A Book You Can Respect

I discovered that scholars can be convinced by the Book of Mormon even when they will not be converted.

A Book You Can Respect

Over the years, the Book of Mormon has come to mean many important things to me. But above all (or perhaps better said, beneath all), the Book of Mormon has come to demand a special kind of respect.

The Book of Mormon is truly amazing to me. And the more I learn, the more amazing it becomes in terms of its precision, consistency, validity, vitality, insightfulness, and purposefulness.

Not that any of this should be surprising in a book so miraculously preserved, but it is still amazing in the sense that all great literary works inspire an uncommon sense of deferential awe and considered respect. In this light, the respect I pay to the Book of Mormon as a precise and precious record can hardly be overstated.

I had long appreciated and valued the Book of Mormon. But it was not until I began to see it speaking for itself before sophisticated audiences that I began to sense the high level of respect which that book really commands: without hesitation, it can be said that the Book of Mormon is intellectually respectable. It contains more than enough to make it one of the great books of all time by any set of generally applied standards. Supporting that respectability is a wide array of ancient materials, including the floods of ancient religious writings that have come forth in the last couple of decades, radically changing certain rigid attitudes long entertained by scholars toward sacred literature.

Presenting this material in conjunction with the Book of Mormon to the highly educated has its own special problems: few are ever going to let themselves be converted by the power of the Holy Ghost. But how significant it is that many of these people, though not converted, find themselves convinced by the Book of Mormon. And although testimonies are certainly not the product of academic premises or scholarly conclusions, there are minds for whom an intellectual conviction can contribute to a spiritual sensitivity.

Most of us have had experiences with the converting power of the Book of Mormon. Think for a moment about its convincing power. I find that just as the Book of Mormon speaks powerfully to my spirit, it also speaks eloquently to my mind. It possesses an abundant ability to convince thoughtful people that it should be taken seriously. Here are a few instances that begin to illustrate what I mean.

While in Germany, I attended a series of lectures delivered by a prominent professor at the University of Regensburg, one of which was on chiasmus (ki-az-mus) in Matthew and Mark. Chiasmus is an ancient literary art form, often used in the Bible. A chiastic passage is one that is arranged so that the first element in the passage parallels the last, the second parallels the next to the last, and so forth into the center. (See “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, or The Book of Mormon Does It Again,” New Era, Feb. 1972, pp. 6–11; “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies, Autumn 1969, pp. 69–84.) In his lectures, the professor made several strong statements about the way in which the presence of chiasmus, especially in Matthew, was evidence of Near Eastern rather than Western thought. Shortly after these lectures, I arranged a conference with the professor in his stone-walled office. My purpose was to show him four of the intricate chiastic passages I had located in the Book of Mormon. (Mosiah 3:18–19, Mosiah 5:10–12; Alma 36, and the book of 1 Nephi,1 Ne. for example.) The meeting was brief since this evidence of ancient Near Eastern thought in the Book of Mormon needed little explanation, and the professor, openly frustrated by the inescapability of the conclusion for which he himself had laid the premises, was convinced and had little to say.

A second scholar was one of the more widely published Catholic theologians of the 1960s, who had also written on chiasmus in Matthew; he was a Jesuit priest, living in a monastery in Austria. Since I had made a special point of corresponding with him about my study of the Book of Mormon, I was deeply gratified when he invited me to visit him, and I did so. Meeting in one of the outer rooms of his cloister, I was able to tell him much of the story behind the Book of Mormon. He had heard and read of its story before, but had not thought much of it. Much of his own professional work had been with the book of Matthew, demonstrating it to be a very sophisticated and highly literary document, consciously prepared with a complex structure, not just a simple narrative. One of the evidences he used to make his point was the presence of four- and eight-part parallel structures in Matthew, one of the most notable of which is found in Matthew 5:3–10, the Beatitudes. [Matt. 5:3–10] Now it happens that the Book of Mormon also uses four- and eight-part structures; and when I showed him some in Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah and another remarkable occurrence in Alma 34:18–25, his former disregard of the Book of Mormon quickly dissolved. [Alma 34:18–25] By the end of our conversation, this sage, who I think had seen much in his sixty-odd years of active scholarship, was seriously nodding approval. I remember particularly the way his eyes reflected the enthusiasm I held for the Book of Mormon; he concluded our conversation with: “You have found here much life—and a lifetime of work.”

Another rewarding encounter came with a postdoctoral research fellow who was studying early Christian history at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. As far as I could tell, this bright scholar had been given every possible honor and privilege of study within the vast Vatican libraries. A mutual friend introduced us at a meeting specifically to examine the Book of Mormon, particularly some of its ritual and historical texts. For instance, we discussed the description of Lehi’s attitudes in the context of contemporary international affairs. Israel’s rulers had formed an alliance with Egypt against their traditional enemy, Babylon; but Jeremiah had vehemently criticized this choice, and there seems to be evidence that Lehi’s political sympathies were as unpopular as Jeremiah’s. One of Babylon’s allies was Sidon; but Sidon’s twin city, Tyre; had sided with Egypt. The people of the Book of Mormon frequently used the name Sidon. There is a city named Sidon, a river named Sidon and, even more intriguingly, a man named Gidgiddonah, which, as Dr. Hugh Nibley points out, is the Egyptian name for Sidon. But the name Tyre never appears in any form in the Book of Mormon, whereas in the Old Testament the two names are constantly linked; one hardly ever appears without the other. This apparent preference for Sidon over Tyre in the Book of Mormon fits perfectly into the world situation that Lehi knew and may substantiate Brother Nibley’s deduction that Lehi may have been a trader with close personal connections in foreign cities, his safety and prosperity guaranteed by the chuwa, or “contract of friendship” that protected an alien in another city-state. Naturally, even though he knew Egyptian, he (as did Jeremiah) would still deplore Israel’s alliance with Egypt, since he saw his nation turning away from safety. (Approach to the Book of Mormon, Melchizedek Priesthood Course, 1957, p. 52.)

That was only one of many areas that I wished to discuss with this eminent scholar; and at first I feared it might be a difficult meeting, since the discussion opened on his part with a courteously veiled hostility. He had read several chapters in the Book of Mormon and had understood them fairly well, considering that it was his first exposure to them. But he had concluded that the book was superficial. We looked again at what he had read. Then again, first from one angle and then another. Many hours and many words later, he was to admit willingly that the book was anything but superficial. “Your book,” he said, “will have to be reckoned with.”

In my senior year at Brigham Young University, I entered the national Woodrow Wilson Fellowship competition. An important part of this competition is a traditional half-hour private interview, in which three judges may ask each applicant any questions they please. My interview went fairly well until about halfway through, when the examiner on my right suddenly changed the subject. My file had contained a copy of my article from BYU Studies on the Book of Mormon, and that was the source of his question. Challengingly, he demanded, “Doesn’t the Book of Mormon just plagiarize the Bible?”

The next five minutes were tense. I undertook to show that the Book of Mormon differed from the Bible in several crucial ways. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, which appears in both books, the King James text reads: “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Matt. 5:22; italics added.) The italicized phrase appears to be an interpolation that was added to the text well after it had been written by Matthew. The earliest New Testament manuscripts do not have it; neither does the Book of Mormon. (See 3 Ne. 12:22.) I also pointed to numerous differences between the selected Isaiah passages cited in the Book of Mormon and the same passages in the Bible, to important similarities between Book of Mormon imagery and nonbiblical Jewish imagery (especially in regard to the tree of life and to the significance of Joseph), and finally to the original poetry interspersed amongst the writings of the Book of Mormon prophets.

At least two things make me think that my response was convincing. First, one of the other professors finally asked the challenging professor quite pointedly, “It doesn’t sound like plagiarism to me. Have you ever read the Book of Mormon?” And second, I received the fellowship.

I continued my graduate studies in Greek philosophy at Oxford University in England. Here too I found many opportunities to share the Book of Mormon with a number of scholars. One night, several New Testament scholars launched a discussion of how ancient Greek intellectual concepts influenced early Christian thought. The discussion led to a comment about the role of opposites in the development of early Greek philosophy. For example, one philosopher named Heraclitus, who lived in the sixth century B.C., was deeply concerned with the problem of opposites in the universe. Beyond those opposites he wished to show unity. In this light I mentioned Lehi’s teaching that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so … all things must needs be a compound in one.” (2 Ne. 2:11.) The reaction of those present was positive. Several were sincerely interested in knowing more about this text, especially in light of Lehi’s ethical (and not just material) thought concerning the opposites.

Later, I attended Duke University in North Carolina, where I participated in a graduate seminar studying a body of Jewish and Christian writings dating from the time of Jesus, known as the Pseudepigrapha. During the course of the seminar, I had mentioned the Book of Mormon from time to time, but my comments were not taken seriously by others around the table. Toward the end of the semester, the distinguished professor, who has an impressive reputation in his field, asked the seminar to tackle one particularly puzzling writing, the little-known “Narrative of Zosimus.” It tells of a righteous family that God had led away from Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Babylonians around 600 B.C. and how this group escaped to a land of blessedness where they kept records on metal plates soft enough that they could inscribe them with their fingernails. In the story, Zosimus was allowed to visit these people in vision. In order to get to their land, Zosimus had to journey through wildernesses, pass through impenetrable mists of darkness, cross the ocean, and come to a tree that bore pure fruit and gave forth water sweet as honey. (See the same elements in 1 Ne. 8:10–12 and 1 Ne. 11:25.)

After discussing some of the technical aspects of this Near Eastern document, the professor put it to the class, “Well, what do we make of the Narrative of Zosimus? Is it Jewish or Christian?” The seminar had little to say, and the members of the class were about to conclude that the writing could not be classified, since the Narrative was so unlike anything else they had ever seen. By then I could wait no longer. I told the seminar the history of Lehi and his family and more about the Book of Mormon. When I had spoken, the group had even less to say. Then the teacher said, “Class, let me tell you a few more things about this Book of Mormon.” He then described the Book of Mormon’s use of chiasmus, of Melchizedek in Alma 13, and other things that the two of us had discussed privately, and then he asked, “Well, class, what do we make of the Book of Mormon?” Although some of the members of the seminar ultimately concluded that the most convenient solution to their problem might be found in identifying Joseph Smith as a reincarnated Jewish scribe; it was significant to me that the student who had been most caustic toward the Book of Mormon earlier was now the one who asked if he could learn more.

What do these kinds of experiences mean? Taken individually, they may not seem particularly overwhelming. No doubt hundreds of similar individual experiences have occurred when people have taken the Book of Mormon seriously. One by one they have not created much of a stir, but taken together they bear significant testimony of the Book of Mormon.

It is perhaps easy for the non-Mormon intellectual to casually discount the Book of Mormon; the better trained a person is, the more prone he may be to dismiss the book. Gold plates, an angel, a boy-prophet—to hard-headed scholars it sounds like a first cousin of the dubious occult. Its seemingly plain style and its definite relationship with other ancient Hebrew scriptures appears to expose it to the charge of superficiality and inartful artifice. But in the final analysis, it is never the book that is dubious or superficial; rather, it is the observers. One of the greatest faults some of us suffer from as observers of the Book of Mormon is a willingness to pass judgment (favorably or unfavorably) upon it without examining and understanding it as thoroughly as we should.

And how does this relate to one’s encounters with a graduate seminar, a group of Oxford dons, a board of examiners, a research fellow, a theologian, a professor, and the like? Quite simply, like this: In my experience, the Book of Mormon is an astounding tool of the Lord. It is amazing to watch it win respect for itself, and for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the stone that was cast aside and rejected by the builders but which became the head of the corner (Acts 4:11; Ps. 118:22), the Book of Mormon, also a cornerstone, has on occasion been carelessly rejected by many otherwise faithful builders. But as is so often the case with the things of truth, the wisdom of the wise must perish before the Lord. (Isa. 29:14.) And when it does, conviction and a higher form of respect take skepticism’s place.

In a word, I have never seen the Book of Mormon to be found wanting. The book has raised many questions in the minds of some readers, to be sure. But I find myself continually rewarded—not disappointed—by the answers to which these questions lead. Finding such answers leads to conviction, and being convinced leads to respect. With the coming of respect, the way is sometimes cleared for testimony.

I know that it is important to develop and to help others develop respect for the Book of Mormon. It is God’s word, and the people who possess it will be judged by it. It is holy scripture given for profitable doctrine, reproof, and instruction in righteousness. It would be ideal if all could accept a copy of the Book of Mormon without suspicion and then, upon humble prayer, receive the witness of the Holy Ghost that it is true, but in these less than ideal circumstances, it is good that the book itself is so abundantly respectable.

Because I respect this book, I find myself drawn closer to the Lord. I am grateful as this deepening relationship enriches the love I feel for the words of this precious record. And, gratefully, as my respect for this book grows, I grow too.

Chiasmus as seen in Mosiah 5:10–12:


And now … whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ



must be called by some other name;



therefore, he findeth himself on the left hand of God.



I would that ye should remember also, that this is the name. …



that never should be blotted out,



except it be through transgression.



therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress,



that the name be not blotted out of your hearts. …



I would that ye should remember to retain the name. …



that ye are not found on the left hand of God,



but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called,


and also, the name by which he shall call you.

[illustration] A widely published theologian had used chiasmus in the book of Matthew to prove it was a highly literary document, not just a simple narrative. So I showed him the chiasmus in King Benjamin’s speech. “You have found here much life,” he said. “And a lifetime of work.” (Illustrated by Jerry Thompson.)

John W. Welch, an attorney, serves as teacher of the Gospel Doctrine class in the Glendale First Ward, Glendale California Stake.