Monday, June 25, 2007

Upon All the Ships of the Seas

I rarely post over on RfM (Recovery from Mormonism) any more because it's a little hostile for my tastes (meaning disagreement is more often met with name calling and accusations of being a mormon apologist troll than any kind of reasoned debate) I still drop in for the occasional nugget information or juicy news.

Tonight I found one that addresses one of my few unanswered Mormon questions.

The title of this post should link to Brent Metcalf's web site which I'd never visited before. It has an essay about an interesting passage in the Book of Mormon.

While I was on my mission in Bolivia I diligently read every doctrinal and historical church book I could get my hands on. I remember reading about 2 Nephi 12:16. What's so important about that verse? Nothing from a doctrinal standpoint, but when you compare it to its corresponding verse in Isaiah 2:16 you'll see that it adds a phrase. The King James Bible says:
And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.
But the Book of Mormon says:
And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all the pleasant pictures.
The footnote in the Mormon edition of the King James Bibles makes the following claim which I found quite compelling:
16a The Greek (Septuagint) has “ships of the sea.” The Hebrew has “ships of Tarshish.” The Book of Mormon has both, showing that the brass plates had lost neither phrase.
For those unfamiliar with Mormon doctrine and the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon extensively quotes from the book of Isaiah in the Bible and is almost word for word identical to the King James version. The Book of Mormon states that the passages come from plates of brass that Nephi stole from their Jewish caretaker in Jerusalem prior to leaving for the promised land. Therefore, one would expect it to be a close to the original writings of Isaiah. This verse seems like evidence that the Book of Mormon preserved an obscure phrase that was dropped over the years as a result of translation or transcribing or something.

If Joseph Smith were plagiarizing the Bible, the how in the world could he have known to add back in that phrase that the Septuagint had, but was missing from his edition of the Bible? He couldn't have, right? Surely an unschooled farm boy couldn't have done this.

That is the argument of the church's apologists and since it agrees with their preconceived conclusions they stop there and don't dig deeper.

As with so many other things Mormon, the answer is quite simple. Click on the Book of Mormon link over on the web site and you'll find a single essay by David P. Wright that provides a pretty straightforward explanation. Many bible commentaries of the time correctly explained that "ships of Tarshish" was commonly translated as ships of the sea and the proper noun "Tarshish" was commonly rendered as "sea" by translators.

To quote Wright's article:
The many pre-1829 editions of Thomas Scott's The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments (Philadelphia: 1810-12; New York: 1812-15; Boston: 1823-24, 1827) also cite Lowth's comment:
 [[   View the original source   ]] 'Ships of Tarshish signify in scripture, any trading or merchant ships: accordingly here the Septuagint render the words "ships of the sea," as our old English translation does: Ps. xlviii. 7.' (Lowth.)[16]
¶16 The appearance of this datum in so many printed sources indicates that it was not obscure, but relatively well-known. Joseph Smith could have learned about it from any one of these commentaries, or, as is far more likely, from sermons he heard or conversations he had on biblical subjects with those who might have known this particular Bible "fact." Smith may have come by this bit of information specifically via Methodist influence, since John Wesley's teachings provided the matrix for Methodism—a religion for which Smith had felt a passing affinity.
If I'd know this, I wouldn't have been at all impressed by his inserting a footnote into the proper text as if he was restoring an ancient text instead of merely repeating two redundant translations. Of course, I also didn't know that the Isaiah chapters quoted in the Book of Mormon are almost exactly the same chapters quoted in Ethan Smith's "View of the Hebrews" which appears to have contributed a significant number of ideas to the Book of Mormon.

In the end, this has been the pattern of my study of Mormonism. As a believing Mormon I came across items that seemed contradictory or troubling but put them on a shelf believing that they'd eventually be clarified or answered in the church's favor. But as I started studying non church sources I systematically discovered the lies, distortions, misrepresentations, half truths, and omissions of the church and found explanations for all the things that sat on my shelf of questions gathering dust. In the process I had to put some things on another shelf of things that seemed to support the church and that I didn't have an explanation for. That shelf was pretty bare and this is the last item left that I'm aware of. All my reading had taken care of everything else.

Remember, the truth has nothing to fear and distrust any person or organization that tries to limit your information.


solistics said...

Even more interesting is the fact that this particular portion of Isaiah is a specific form of poetry, with rhyming couplets.

The Septuagint and the KJV both have two lines, whereas the BoM has three--and there couldn't possibly have been three in the original, since then it wouldn't have been a rhyming couplet! (You can find a mention of this e.g. here:

Sister Mary Lisa said...

It's good to clean off shelves and dust them. Now it's time to find a pretty knick knack to place on the useless shelf, huh?

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

Thanks for the information. I missed your posts, too.