Dave LeFevre's Reviews > Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World

Approaching Antiquity by Lincoln H. Blumell
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it was amazing
bookshelves: church-history

This valuable collection of essays from the 2013 Church History Symposium at BYU provides insight into Joseph Smith's interactions with and interest in all things ancient. Each chapter has fresh insights and is worth the time to understand. I will call out some that were of particular interest to me.

Chapter 4, "Git Them Translated" by Michael Hubbard MacKay, dives deeply into the trip to visit scholars by Martin Harris in 1828. Armed with copies of the characters from the plates, Martin went to Mitchell, Anthon, and more not for confirmation as much as assistance. MacKay documents how at that time, Joseph appears to be looking for a way to get the plates translated, not fully comprehending yet that the task would fall to him alone. That transition period, from looking for help to learning how to translate is a bit of a mystery, but MacKay makes a strong case for it happening and makes great sense of that incident, since used mostly for its perceived fulfillment of Isaiah 29. This was later included in MacKay's excellent collaboration with Gerrit Dirkmaat called From Darkness unto Light, reviewed here.

Chapter 5, "Joseph Smith and Native American Artifacts" by Mark Alan Wright covers four topics: Zelph, the ruins at Adam-Ondi-Ahman, Times and Seasons editorials, and the Kinderhook Plates. Of the four, the Times and Seasons editorials is the most interesting to me. The coverage of the first two and last topics is concise and helpful, though without much new ground. Still, it is valuable to have it all in one place. However, after making the case that Joseph Smith's approval if not authorship of Times and Seasons editorials during the time of his association with the newspaper are explicit, he examines the citations of that period relating to American antiquities. Some of these citations have often been noted by Mesoamerican modelers, due to positive comments on Stevens' and Catherwood's books on their travels in those regions, but others reflect a strong interest in North American discoveries (ironically, perhaps, untapped to date by the 'Homelander' group, who rely so heavily on Joseph Smith statements but avoid the Times and Seasons articles because of the Mesoamerican interest). Furthermore, the Zelph reports and the comments about Missouri discoveries are cited by North American geography proponents. Wright demonstrates well that Joseph was not tied into any geographic model but saw evidence for support for the Book of Mormon in all ancient American artifacts and discoveries. In other words, his 'model' was that anything ancient found in the Western Hemisphere must surely support the book the Prophet already knew was true, just as people of his day saw all evidence found in Near Eastern geography as supportive of the Bible. So proponents of all models should not look to Joseph Smith as a source for proving their geographical points. That should instead come from a close examination of all the evidence available to us now and as time goes on.

Matthew Roper's "Joseph Smith, Central American Ruins, and the Book of Mormon" continues the story, focused mainly on the impact of Stephen's and Catherwood's books. Roper gives good background behind both the books of these explorers as well as the Times and Seasons articles that referenced them, suggesting that authorship of the articles, a contested issue among various geographical proponents, is clearly a collaboration between Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff. Going beyond those well-known articles, however, he gives several additional quotes from early Church leaders, showing the impact of the endorsement of those books by Joseph Smith on others. As with his other publications, he clearly favors a Mesoamerican model, and uses this evidence to demonstrate that early Church members who carefully looked at the Book of Mormon text also concluded that Central America was the likely location for the story.

"The Word of the Lord in the Original" by Matthew Grey nicely extends work done by others (which he freely credits in his footnotes) by taking a deeper dive into Joseph Smith's study of Hebrew in Kirtland and Nauvoo. The lengthy article, half of which are footnotes that are as valuable as the narrative, gives new details about Joshua Seixas' time in Kirtland teaching Hebrew to Joseph and many others, what and how they studied, and how long he stayed. Even better, Grey examines reasons for Joseph's interest in studying Hebrew and ancient languages in general.

Thomas Wayment typically delivers valuable insights, and his chapter on "Joseph Smith's Developing Relationship with the Apocrypha" is no exception. His summary of Joseph Smith's interactions with apocryphal literature, some of which was in the Bible that he owned, and its impact on Joseph Smith's early writings, breaks new ground, showing, as he put it, "that the language of the Apocrypha crept up in Joseph's wording and phraseology" (p. 340). The second part shows how The Acts of Paul, a New Testament apocryphal book that was in Joseph Smith's possession in Nauvoo, was used by him and others at that time. Finally, Thom uses the example of the Book of Jasher's reception in Nauvoo to demonstrate how early Saints were applying D&C 91's principles about approaching such non-canonical writings.

Finally, Lincoln Blumell delivered an excellent essay entitled "Palmyra and Jerusalem," about Joseph Smith's texts and their intersection with the writings of Flavius Josephus. Several have suggested in the past that Josephus's writings were influential on joseph Smith's translation of the Bible, the Book of Abraham translation, and even the Book of Mormon. He documents the popularity of Josephus's writings among Christians of the day ("second in popularity only to the Bible itself," p. 358), including among the Latter-day Saints. He provides clear quotes from Josephus in a Joseph Smith sermon, letter, and his last days in Carthage jail, showing the Prophet's awareness of that writing. He goes through potential Josephus influences on Joseph's writings, showing some similarities but many more differences. The parallels are interesting (though he is clear that none are verbatim quotes from Josephus), but the differences compelling and unique, showing that Joseph Smith's translations were not dependent on Josephus.

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Reading Progress

January 1, 2015 – Started Reading
January 1, 2015 – Finished Reading
October 4, 2016 – Shelved as: church-history
October 4, 2016 – Shelved

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