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Evaluating Plagiarism Accusations of Scripture
Evaluating Plagiarism Accusations of Scripture
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Question: How can one address accusations of plagiarism made about the scriptures?
Introduction to Question
One of the primary methods of attack for critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been to accuse Joseph Smith (and other prophets who have revelations canonized) of plagiarizing different parts of his translations/revelations that have become part of the scriptural canon of the Church. There are different kinds of influence that critics allege outside sources had on Joseph Smith’s scriptural productions. Some point out mere conceptual resemblance. Others claim direct borrowing (like copy/pasting from other sources). Some believe that certain characters in the Bible provide a narrative structure for those in the Book of Mormon.
This article seeks to identify principles and procedures that Latter-day Saint defenders can keep in mind in order to address each of these accusations.
Response to Question
We should first lay out some general principles:
- Parallels are easy to create, and the way they are phrased can make them seem more similar than they are--and obscure important differences.
- There are likely to be some parallels because it would have been difficult for Joseph as a translator not to see them, and perhaps translated his scriptural productions in ways that parallel items in his literary culture.
- The question is always whether or not the parallels show dependence. They can show similarity, but don't necessarily show that one literary production has to be connected to another.
Two Ways We Can Address Accusations Like this
There are two very general ways that one can address plagiarism accusations. The first of these is to have a superior option for where something came from and the other is to have an equally plausible option for where something came from. We explain more below.
Have the Superior Option for Where Something Came From
Everyone recognizes that the words and ideas in the scriptures had to come from somewhere. Latter-day Saints believe that they came from revelation given to prophets both ancient and modern. Critics believe they came from the mind of Joseph Smith and/or one or more of his associates. The first way to address accusations from a faithful perspective is to show that the Latter-day Saint perspective is the superior one given the historical data we currently possess. For instance, one can:
- Check the alleged source’s publication date. Latter-day Saint apologist Jeff Lindsay has shown that even if an alleged source of plagiarism and a book of scripture have a lot in common, it doesn’t prove that that work had anything to do with the origins of the book of scripture. He does this by comparing Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to the Book of Mormon. Leaves of Grass has seven-word phrase commonalities with the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, however, was published in 1830 and Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. Thus, there’s no way it could have influenced the Book of Mormon’s production.
- Check historical sources and see how close an alleged source of influence was to Joseph Smith. There should be some source that puts Joseph Smith in contact with the alleged source of influence sometime before the production of the passage of scripture in question (yes, the passage of scripture in question. One will thus need to be familiar for the translation/production timelines for each book of scripture. This has been thoroughly documented by BYU professors and other scholars over the years). In the case of the Book of Mormon specifically, the difficulty is that we don’t have a lot of data on the early life of Joseph. The earliest document we have of Joseph Smith’s is dated to 1828. Accounts of Joseph Smith's life before this time are all reminiscent except for a few contemporary government records. Libraries local to Joseph Smith don't seem to have much material to plagiarize from. Those closest to Joseph Smith all affirmed that he did not have manuscript notes or other materials from which to read for his production of the Book of Mormon. Be sure to review what historical sources exist around the production of the passages in question and see how close the alleged source of plagiarism is. Many of those historical sources can be found on the Joseph Smith Papers website.
- Check to see what actual parallels exist between the two works. When comparing the parallels directly and seeing what the two sources actually say, many dissimilarities might become readily apparent. Place the claimed parallels into a table on a word document and point out dissimilarities in language and concepts. Also, it is often the case that a critic has misinterpreted his/her sources and made one source say something that it isn't actually saying in order to construct a parallel. It will be important to point this out if this is the case.
Have An Equally Plausible Manner in Which Something Can Emerge
The other way to address a criticism is to have an equally plausible way for something to emerge. There can be claims of plagiarism that we neutralize rather than refute. Neutralization is an acceptable result of apologetic investigation. There are a couple of ways that we can accomplish neutralization.
- Have the alleged influence make sense within the historical setting in which the passages of scripture emerged: For instance, take FAIR's rebuttal to the claim that the Book of Mormon's anti-universalism comes merely from Joseph Smith's religious environment. A big part of FAIR's rebuttal was to show that there are many scriptures that would have been on the brass plates that Lehi and co brought from Jerusalem to the New World. Therefore, the surge of universalism in the Book of Mormon and Alma's rebuttals to that universalism make sense within the Book of Mormon's claimed historical narrative. This is especially relevant to ancient scripture and addressing claims of mere conceptual resemblance. Readers will want to familiarize themselves with the ancient context of the various volumes of Restoration scripture in order to address these types of claims.
- Consider the possibility that scriptural authors used the type-scene as a rhetorical device: As explained by Book of Mormon Central in another article on the FAIR website, "[a] type-scene is an ancient storytelling technique where certain kinds of stories are told in certain ways. The ancient audience expected that when a main character got engaged, for example, he would journey to a foreign land, encounter a woman at a well, and draw water from the well. Then the woman would rush home to tell the family, and the man and the woman would be betrothed. However, each time the storyteller applied this type-scene to a new character, they would change the story slightly. This allowed the type-scene to fit each character’s historical circumstances, but also gave insights into the personalities of each character in the story." Rather than seeing parallels between the stories of the Bible and other books of scripture as evidence of plagiarism on the part of Joseph Smith, readers of the Book of Mormon can see this as the ancient authors of scripture using the type-scene as a rhetorical device for telling a story. This is especially relevant to ancient scripture.
- Remember that Joseph Smith's model of revelation is one in which god speaks "in [the prophet's and humanity's] weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24): We know that Joseph Smith's cultural environment was steeped in biblical language. In the early 19th century, it was used in all kinds of literature and even in common parlance among citizens of English-speaking countries. Critics have pointed to the existence of Old Testament and New Testament language in the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham as evidence of Joseph Smith copying this language from the Bible. Rather than seeing it as evidence of plagiarism, believers can point to this scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants as evidence that Joseph Smith had a model of revelation that would accommodate this language so that the readers of scripture could come to understanding of God's will and nature. They can use this as evidence that God is the "same yesterday, today, and forever[.]" They can use it as evidence that God exalts our fallen humanity and uses it to help us become like him: our ultimate destiny.
It is the author's hope that this article will help all who are interested in providing a reason for the hope that is within every Latter-day Saint's heart of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and the integrity of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith.
FAIR has collected responses to various claims of plagiarism over the years that readers can find by following the links below.
- Jeff Lindsay, "Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass?," JeffLindsay.com, May 20, 2002, https://www.jefflindsay.com/bomsource.shtml.
- For translation timeline of the Book of Mormon, see John W. Welch, "Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon 'Days (and Hours) Never to Be Forgotten," BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2018): 10–50. For the Book of Moses, see Kent P. Jackson, "Book of Moses, manuscripts of," in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 78. For the Book of Abraham, see the differing views of translation chronology in Kerry Muhelstein and Megan Hansen “The Work of Translating: The Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology," in Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millet, eds. J. Spencer Fluhman and Brent L. Top (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2016), 139–62; John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Deseret Book: Salt Lake City, UT, 2018), 15–16; Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2018), xiii–xxix. For the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, see Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson and Robert J. Matthews, eds., Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2004), 49–73. For the Doctrine and Covenants, one can merely see the section headings of the 2013 Edition that give all known dates of production for the revelations.
- Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents Volume 1: July 1828 – June 1831 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian's Press, 2013), xxv.
- See Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute," BYU Studies 14, no. 3 (Spring 1974): 386–89 for a list of books actually possessed by Joseph Smith. See also Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library," BYU Studies 22, no. 3 (1982): 333.
- For just a few resources on the ancient context of scripture, visit these sources. For the Book of Mormon, see Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2013). For the Book of Abraham, see John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2018). For the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014). For the Joseph Smith Translation, see Robert J. Matthews, "A Plainer Translation": Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985).
- 1 Nephi 10:18
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:19-20