Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: resolving an impasse through the original languages

I have been tracking through one of the controversies about the Book of Mormon: does it discuss "coins" when there are no known coins from the ancient New World? I've reviewed one skeptical claim and the Mormon counter-claim. This series focuses not so much on the original question but on the background: if this question were raised about the Bible, would the conversation end there?

Why I am not a Mormon, Part 3: The original languages

Well, ok, as we have seen previously: having no manuscripts at all does pose a problem for someone wishing to study the Book of Mormon, but are we really out of options? With the Bible, even if somehow every manuscript of the Bible were lost or destroyed, we could still check into a question based on the original languages. We could see what words for money were in use at that time. That is to say, in ancient Hebrew (or in the Greek of 2000 years ago) we can check whether various words meant “coin” or “piece of metal.” We have knowledge apart from the Bible of the words that were used, what they meant or if there were different shades of meaning for some words.

Many people are familiar with translation issues in the Bible. Where there is some question about the best way to translate a passage or how best to render it in English, there are footnotes in Bibles that mention when alternate translations are possible. The original languages play a key to understanding the Bible, and scholarship of those languages has improved our understanding of the Bible over time. The cultures involved in writing the books of the Bible had living languages; many other works were written in those same languages. Scholars and linguists still study those languages in our colleges and universities and use them as tools to study not only the Bible but other written works as well. You can buy dictionaries of the languages in question. That kind of background knowledge of the original languages could get us a long way towards answering our question.

Problem: with the Book of Mormon, we do not know what the original language was supposed to have been. Again, this is vastly different from the Bible. In many Christian denominations, pastors and other leaders have to study the original ancient languages as part of their required education to join the ministry. This knowledge of the original languages is required so that they can read the literature in the original languages themselves. When it comes to the Bible, nobody is required to take on trust whether a passage originally said what someone else claims; anybody at all could take the time and trouble to research it for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Studying Hebrew and Greek is a requirement to becoming a minister in many Christian denominations because not only do we have actual ancient documents, but they are written in known ancient languages. Anyone – whether a skeptic, a believer, or any kind of inquirer – can research further based on known facts and an existing body of scholarship on the original languages. Not so with the Book of Mormon. Not only do we not have any manuscripts in the original language, but we do not even know what the original language was supposed to have been.

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