Saturday, August 6, 2016

Textual Progress

August 2 & 3, 2016 Book of Mormon Central convened a working group to consider the sense of meaning of a number of passages in the text whose interpretations have proven controversial. The verses at issue are listed in the article "Problematic Passages." The group consisted of:
  • Joe V. Andersen, Arizona attorney who has written many articles about Book of Mormon geography. Joe has recently co-authored several pieces with Ted D. Stoddard.
  • Stan Carmack, Massachusetts philologist who has spent years studying and writing about the grammar and syntax of the earliest (Yale 2009) text. Stan works with Royal Skousen.
  • Eric Eliason, member of the BYU English faculty who specializes in folklore and the Bible as literature. Eric edited Mormons and Mormonism, University of Illinois Press, 2001.
  • Grant Hardy, member of the University of North Carolina, Asheville History faculty. Grant is the editor of The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition, University of Illinois Press, 2003. He is the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Heather Hardy, who collaborates with and edits her husband's work. Heather is a specialist in Book of Mormon - Biblical intertextuality. 
  • Kirk Magleby, author of this blog and Book of Mormon Central's Exec. Director.
  • Alan Miner, author of Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon and A Chronology of Thought on Book of Mormon Geography. Alan's current passion is parallelistic formatting of the text.
  • Neal Rappleye, Book of Mormon Central's Operations Manager. Neal has presented on various methodological approaches to Book of Mormon geography.
  • Richard D. Rust, emeritus member of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill English faculty. Richard is the author of Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon. He was a prolific contributor to FARMS publications.
  • Royal Skousen, member of the BYU Linguistics faculty and editor of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, Yale University Press, 2009. Royal has directed the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project since 1988.
  • Julie M. Smith, biblical scholar, is the author of Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels. Julie is authoring the volume on the Gospel of Mark for the BYU New Testament Commentary series.
  • Robert F. Smith, Hebrew scholar, edited the first Book of Mormon Critical Text published by FARMS in 1984 - 1987. Bob also participated in the Book of Mormon geography group convened by David A. Palmer in the 1970's.
  • John W. Welch, member of the BYU Law faculty, is generally considered the leading Book of Mormon scholar alive today. He also has significant expertise in the Greek New Testament. Jack founded FARMS, has edited BYU Studies for 25 years, and chairs Book of Mormon Central. He helps lead the BYU New Testament Commentary and the Academy for Temple Studies. He is a specialist in ancient law.
Participants were chosen for their demonstrated ability to closely read English texts. Many others could have been invited, but we purposely limited the size of the group. The intent of the conclave was to see if these people, working together with good will for two days, could shed light on the most likely interpretation of some Book of Mormon verses that cause much of the geographical turmoil in the world today. That goal proved elusive. There are several viable ways to read some passages in the text. The Book of Mormon contains propagandist hyperbole as does the Bible. There is so much potential intertextuality between the Bible and the Book of Mormon that until we have thoroughly analyzed this fundamental feature of the text, convincing interpretations of some passages are premature. The words we read today may have been authored to resonate with people familiar with the Psalms, for example, or Deuteronomy. Some parts of the text are clearly symbolic or formulaic and other parts may be. The literal approach I have taken in the article "Book of Mormon Lands Map January 2016" and throughout this blog is one way to read the text. Other approaches are not only possible but likely to yield persuasive readings.

We did manage to reach general agreement on some key points.
  • In a relative hierarchy of classes of evidence, the text itself, subject to interpretation, must be primary. There has been no authoritative revelation on Book of Mormon geography in this dispensation. Revelation to the current Prophet could trump the text, but only if it carried the same degree of certainty as the words Joseph received through the seer stone.
  • The phrase "running from the east towards the west" in Alma 22:27 most likely refers to the narrow strip of wilderness rather than the river Sidon.
  • The words "only the distance of a day and a half's journey for a Nephite" in Alma 22:32 most likely refers to a Nephite convention rather than the extreme performance of an elite athlete.
  • The phrase "down into the borders of the land Manti" in Alma 43:32 refers to travel from the valley west of Sidon where Captain Moroni hid part of his army. Relating this phrase to Jershon which is mentioned several verses before (Alma 43:25) is an incorrect forced reading.
  • The pass mentioned in Alma 62:24 was an entrance into or out of the walled city of Nephihah. See Alma 49:18-22 for similar verbiage describing the walled city of Noah. Interpreting the pass as a natural topographic feature is most likely incorrect.
  • The events described in Alma 62:24-38 occurred within a time period of weeks or months as part of Mormon's annual summary for the 31st year of the reign of the judges which begins in verse 12. Attempting to compress all this action into a single 24 hour period based on the words "awoke" in Alma 62:24 and "on the morrow" in Alma 62:38 is an incorrect forced reading.
The implications of these likely interpretations are:
  • River Sidon flows generally south - north rather than east - west.
  • The narrow strip of wilderness runs generally east - west.
  • The boundary line between Bountiful on the south and Desolation on the north is relatively short. The distance across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (216 air kilometers) is too long to be the place Alma 22:32 is referring to.
  • The notion that River Sidon flows from north to south is not supported in the text. River Sidon flows from south to north just as Book of Mormon scholars have been saying since the 1800's.
  • The land between Nephihah and Moroni is not necessarily mountainous.
  • The notion that the Nephite east coast was significantly shorter than the west coast is not supported in the text. Both coasts may have similar lengths.
We did not achieve general agreement on these important issues:
  • cardinal directionality.
  • whether the four seas mentioned in Helaman 3:8 are literal or metaphorical. 
A useful analogy emerged. Book of Mormon geography is a 1,000 piece puzzle. We only have 150 of the pieces and we don't have a picture on the box to follow. Some of the pieces we do have fit together which gives us confidence that over time a generally accepted solution will emerge.

Given that some ambiguity is inherent in this text, we came up with a methodology that is likely to advance the state of the art in Book of Mormon geography. We intend to build a website where proponents of various models can advocate their positions point by point and respond to feedback. Invited reviewers can indicate whether they agree or disagree with each point and state their reasons why. Interested parties of good will will have a path to follow to become an insider, propose a model, or write reviews. I talked with Blake J. Allen at the FairMormon Conference. He and his father, Joe, have created a very good model based on decades of boots-on-the-ground experience in Mesoamerica. Blake is willing to advocate his model and interact with reviewers on the proposed website. If a handful of others are willing to do the same, we will see progress.