Scholar to Scholar: Owen responds to Gee, part 2

04.03.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

This is part two of Paul Owen’s response to John Gee’s two-part critique of Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture: A Thematic Analysis of 1 Nephi 13–14.” Subscribers can access the article in the most recent Journal of Book of Mormon Studies volume here. For more background on this “Scholar to Scholar” series, see here. As before, Gee has been invited to join the exchange here.

In part II of Gee’s critique of my JBMS article, he focuses on the parallels which I cite between 2 Esdras and the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi in particular). I am glad to have an opportunity to address the points raised in the course of his critique, and perhaps it will help me to clarify for the readers what I was and was not saying in that section of my article. The constraints of space required me to make some choices in the original article as to what to spell out, and what to summarize in passing, and perhaps this led to some confusion.

Parallel #1: Both 2 Esdras 14 and 1 Nephi 13 are addressing the problem of the destruction of Scripture and the need for its restoration, first through Ezra, then through “they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion” (1 Nephi 13:37).

As far as I can tell, Gee’s rebuttal leaves this point untouched. He points out: “The Book of Mormon explicitly states that the corruption of the scriptures would occur ‘after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.’ Ezra lived about five centuries earlier.” I am aware of that. Of course, I never argued that the destruction of Scripture in 2 Esdras was the same as the destruction in 1 Nephi, nor did I argue that the restoration of Scripture through Ezra was the same as the restoration of Scripture in 1 Nephi. What I was arguing in my essay is that 1 Nephi’s description of the destruction and restoration of these lost texts is patterned after the situation and role of Ezra as described in 2 Esdras 14 (or reflective of the same motif), and that the Scriptures which are to be restored in 1 Nephi 13:34-39 include “plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb” which were originally found in those texts which Ezra had dictated centuries earlier.

Parallel #2: In both 2 Esdras 14 and 1 Nephi 13, God’s people lose their way because of the loss of valuable scriptural texts.

Gee’s response is: “In 4 Ezra/2 Esdras Ezra offers to write the scriptures again so that they will exist ‘that men may find thy path.’ According to Nephi, the scriptures existed but they had been perverted so that ‘an exceeding great many do stumble.’” It is true that in 1 Nephi 13 “many plain and precious things have been taken out of the book,” whereas in 2 Esdras all the copies of Scripture are destroyed—the Book itself disappears. But I never said that the destruction of Scripture in 2 Esdras and the loss of Scripture in 1 Nephi were identical in every respect; but only that the loss of Scripture (whether through corruption or destruction) causes God’s people to lose their way in both instances.

Parallel #3: The restoration of Scripture will be accomplished by the Holy Spirit.

Gee says in the case of 2 Esdras, “Ezra’s own spirit, not the Holy Ghost, strengthened his memory to recite the books as he had memorized them.” Apparently he says this on the basis of 2 Esdras 14:40. Why it is necessary for Ezra to ask God to send his Holy Spirit into him before he dictates the contents of the restored Scriptures (2 Esdras 14:22), Gee does not address. He also seems to argue that in 13:39 Jesus, not the Holy Ghost, produces the restored Scripture: “Jesus (the Lamb) and the Holy Ghost are not the same thing.” This despite the fact that 1 Nephi 13:37 specifically says that they “shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost.” The attempt to distinguish between the “gift and power” of the Holy Ghost in verse 37 and “the power of the Lamb” in verse 39 is puzzling.

Parallel #4: Ezra’s record is recorded on “writing tablets,” which seems similar to the plates on which the Book of Mormon records are recorded.

Gee’s response is that my argument “does not even make any sense” because the NRSV did not exist in Joseph’s day. As I discussed in part I of my reply to Gee, this is based on a clear misunderstanding of what I argued for in the article. I never claimed that Joseph Smith had access to the NRSV. In the article I am noting a parallel in the text between the actual content of 2 Esdras (preserved in Latin and accurately translated in modern versions like the NRSV) and the Book of Mormon. The obscurity of the KJV is actually something which an advocate of literary dependence on 2 Esdras has to account for, and I provide several ways one might approach that problem in the scope of my article.

What is striking is that when one looks at the accurate meaning of the underlying text (of which the KJV gives an obscure translation) it makes for a clearer parallel with the Book of Mormon phenomenon of writing on plates. The difference between metallic “plates” and wooden “writing tablets” seems less striking to me than what they share in common; in both cases materials have to be constructed into a sort of book, and in neither case is parchment or paper (scrolls) employed as the writing medium. The “writing tablets” would need to be covered with some sort of material to be a suitable writing venue, presumably wax.

Parallel #5: There is a similarity between Ezra’s role as the dictator of the restored Scriptures and Joseph Smith’s role in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Both cases involve dictation to scribes, and the resultant Scripture is clearly the result of supernatural inspiration.

Gee’s response is that “the passages cited from the Book of Mormon never mention scribes.” And it is true that the word “scribe” does not appear, but 2 Nephi 3:18 appears to be talking about Joseph Smith (cf. 3:9, 14-15), and Joseph’s scribe: “I will give unto him that he shall write the writing of the fruit of thy loins.” This “writing” is the writing of the “fruit of thy loins,” God’s chosen seer in verse 11, and thus would appear to be connected to Joseph and the production of the Book of Mormon in 3:19-21. Admittedly, there are some interpretive moves that need unpacking here which I did not have space for. Likewise, I see 2 Nephi 27:9-10 as a prophecy of the Book of Mormon as translated by Joseph Smith with the help of a chosen scribe (“he shall deliver these words unto another”).

Regardless of one’s interpretation of these texts, nobody disputes that Ezra dictated the contents of the Old Testament to his scribes in 2 Esdras, and so did Joseph with the Book of Mormon. And that is precisely the parallel to which I am appealing.

Parallel #6: Some of what is revealed to Ezra is made public, and some is made known only to the wise. That seems similar to the distinction between the Bible (read by the whole Christian world) and the Book of Mormon and other restored Scriptures (which are possessed by the Latter-day Saints).

I had a hard time understanding the nature of Gee’s rebuttal especially at this point (readers can decide for themselves if it made sense). The gist of it seems to be that God keeps the esoteric texts hidden from the public view in the case of 2 Esdras, whereas the “great and abominable church” performs this in 1 Nephi. I don’t deny that and never claimed otherwise. The parallel is in the distinction both 2 Esdras and 1 Nephi make between public texts accessed by all, and other scriptural texts which are hidden from the view of many. That was my point; nothing more, nothing less.

Parallel #7: God’s people need both the public texts and the texts hidden from view for their spiritual benefit, both in 2 Esdras and 1 Nephi.

Gee’s reply is to point out that the esoteric texts in 2 Esdras are kept from public view intentionally, whereas in 1 Nephi the records of the Book of Mormon are published widely: “There could not be a more stark contrast.” I agree that this is a contrast; but again, it does not touch upon the actual parallel which I cited. Gee says that “God’s people (or at least the common people) have no need” to access the texts which are hidden from view and only disclosed to the wise. I suppose that is true, but nonetheless it means that they will be deficient in understanding, wisdom and knowledge (2 Esdras 14:47). The plain and precious parts of the gospel in 1 Nephi correspond to the understanding, wisdom and knowledge offered in the esoteric books in 2 Esdras.

Parallel #8: Both in 2 Esdras and in the case of the Book of Mormon, the text was written in an obscure script. In the case of 2 Esdras 14:42, Ezra’s scribes wrote under divine inspiration, in a Hebrew script which was not familiar to them. In the case of the Book of Mormon, Joseph translated and dictated to scribes a book which was written in a script not familiar to them (Reformed Egyptian).

I should think this parallel would be uncontroversial. The verses I cited (1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:2; Mormon 9:32) were merely illustrative of the language in which the Book of Mormon writers state they composed the record. I wasn’t denying that the writers in the Book of Mormon knew the language in which they wrote. I would have thought that was obvious. But Gee responds as though that was what I had tried to argue: “One crucial difference is that while Ezra’s scribes might not have known the characters they were using, the Book of Mormon scribes had all learned them the hard way.” Again, this rebuttal seems to assume that I am not even aware that the Book of Mormon authors inside the narrative knew the language in which they wrote. If Gee had thought a bit about that, he could have figured out that I was referring to the lack of knowledge on the part of Joseph and his scribes. But, since I cited several texts in the Book of Mormon which make reference to this obscure language, I can see how it could be misread by someone who is skimming my article.

By the way, an interesting discussion of this whole matter more generally can be found in Stephen Pfann’s essay, “The Use of Cryptographic and Esoteric Scripts in Second Temple Judaism and the Surrounding Cultures,” in Interpreting 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, eds. Gabriele Boccaccini and Jason M. Zurawski (T&T Clark, 2014).

Parallel #9: There is a repeated emphasis on the “mouth” of Ezra in 2 Esdras, and the mouth of “a Jew” in 1 Nephi. It seems plausible that the Jew is Ezra in both cases.

Gee responds by saying: “This is a silly argument. Owen teaches (or used to teach) Hebrew. He should recognize this Hebrew idiom (which is also used in other ancient languages).” I don’t think Hebrew idioms have anything to do with this. The “mouth” simply stands for the “speech” of the person concerned by way of metonymy. In any event, it most certainly alludes to dictation in the case of Ezra, and that is the most natural way to take the expression in 1 Nephi as well, since nowhere does it highlight the activity of the “hand” of “the Jew” envisioned in chapters 13-14. I still think it highly plausible that these chapters reflect the role of Ezra the scribe who dictates the restored contents of the Old Testament in 2 Esdras.

Parallel #10: In 2 Esdras 14:5-6, 21-22, Ezra receives the same revelation that was earlier given to Moses. The idea of the repeat and reuse of previous revelations is also prominent in 1 Nephi 14:24-26, 29.

Gee’s reply is to point out: “The Book of Mormon refers not to Moses but to John.” But of course, since I did not claim that 1 Nephi made reference to Moses this does not touch upon my argument. I merely cited the repetition and fresh disclosure of the Mosaic revelation and then encouraged the reader to compare several verses in 1 Nephi where previous divine disclosures are subsequently reused.

I want to thank Dr. Gee for taking the time to interact with my article, and I hope that the broader audience has benefited from this opportunity the Maxwell Institute has graciously extended to me to clarify my arguments and explain why I do not find Gee’s critique to be entirely persuasive.

About Paul L. Owen

Paul L. Owen (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is professor of Greek and religious studies at Montreat College in North Carolina. He has published in FARMS Review of BooksElement: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and TheologyJournal of Biblical Literature, and Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Dr. Owen is the coeditor (with Larry W. Hurtado) of “Who Is This Son of Man?”: The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus.