Lies Are Bad, LDS Edition

I recently discovered, via this thread on r/mormon, an article on By Common Consent, titled Yo, Dre, I got something to say!, and I found it rather disturbing. The article seeks to make two points. Here’s the first one:

First, I think we need to carve out a space for people who are willing to accept the BoM as scripture, just not of the historical kind (i.e., a modern pseudepigraphon), to remain within the fold and be accepted as good members of the Church.

Only two sentences in to the article and we’re already on the wrong foot. You see, the Book of Mormon itself claims to be historical. While it may not try to be a complete history of its peoples, it still announces itself as a factual account of people who actually existed. If you’re willing to accept it as the word of God, why not trust its historical message as well? Joseph Smith, the man who brought forth the book, also considered it to be an actual history in addition to being a vital collection of scripture. Several other latter-day prophets and apostles share Smith’s opinion; read the statements collected in this comment and think of what they would say to you if you told them that the Book of Mormon wasn’t historical.

But it appears that the author, Kevin Barney, is fully prepared to contradict his own church leaders on this point. He starts by contradicting Gordon B. Hinckley. He quotes from this interview:

Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

And then he says this:

On the one hand I appreciate the vibe he was going for, and this it’s all true or all false stance does indeed pack significant rhetorical power. But note that this is exactly the stance anti-Mormons want the Church to take, because it makes their job incredibly easy. On this stance all it takes is one problem, one counterexample, one bauble that turns out on examination not to be as shiny as it seemed at first blush, to bring the entire house of cards down. Not leaving room for any sense of nuance at all for a religion as recent and messy as Mormonism simply is not a smart corner to paint ourselves into.

Kevin, why are you contradicting the prophet like that? I thought you accepted this guy as a prophet, seer, and revelator, uniquely qualified to speak for God. Are you saying that he fell into an anti-Mormon trap just because he wanted “rhetorical power” in an interview?

It’s worth noting that Hinckley was not the first to use such rhetoric when talking about the Book of Mormon. I’ve compiled a few similar statements:

“Either the Book of Mormon is true, or it is false; either it came from God, or it was spawned in the infernal realms. It declares plainly that all men must accept it as pure scripture or they will lose their souls. It is not and cannot be simply another treatise on religion; it either came from heaven or from hell. And it is time for all those who seek salvation to find out for themselves whether it is of the Lord or of Lucifer.” – Bruce R. McConkie, What Think Ye of the Book of Mormon?

“Likewise, we must make a simple choice with the Book of Mormon: it is either of God or the devil. There is no other option.” – Tad R. Callister, The Book of Mormon—a Book from God

“To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.” – Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon

“Finally, conversion to the Book of Mormon is conversion to the divine, prophetic calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is the divine evidence of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s calling. Either this is all true, or it is not.” – Joseph B. Wirthlin, The Book of Mormon: The Heart of Missionary Proselyting

“Nearby is the Hill Cumorah. From there came the ancient record from which was translated the Book of Mormon. One must accept or reject its divine origin. Weighing of the evidence must lead every man and woman who has read with faith to say, “It is true.”” – Gordon B. Hinckley, Testimony

As far as I can tell, the “all-or-nothing” view is the official position of the Church, and if that plays into the hands of anti-Mormons, so be it. But Kevin is determined to depart from this viewpoint, even if it means contradicting God’s mouthpieces and making Joseph Smith a liar. He even has an explanation for why Smith would lie, which is his second point.

My second thought is, taking the BoM as a pseudepigraphon for the sake of argument only, why would Joseph have created such a production? What was the pseudepigraphic impulse that led him to do it? Well, I see him as a young Ice Cube: He had somethin’ to say! And while for some purposes having a sharply closed canon can be a feature, it can also be a bug. If the canon is closed shut, tight as a drum, what is a new prophetic voice to do? Who is going to listen to the musings of an ignorant farm boy to the effect that, say, the Old Testament is not sufficiently and explicitly Christian? Maybe his family, but that’s about it. Not a soul would care what Joseph qua Joseph had to say about much of anything.

In other words, Smith lied because he had to. No one would have listened to his divine message if it was just Smith saying it, so he had to create a new volume of scripture, full of false history and false authors, to give his sayings more weight. Then people would listen and the work could move forward.

If this is how the work of God is supposed to progress, then God is a chump.

I am no longer Mormon, but I have not forgotten one lesson that I learned over and over in the Church: Don’t Lie. This talk by Marion G. Romney is typical of my instruction, and I thank the Church and all its members for pushing honesty so thoroughly. I would expect all the leaders of the Church to be exemplars of honesty, especially when it comes to matters central to the faith. Thus, to think that the Church’s founder could be lying in and about the Book of Mormon, the Church’s most important document, is hard to bear. It would mean that Joseph Smith had no faith in God’s power to carry the truth into people’s hearts, so he lied to manipulate them. It would mean that generations of Church leaders have been either liars, knowingly repeating a falsehood, or fools, unknowingly repeating a falsehood. It would mean that hypocrisy is built into the Church’s foundation. It would mean that either the Church is out of line with God’s will, since its members keep spreading a lie, or that God doesn’t really care about lies, since He allows a big lie to go unexposed.

You know, Kevin, for a guy worried about playing into anti-Mormon hands, you sure do give the anti’s a lot of ammunition.

Kevin tries to justify deception by appealing to history, and the difficulty of being heard:

This is the same dynamic that occurred in the formation of the biblical canon originally. There are almost certainly pseudepigraphic works within our biblical canon, because false ascription was simply the only way for those works to gain a hearing.

This doesn’t convince me at all. If there are pseudepigrapha within the Bible, it doesn’t mean that lying and impersonation are okay; it means that you need to take a hard look at the canonized books and figure out which ones are trustworthy and which ones were written by damned liars. The actions of men are not supposed to set precedent for ignoring the commandments of God.

To deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon is to deny its truthfulness, and the truthfulness of Joseph Smith, and either the truthfulness or the wisdom of the prophets and apostles that followed after him. Once you’ve accepted all that, you’re in a rather difficult position as a member of the Church. One option, the option I took, is to leave the Church. It’s not an easy option, but it’s a logical one; you can’t trust a liar or anyone who believes one, so if Smith is a liar and everyone after him is either a liar or a dupe, it’s best not to follow them at all. Kevin Barney does not want to take this option. Kevin wants to stay in the Church, but not really accept the Book of Mormon as the word of God, and not really follow the prophets, at least not when it makes it easy for anti-Mormons to make fun of him. He wants to think of Joseph Smith as a good man, but one who would lie for his own benefit, and the Book of Mormon as a good book, but not one that can be trusted on all points, and Hinckley and all the prophets as good guys, but not always aware of the best course for the Church. Kevin Barney is an idiot.

When Ice Cube had somethin’ to say, he didn’t pretend to be Dr. Dre in order to say it. That’s the route that Joseph Smith should have taken. But that’s not the route he took, and that’s why I don’t listen to him. I advise everyone else to do likewise, and yes, that includes you, Kevin Barney.

P.S. Atheists do not have the fear of God to motivate us to tell the truth, but we do have the good counsel of Sam Harris warning us about the cost of even tiny lies. Seriously, read the man’s book, and you’ll find renewed motivation to always tell the truth.

EDIT: I kept calling Kevin Barney “Kevin Conroy” for some reason. I’ve changed all the mistaken names to his correct name. Sorry about that, Kevin.

SECOND EDIT: I have realized that Kevin’s position is not quite as extreme as I have said it was. In his first point, he is not saying that we should believe that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical. He is saying that we should make space for those who believe that it is ahistorical. It’s an important distinction, and I apologize to Kevin for missing it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite enough to save Kevin’s argument, because the arguments I brought against this position still stand. Rejecting the historicity cuts at the very heart of Mormonism, undermining the trustworthiness of its scriptures and its leaders. Why would anyone want a space within the LDS Church while believing things that invalidate the Church’s claims to Godly authority? It makes no sense at all. Better to find a space on the outside, where you don’t have to make excuses for a lying Joseph Smith and a clueless Gordon B. Hinckley. Trust me on this one.

Archaeoraptor and Joseph Smith, Jr.

Archaeoraptor

In October 1999, National Geographic unveiled the fossil of a new species of dinosaur. They called it Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, and trumpeted it as a new and exciting transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds. The excitement proved to be short-lived, because the fossil was a fraud. It was made out of pieces of real creatures: the upper body of a bird called Yanornis, the tail of a dinosaur called Microraptor, and the legs of something else entirely; there might be up to 5 specimens represented in the stitched-up final product. The original finder of the fossil pieces knew that complete fossils fetch higher prices, so they cemented the parts together, hoping that the real pieces would create a convincing fake.

On October 15, 2012, smartphone enthusiasts were abuzz over rumors of a new offering from Sony: the Nexus X. Photos of this new model had mysteriously surfaced, and tech reporters and commentators happily picked them apart. But some suspected that the photos were fake, and soon their suspicions were confirmed: the creator of the photos came forward and revealed that it was a hoax. The clever faker, Ti Kawamoto, had taken photos of features of other Nexus phones, including the Xperia Ion and Xperia TL, created a 3D model, and simulated photos using the model. Kawamoto used the traits of existing phones to make his pictures of a nonexistent phone seem more credible.

I mention these two examples because they have a common trait which, I believe, is found in many fakes and frauds: the fake object is made out of pieces of real objects, so that the false whole may borrow authenticity from its true parts. This is often successful, but the sources of the pieces, and the gaps between them, eventually become apparent, revealing the hoax for what it is.

There are many examples of this. Piltdown Man, made out of a human cranium and an orangutan jawbone. The Solid Muldoon, sculpted out of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat. Nick Simmons’s Incarnate, with panels and character designs copied from Bleach, Hellsing, One Piece, Deadman Wonderland, and other manga, along with pieces from DeviantArt. The Feejee Mermaid, with a monkey’s body grafted onto a fish’s tail. Quentin Rowan’s Assassin of Secrets, which plagiarized Ian Fleming, John Gardner, Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, James Bamford, and more. Over and over again, fakers have created Frankenstein’s monsters to sell to the world, but keen-eyed skeptics keep seeing the stitches.

This brings me to something which I spent many years accepting as a genuine article, but which I now see as a stitched-up hoax: the Book of Mormon.

Let’s begin in the Book of Jacob, chapter 5, in which we find the prophecy of Zenos concerning the house of Israel. It begins with the narrator comparing Israel to an olive tree, with the master of the vineyard trying to save it. The master and his servants put a lot of work into the tree, grafting wild branches on, taking branches off and planting them elsewhere in the vineyard, seeking to gather fruit before the season is over and the vineyard gets burned. The whole chapter is a parable, describing the Lord’s effort to raise up righteous people before the end of the world.

Now notice the transition: the chapter began by comparing Israel to a single olive tree, but by the end, the narrator is talking about multiple trees, and discussing his plans for the vineyard as a whole. Why the change?

Like my previous examples, Jacob 5 is a composite, and the sources of its pieces are not too hard to find. The first part comes from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 11, where Paul compares Israel to an olive tree with branches grafted in. The second part comes from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 5, where Isaiah compares Israel to a vineyard that brings forth wild grapes. The rough transition between the two can be seen as Jacob 5 switches from comparing Israel to a tree (see verse 3) to comparing Israel to the whole vineyard (in verse 40, the tree is dying; in verse 41, the Lord weeps over the whole vineyard). They simply don’t mesh. Curt van den Heuvel provided an analysis where he finds more pieces copied from the Bible, such as Luke 13:6-9, where we find the Lord instructing his servants to dig about a tree, and dung it (compare Jacob 5:64). The pieces make up an interesting whole, but they do not truly belong together. The assembly is a fraud.

The rest of the Book of Mormon reveals itself to be full of stolen pieces. The WordTree Foundation did a thorough study that detected numerous quotations from The Late War between the United States and Great Britain, a popular educational text from 1816, within the Book. Stripling soldiers, bands of robbers, curious workmanship, pitching tents on the borders, freemen versus king’s men… Joseph’s first published work is peppered with snippets from the 1816 history book. Even the general style appears to be copied: The Late War was deliberately written “[i]n the Scriptural Style”, and the Book of Mormon has an obvious resemblance to scripture (meaning the Bible, of course). And speaking of the Bible: the Book of Mormon quotes the Bible many times, even when the alleged writer could not possibly have had access to the passage being quoted (or when the passage being quoted is actually a mistranslation). Then there are little pieces from other sources, such as a passage lifted from Josiah Priest and the famous vision of the Tree of Life being copied from a dream by Joseph Smith, Sr. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The pieces don’t truly fit where they’ve been placed, and their source is too obvious. The Book of Mormon is a fraud.

Other works by Joseph Smith reveal the same problems. The Book of Abraham, for instance, contains ideas and excerpts from The Philosophy of a Future State, a work first published in 1830. Researchers have found pieces from other sources as well, none of which would have been available at Abraham’s time. Then there are the names, which are Hebrew instead of Egyptian, and the flow of the text, which is just too similar to the King James Bible, much like the Book of Mormon. We might also consider the facsimiles. The copies in the official text have features which puzzled Egyptologists, until they recovered the original of Facsimile 1 and a faithful copy of Facsimile 2 and discovered that Joseph had filled in the gaps in the originals with parts that didn’t match the wholes. Like the Archaeoraptor fossil, there is an illusion of completeness, but the parts do not truly fit together into a coherent whole.

Nexus X

Even Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible has some features of a patchwork fraud. We should first note that the Bible itself is partially fraudulent: the King James version (KJV) of the Bible has 48 scribal additions (unauthorized insertions by later authors into an original text). It is reasonable to expect that a true prophet of God would detect these rude additions and excise them, but, as this analysis shows, Joseph Smith removed only one of these additions! Then there are 350 more verses that include scribal alterations or mistranslations, and Joseph removed only 11 of them. Then there are Joseph’s translations of specific words: he defines “Golgotha” as “burial” instead of “skull” and “Cephas” as meaning “seer” in addition to meaning “stone” (wrong on both counts). He also introduced a new word “Rabcha”, which he defined as meaning the same thing as the Hebrew “Raca”, meaning “fool”. But “Rabcha” is not a Hebrew word at all; the only “Rabcha” I’ve been able to locate is this village in India. In short, Joseph failed to take out the false pieces in the Bible, and added a few clearly false pieces of his own. (Do read the analysis I mentioned for more explanation and even more errors, along with this compilation from MormonThink.)

As a field, archaeology survived the loss of Archaeoraptor, because there are other fossils that are internally consistent and that come from trustworthy sources; in fact there are thousands of fossils like that, giving us a wealth of reliable data to study the world with. But Mormonism cannot survive the loss of these three texts of Joseph Smith. Even the loss of one text is deadly to Mormonism, because we would not expect a true prophet to put forth any false scripture, so if one is definitely false, what about all the others? But when we have three frauds that Smith declared to be significant revelations, and that together constitute the bulk of Joseph’s canonized work, we can say beyond reasonable doubt that he was not a prophet of God. (Unless God is a liar, but I’d rather not consider that possibility.) It is no use trying to believe in Joseph’s claims anymore. Like the Nexus X, the true Church never really existed, and we must look for truth elsewhere.

Wasted Metal: Why is there so much Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?

The following analysis is probably not original to me, but I’ll share it anyway because I haven’t heard anyone else say it yet. If you know of a similar analysis, please share in the comments.

Among the many topics it discusses, the Book of Mormon covers these two points:

  1. Writing on metal plates is hard
  2. Great are the words of Isaiah

Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of these (the first is an obvious fact, and the second is a popular viewpoint with some merit to it) but these points actually come into conflict within the Book of Mormon, in a manner that calls into question the Book’s authenticity.

First, let’s consider the business of writing on metal plates. This is not an easy task, and as you might expect, the writers in the Book of Mormon write frankly about the troubles involved. Jacob mentions how hard the actual engraving on metal is (but also mentions the advantage that plates have over less durable writing surfaces) and Moroni appears to talk about it, too. Jarom mentions that the plates themselves are small, as do several other writers, including Amaleki and Moroni; this is separate from the difficulty of engraving, but still a real problem with metal plates, because you have to get the right kind of metal, and you have to get enough of it, and you have to pound it into sheets, before you can engrave anything. To alleviate the space problem, the writers employed a special compact writing system that they call “reformed Egyptian”, which saves space at the cost of clarity (it’s debatable whether this reformed Egyptian exists at all, but for the time being, we can acknowledge that giving up writing quality to save space is the sort of exchange that any writer might make if they had to do all their writing on metal). The message is clear, consistent, and realistic: writing on plates sucks.

Then there’s the business of Isaiah. According to this source, there are 20 complete chapters of Isaiah that are included in the Book of Mormon, with minimal alterations and no abbreviations. The text itself explains why: Nephi chooses Isaiah to persuade his brothers to believe in Christ, Jacob reminds us that Isaiah had a special message for all of the house of Israel (including the Nephites), Abinadi quotes a chapter to chastise some wicked priests, and Jesus himself is quoted as saying that “great are the words of Isaiah”. Everyone values Isaiah as a mighty prophet, revealing Israel’s future and persuading all to come unto Christ.

But why did they go to the lengths of quoting entire chapters of Isaiah?

No sensible person can dispute that it’s hard writing on plates; it takes more time, more effort, and more precious material than nearly every other method of recording data. In the face of such difficulties, you take every measure possible to reduce the amount of writing you have to do, including getting rid of all redundancy. And here, the conflict arises, because all the writers of the Book of Mormon had to know that they would be adding redundancy by quoting Isaiah. Nephi, and all his contemporaries and descendants, had access to the brass plates, which included the writings of Isaiah. When Jesus arrived, he commanded the people to search the words of Isaiah, confirming that the people still had them. Mormon and Moroni might be excused for including some Isaiah, in case people in the future no longer possessed the prophet’s writings, but Moroni claimed to have seen our day by the power of God; didn’t he see that we would have the complete works of Isaiah, so that he and his father wouldn’t have to transcribe any of it? Remember: the Book of Mormon gives us no new writings of Isaiah, nor even an improved translation of existing writings. So why did the writers waste their time, stress their hands, and squander their metal on preserving something already well-preserved?

If we take the Book of Mormon at its word, we can only conclude that the writers were very, very stupid. But there is an alternative explanation: the writers of the Book of Mormon were not writing on plates.

I previously linked to an analysis that disputes the existence of “reformed Egyptian” (all the Egyptian writing systems we know of are less compact than Hebrew), but the analysis also discusses other characteristics of the Book of Mormon that are inconsistent with writing on plates. There are very many repetitions that do not seem to add any information or clarity. Consider Alma 21:19, that ends with “serve him, or be his servant“. Did those four words tell us anything new? Or consider 3 Nephi 11:37-38: it is not an exaggeration to say that those two verses have the exact same message, so why bother writing both? Then there are incredibly wordy passages (the critic takes one passage of 423 words and reduces it to 79; judge for yourself if any information is lost). Anyone engraving on metal would have to be very stupid and very stubborn to subject themselves to such useless effort. But someone writing on parchment, or dictating, would not have the same difficulty. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the text in the Book of Mormon was never written on metal plates.

There is good reason to suspect that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century document. There is also good reason to suspect that Joseph Smith was capable of writing it. These reasons become more compelling when we see that the Book’s official origin story is virtually impossible; we would have to accept that multiple generations of prophets of God were utter morons who wore out their hands and used up their gold for nothing. Rejecting the Book’s declared origin may lead you to frightening conclusions, but for the sake of honesty, you have to face them. To quote P. C. Hodgell: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” You owe yourself nothing less.