Research and Perspectives: Recent Studies on the Book of Mormon


Research on the Sermon on the Mount, Oliver Cowdery’s spelling, understanding Isaiah, and more.

Many Church members are unaware of the abundant new information available about the Book of Mormon. The following capsulizes some of the studies under way. Of course, the research discussed is not definitive; viewpoints change as new information becomes available. This research, therefore, presents the views of the various writers, not necessarily those of the Church. Still, the diversity of topics being studied indicates just how much there is yet to learn about the Book of Mormon.

Olive Tree Horticulture

Some botanists have compared details in the allegory of the olive trees (see Jacob 5) with recent knowledge about ancient horticulture. The specifics in the allegory fit consistently with what is known. Of the twenty species of olive, only one (with two varieties) is edible. The olive was cultivated as far back as 3500 B.C. The edible olive can be wild or domesticated, depending on environment and cultivation. Wild trees produce a smaller, more bitter fruit than do tame trees. (Many of the wild varieties, if cultivated and cared for, can produce large, palatable fruit, but never as good as the domesticated species.) A wild branch grafted to a tame tree can produce good fruit if the branch is from the edible species. Cuttings or graftings were used until about 420 B.C., when a shift to seeds and roots took place.

Unless properly pruned, the top of an olive tree can outgrow its roots. On the other hand, a denuded tree will suffer root death. This explains the servants’ efforts in the allegory to match growth with root development and to graft wild branches onto the old tree after its own branches were transferred elsewhere. The instance of wild branches grafted onto a tame tree (or tame branches onto a wild tree) producing first good fruit and then bad may be the result of “delayed incompatibility.” A particular combination of rootstock and top branches may do well for a time but then deteriorate due to a change in environment or disease. Removing the old grafts and putting in correct grafts, as in the allegory, can correct the incompatibility. It is also not uncommon for one tree to produce two kinds of fruit at the same time. Old growth and cut-off branches were typically burned to keep them from harboring parasites and insects.

The use of the term vineyard in Jacob rather than orchard is a bit unconventional but has biblical and horticultural precedent. It is interesting that no modern terms, like budding, rootstock, mulching, or incompatibility, are used in the allegory; the vocabulary is consistent with ancient terminology.

One common belief is that olive trees do best on rocky, infertile hillsides. Actually, because olive trees are hardier and more resistant to extremes in temperature than other trees, they are often grown where other trees cannot grow. But olive trees, as the allegory suggests, grow best when well-cultivated, watered, pruned, and fertilized.

• Arthur Wallace, “The Allegory of the Tame and Wild Olive Trees Horticulturally Considered,” in Scriptures for the Modern World, ed. Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1984); Wilford M. Hess, “The Allegory of the Olive Tree—Botanical Comparisons,” research presentation, Fourth Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, BYU, 1988.

The Sermon on the Mount

How does the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in the King James Version and the Joseph Smith Translation, compare with the similar sermon given to the Nephites? Robert A. Cloward has examined this question. Not surprisingly, he discovered that the accounts consider their respective audiences. In the Book of Mormon, Jesus said that “ye have heard the things which I taught before I ascended to my Father.” (3 Ne. 15:1.) Nevertheless, for the Jewish audience, Christ was able to include many references to and examples about scribes, Pharisees, and contemporary priests and Levites. But the Book of Mormon account does not contain these references, probably because the American audience would not have understood them.

The two accounts also display differences in referring to the Mosaic law, the purpose and spiritual symbolism of which the Jews did not understand as well as the Nephites did.

The Joseph Smith Translation of the Matthew account specifically makes the Savior’s missionary instructions more applicable to our day, provides transitional statements throughout the sermon (thus dispelling the notion that the sermon was a collection of miscellaneous teachings given on various occasions), clarifies the transition from the old law to the new, reveals reasons why the Lord rejected the scribes and Pharisees, restores some conversation and feelings of the Savior and his disciples, and teaches how to obtain the mysteries of the kingdom.

The Book of Mormon indicates that Jesus’ words were to be written soon after they were given and gives a context to the sermon by including fifteen additional chapters of related teachings. It also tells us that the sermon was only a hundredth part of what Jesus taught and shows that the sermon was intended to be a tool to gather Israel in the last days. The Book of Mormon account also puts the Lord’s Prayer into a context of instruction about many kinds of prayers.

Both the Joseph Smith Translation and the Book of Mormon accounts clarify whom Jesus was talking to in various parts of the sermon. They also restore an introduction to the Beatitudes that emphasizes the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. The Book of Mormon introduction, however, is nearly twice as long as that in the New Testament. In a section-by-section comparison, Cloward shows how sometimes one or the other or sometimes both versions clarify the discourse on salt and light, the change from the old law to the new, the laws leading to perfection, the manner of proper worship, the needs of ministers, the instructions to the Apostles, and the difference between hearing and doing.

• “The Sermon on the Mount in the JST and the Book of Mormon,” in The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1985).

The Four Main Writers of the Book of Mormon

Daniel Ludlow has identified five common experiences of the four major writers of the Book of Mormon. Except for the eight pages of Enos, Jarom, and Omni, the book was written by Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni. The five common experiences are: (1) the writers are all witnesses of Jesus Christ—that is, they saw him in vision or in person; (2) they were all tutored by supernatural beings—angels or translated beings; (3) they all had visions of our day and wrote especially for us; (4) they all received heavenly counsel regarding what they should include in their writings; and (5) they all warned us that we will be held accountable for what we do with their words. Thus, a valuable question to ask when reading the Book of Mormon is “What did ___________ see in our day that would prompt him to write this particular account?”

• “The Challenge of the Book of Mormon,” in The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1988).

Oliver Cowdery’s Spelling

A study of early dictionaries, the spelling of contemporaries, and the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon reveal that Oliver Cowdery was not really an “unlearned schoolteacher,” as some have said. In 1828, when Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published, there were five other dictionaries available. All list numerous variant spellings for words. The word scripture, for example, was spelled in these dictionaries as scriptshur, scriptshure, scripture, and scriptyur. The tendency was to spell phonetically. For instance, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote sithe, choaked, musquito, and so on. Washington Irving used all of the following for smoke: smoak, smocke, schmoke, and smoke.

The following spellings that Oliver Cowdery used in the original manuscript were legitimate spellings of the time: adhear, ancles, babtized, befal, condescention, journied, moulten, phrensied, and writen. Many others were also correct, though odd today. A fascinating case in point is that during Joseph Smith’s dictation, Oliver sometimes had to choose between two word choices, such as strait and straight. (Strait means narrow, tight, as in Matt. 7:13: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate … that leadeth to destruction.” Straight means free from curves, bends, or angles, as in 2 Ne. 9:41: “The way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him.”) It appears that Oliver chose strait nineteen out of twenty-two times. For some reason though, John Gilbert, the Book of Mormon typositor, changed most of them to straight. The 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon changed them back to strait.

• George A. Horton, Jr., “Book of Mormon—Transmission from Translator to Printed Text,” in The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1988).

The Book of Mormon Defends the Bible

One purpose of the Book of Mormon is to establish the truth of the Bible. (See 2 Ne. 3:11; D&C 20:11.) A few studies have explored how the Book of Mormon accomplishes this purpose. First, it confirms specific biblical details. Robert Matthews has prepared a list of 106 points in the Bible, like the flaming sword east of Eden, referred to in the Book of Mormon. Second, the Book of Mormon both quotes and paraphrases extensively from the biblical record. Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are some of the books thus treated. It also restores some lost biblical passages.

Third, the Book of Mormon supports the manner, as recorded in the Bible, by which God deals with mankind. Fourth, the Book of Mormon foretells the history of the biblical text. This includes identifying the weaknesses in the Bible and prophesying of the restoration of lost material and of the addition of related records, like the record of the ten tribes after their scattering, the large plates of Nephi, and records the Jews kept. Fifth, the Book of Mormon reinforces and clarifies the biblical covenants that the Lord has made with Israel, including priesthood authority, baptism, and the sacrament.

• “F.A.R.M. S. Update,” January 1987; Robert J. Matthews, “Establishing the Truth of the Bible,” in The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, the Doctrinal Foundation (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1988).

The Book of Mormon on Understanding Isaiah

Several scholars have noted that both Nephi and the Savior give two keys for understanding Isaiah’s writings. The keys Nephi provides are to have the spirit of prophecy and to know the Jewish manner of conveying the Lord’s word and its interpretation (what one scholar calls the “letter of prophecy”). The first makes the words of Isaiah plain, while the second helps one to understand them. (See 2 Ne. 25:4–5.) The keys provided by the Savior are a commandment to search Isaiah’s words (perhaps suggesting that Isaiah’s words are too great to be understood by a surface reading only) and an explanation that all things that “have been” (which Isaiah spoke) “shall be.” (3 Ne. 23:1–3.)

Nephi’s first key is echoed by Paul’s explanation that the things of the Spirit can be understood only through the Spirit. (See 1 Cor. 2:10–16.) The spirit of prophecy may also refer in part to the revealed word of God in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. The New Testament, for example, quotes or refers to at least 54 passages from Isaiah. The Book of Mormon quotes 425 verses of the 1,292 verses in Isaiah. Some of them are clearer translations, and Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi, the Savior, and Moroni comment on quite a few.

Nephi’s second key includes learning about Jewish methodology. Virtually every passage in the book of Isaiah possesses a recognizable Jewish literary form, like the “messenger speech,” the “lawsuit,” and the “woe oracle.” Isaiah also uses a variety of parallel patterns in his writing. Certain themes and symbols surface or tie together sections of his book again and again. Furthermore, Isaiah’s view of Israel’s covenant relationship with God reflects the ancient Near Eastern view of a vassal’s relationship to his king.

The Savior’s first key means more than just rereading Isaiah’s words. It involves searching the text, its literary and cultural background, and its language. For example, knowing about Assyria and Egypt in Isaiah’s time helps us understand why Assyria typifies divine wrath (it was ruthless and unstoppable against its enemies) and why Egypt typifies the folly of leaning on the arm of flesh (it was a major power but weakened by dissension and could not be trusted safely). Understanding Hebrew nuances can also help clarify a verse. (Many commentaries explain passages linguistically to those unfamiliar with Hebrew.) For instance, how much clearer is Isaiah 6:13 (see 2 Ne. 16:13) when we know that tenth refers to a special tithe to the Lord, eaten also means burned, and substance also means tree stump (especially one that will send forth new growth) [Isa. 6:13]?

According to the authors of these studies, the Savior’s second key means that we should know about multiple fulfillments of prophecy. They believe that Isaiah often gives prophecies that will be fulfilled again and again. He uses the incidents in Israel’s history as themes upon which he builds his prophecies. The Exodus, the Creation, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—these things are patterns for things in Isaiah’s world and again for things in our world.

• Monte S. Nyman, “Great Are the Words of Isaiah” (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), pp. 1–14; L. Lamar Adams, The Living Message of Isaiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), pp. 29–64; Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), pp. 1–69; Kent P. Jackson, “Nephi and Isaiah,” in Studies in Scripture: 1 Nephi to Alma 29, vol. 7, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Deseret Book, 1987); Avraham Gileadi, The Book of Isaiah: A New Translation with Interpretive Keys from the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), pp. 1–93.

[illustration] Graftings were used to grow olive trees until about 420 B.C. This is one detail in the allegory that is consistent with ancient horticultural practices.

[illustration] Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Bloch