Saturday, April 9, 2011

Understanding Mormon – Part I

In a recent posting on a websight regarding the Land of Promise, there were five ideas expressed to help one understand Mormon and to determine “How might we proceed to discover the map in Mormon’s mind.”

While some of the ideas are useful, many are not for they simply miss the point in understanding the translation of the Book of Mormon. As an example, the preceding statement the author wrote prior to listing the five points was:

“We must intensively examine the text Mormon left us (of course, we have access to it only as it has been transmitted to us in English through Joseph Smith). We must discover as many of the geographical clues he included as we can.”

Regarding how it was “transmitted to us through Joseph Smith,” what is important is in knowing two things: 1) How the translation took place, and 2) the language known to Joseph Smith in 1829. Let’s take both these points:

1. How the translation took place. Of the actual translation, David Whitmer said that “in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God and not by any power of man.”

Martin Harris added, “By aid of the Seer Stone sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say “written,” and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.”

Thus, all the rhetoric about language, early Hebrew, meanings of Hebrew words, is meaningless in this interpretation. For Joseph was guided through his translation of the plates by the spirit and, until it was correct, the spirit would not move forward.

2. The language known to Joseph Smith in 1829. The language, or more importantly, the meanings of words, as known in 1829 is not the same in all cases as those meanings are known to us today.

As an example, the word “wilderness” has been translated by Mesoamerican theorists, beginning with Hugh Nibley, as meaning a “mountainous region.” However, that is not the meaning in Joseph Smith’s day which is “an unoccupied tract of land.” This means it could be, as is shown in the Book of Mormon to be, almost any type of topography, from seacoast to mountains, from valleys to meadows, deserts to anywhere as long as it was not permanently occupied by man--that is, where cities were built and the land cultivated.

Also the word “isle” today means “any island” which could be interpreted as quite large, such as the British Isles. However, in 1829, the word “isle” meant “a small area or tract of land surrounded by water, such as a detached tract of land in the ocean.” In fact, the word “isle” was considered an absurd compound of “isle” and “land” which actually translated into “land-in-water land” or “ieland-land.” The word “isle” was only used by less educated people in 1829, and then generally only in writing.

And, too, in 1829, the word “sea” meant only an “ocean” or a part of an ocean. However, this has been argued considerably by Great Lakes people who want to make the word “sea” mean a lake or river to match their model.

When we understand the words known to Joseph Smith in 1829, we have a better chance of understanding the meaning of what Joseph wrote as he translated the plates into the Book of Mormon. In the early 1800s, Noah Webster felt inspired to compile, write and publish his “American Dictionary of the English Language,” which went into print in 1828. Noah Webster was from New England, as was Joseph Smith. Both grew up within a hundred miles of each other, and the language known to Joseph was the same language known to Webster. (See the February 27, 2010, post “Understanding Joseph smith’s Translation.”)

This “of course, we have access to it only as it has been transmitted to us in English through Joseph Smith,” is not a concern but one of the clues we need to keep in mind. Joseph translated accurately under the guidance of the Spirit, and used the language of his day to write down the translation.

(See the next post, “Understanding Mormon – Part II,” for more information on how to understand Mormon’s writing)

1 comment:

  1. Del,

    As written by another Peruvian Theorist like yourself.. he shows how another word from the past does not mean what it means today.

    "Cattle" in the Book of Mormon

    By George Potter

    Both the Jaredites (Ether 9:18) and the Nephites (Enos 1:21) raised cattle. This Book of Mormon fact puzzles many students of the book because the ancient inhabitants of North and Central America only domesticated dogs and turkeys. (Charles Mann, 1491, New Revelations of the Americas, 109). To find the answer to this puzzle, one only needs to understand that the Book of Mormon history probably transpired in South America and that the term "cattle" meant something different to the translator of the Book of Mormon than what the term generally means today.

    The Andes mountains of South America is the home of four members of the camel family: the llama, the alpaca, the pacuña, and the vicuña. At least the llama, alpaca, and pacuña were domesticated in large numbers in South America during Book of Mormon times. Further, Joseph Smith would have been 100% correct in translating a Reformed Egyptian word meaning various types of camels as "cattle." Noah Webster's 1828 American Usage Dictionary defines "cattle" as: "In its primary sense, the word includes camels, horses, asses, all the varieties of domesticated horned beasts of the bovine genus, sheep of all kinds, and goats." This broader meaning of the word "cattle" was understood by both the Bible and Book of Mormon prophets. For example, Nephi quoted Isaiah 7:25 "sending forth of oxen, and the treading of lesser cattle (italics added; see 2 Nephi 17:25).

    Since the Jaredites raised "all manner of cattle," it is important to remember that there were at least four types of camels in South America during the Jaredite and Nephite period. This is something Joseph Smith probably had no knowledge of and attests to the accuracy of his translation of the Book of Mormon.