chart." It continues to be a popular, albeit large and therefore slow to download, item in our archive. When we display this impressive chart in a public setting, people spend minutes poring over the details. Most are unaware of the subtle complexity behind the multiple sources that all came together to form our current Book of Mormon. See the excellent article by John L. Sorenson entitled "Mormon's Sources" in Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, 20/2 2011.

9. Plan Under-girding the Book of Ether. Beginning with Ether descended from Coriantor in Ether 1:6, the Book of Ether lists a 30 person genealogy in reverse chronological order ending with Orihah son of Jared in Ether 1:32. Ether 1:33 then begins a history in precisely the opposite order that introduces each person starting with Jared and goes through the list one-by-one ending with Ether in Ether 11:23. Many historical details and plot elements intervene, but the author (Ether) and abridger (Moroni) stay true to this meticulous master plan throughout the book. Book of Mormon Central's KnoWhy #235 has some great graphics illustrating this 30 element scrupulous backwards then forwards pattern.

10. Parallelisms. Words in a sentence convey meaning, but words organized into parallelistic literary structures add balance and rhythm, elevating mere prose into great literature, even poetry. The repetition of words and forms inherent in parallelisms can facilitate the smooth flow of ideas and make passages more persuasive. Parallelisms abound in the Book of Mormon, a divinely-commissioned work designed to convince "Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations." Title Page of the Book of Mormon.

Parallelistic literary devices in the Book of Mormon include synonymous, antithetical, repetitive numerical, and circular repetitive forms. See Donald W. Parry, "Research and Perspectives: Hebrew Literary Patterns in the Book of Mormon" in Ensign, October, 1989. Parallelisms are so pervasive in the text that people have published entire re-formatted editions of the Book of Mormon highlighting the structures they see:

  • Wade Brown, The God-Inspired Language of the Book of Mormon: Structuring and Commentary (Clackamas, OR: Rainbow, 1988).
  • Donald W. Parry, The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted According to Parallelistic Patterns (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992). 
  • Donald W. Parry, Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text Reformatted (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2007).
  • Alan C. Miner is currently preparing a multi-volume work with extensive textual apparatus to highlight parallelisms.
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The Book of Mormon is miraculous, beautiful, and true. This Book of Mormon Central blog article introducing the second evidence video in a planned series highlights some of its remarkable sophistication.