Sunday, February 19, 2017

Answering Letter To A CES Director- # 1

A few weeks ago, my friend and former missionary companion Jaxon Munns messaged me on Facebook saying that he and a colleague planned to respond to the infamous Letter to A CES Director in BYU Studies, and asked if I would help, which I am of course happy to do. For those not familiar with it, Letter to A CES Director (also commonly called the CES Letter) is a pdf/book by Jeremy T. Runnells outlining things related to church history and doctrine that he found concerning, and that eventually led to the loss of his testimony. He eventually sent the text to an Institute  Director, who told him the points were valid and that he would be responded to, but the director never got back to him. Since its publication, hundreds if not thousands of people have read the CES Letter and many have lost their faith in the Lord and in the Church over it (I have at least one friend who has). The text of the book can be read for free here. Since writing the book, the author has resigned from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after a disciplinary council which he recorded and published on YouTube, which can be found here.

As a person with knowledge of church doctrine and history and as a convert to the Church who has read a plethora of anti-Mormon material, I feel I have a duty to not only help Jaxon with his project, but also to go claim by claim through Runnells' text and respond to them. Runnells' claims are not new; anyone familiar with Church history will be aware of them, or ought to be. These posts are not against the man himself; I have talked to Runnells a few times over Facebook, and I came away feeling that he was a sincere skeptic and overall a nice man, although I thought it was inappropriate for him to post his disciplinary council online.

Before I get started with the rebuttal, I would like to point out two lessons I have learned that I think will be helpful to my readers and those struggling with the claims that Runnells and others have made through their books, videos, and memes. The first comes from philosopher Edward Feser, author of the books The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, Aquinas, and Locke among many others. In an interview with Catholic Answers Live, Feser mentioned to a caller that although there are questions that one can reasonably raise against the Roman Catholic Church (Feser is a devout Catholic), it does not follow that the questions cannot be answered. The same goes for the LDS Church, it is true that there are good questions that can be asked, but it does not mean that the questions cannot be answered, or that if one person does not know the answer, that no one knows the answer. Members who have questions now and in the future should realize this before they leave over a question or concern they have.

The second lesson comes from my friend historian W. Paul Reeve, author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. Over lunch one day he mentioned that he often had students ask him questions, but that they often wanted quick responses while some questions required lengthy responses. While we all at some point or another want our questions answered quickly, many times we will need to do some reading (or occasionally, quite a bit of reading) before we get an answer. At the end of each of my posts, I will post some material that engages with the question in mind that has been written by a scholar on that issue so one does not have to take my word as the definitive answer.

Because Runnells makes multiple claims under a single issue, I will address each claim in the book, but I will only do one at a time so my readers will have time to digest each issue. Without further delay, let's begin.

Claim one: What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon?  An ancient text?  Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?

The claim here is that because the Book of Mormon is supposed to be an ancient text, there should not be any similarities in the text to the King James Version of the Bible, and if there are any, there should not be any errors in the text that is mentioned.

While the Book of Mormon was said by the Prophet Joseph Smith to be "the most correct of any book on Earth" (Book of Mormon Introduction), it does not follow that there are no errors in the book, or that the book cannot be better than it is. Anticipating this problem, Moroni states in the Book of Mormon Title Page:
And now if there are any faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore condemn not the things of God, that ye be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ
Close quote. Before one even gets to First Nephi, Moroni tells us that there are errors in the text. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who understands human nature. We all make mistakes, and prophets and historians are no different. In other words, it would be a shock to read a religious text or any other kind of text that did not have errors in it. The Book of Mormon was not written by God, who is a perfected being, but by men who were inspired by Him, who are far from perfect even in their best state.

Now, the substance of the question is not whether there are errors in the text, but why this particular error. The most common explanation is that translation is interpretation, meaning that when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, he probably saw that some of the text was different than what he was accustomed to and made changes to it that brought it in accordance with what he was familiar with and what those of his era were also familiar with. None of his scribes mention the Prophet having a Bible out during the translation process, so the corrections were more than likely done during the editing process. The Book of Mormon itself was not in King James English; remember that translations are interpretations relative to the translators language and culture, so it is no surprise that some of the text has a familiar spirit if you will.

Additional reading: A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and History edited by Laura Harris Hales (Chapter 3), Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman (Chapter 3), An Other Testament: On Typology by Joseph M. Spencer, Book of Mormon Translation Gospel Topics Essay, The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Document by Blake T. Ostler


  1. Tarik- I think you have waded into deeper waters than you are prepared to deal with. Lets just start with the first issue you mention: ' Claim one: What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? An ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?

    The claim here is that because the Book of Mormon is supposed to be an ancient text, there should not be any similarities in the text to the King James Version of the Bible, and if there are any, there should not be any errors in the text that is mentioned.' - You have missed the issue entirely.

    Now before I begin let me just say im not trying to be condescending, and if it comes across that way then i apologize. I think it obvious that you have no formal training in Biblical criticism, let alone early christian textual criticism. First let me say that the claim is not that there should be 'no similarities' to the KJV (You dont seem to understand the underlying issue). The editors of the KJV, sitting in 17th century England, had access to less than 5% of existing Hebrew Bible and NT texts. They used the texts they had access to in order to compose the KJV, just as did the editors of the 1769 edition in question. For this reason you will be hard pressed to find the KJV used in any academic setting where the intent is to get back to original source reconstruction, its full of many an error. The NSRV version for example, is composed by scholars who use all available texts, fragments etc and then compare them (ie textual criticism). We obviously have access to far more primary and secondary texts now, than did the KJV editors in 1605, or later editors in 1769. By comparing all available texts we know for example that Mark did not depend on Q source or the G of Thomas for its composition, we understand the synoptics in a different light than John, M source, L , Q source etc. We know for example that Mark in its original form ended in chapter 16:8, and yet we have additions from Mark 16:9 that are fabrications and the result of later redactions. Runnels point in contect would be for example, if we know that Mark 16:9 onwards is a fabrication we would never find it in the BOM. The problem is that in fact all of the Gospels are full of such additions, which were entirely unfamiliar to the original authors. The job of a scholar when composing a version of the Bible, is to remove such additions, redactions etc, with the intent of returning the text to its original form (if possible). Consequently your explanation entirely misses the point as it seems you did not first understand the issue, ergo your explanation is entirely superfluous.

    1. Actually you are the one that misses the point -- the entire assumption on which the criticism is based is false. There is no reason that the BofM should not reflect the 1769 KJV which he had access to (which it obviously does) because it is clear beyond cavil that JS relied on the 1769 KJV as a crib text to render the "translation." What JS was doing was not translating in the modern sense of that word (he clear knew neither Hebrew nor any form of Egyptian). There is no good reason to assume that the KJV was not simply directly quoted. What must be shown is that use of the KJV is inconsistent with JS's claimed mode of "translation" -- and it is not. In other words, the very argument assumes too much about the nature of what JS was doing and fails to meet the various expansion theories that easily explain such use.

    2. The trouble with your explanation is that it is both pure speculation and it contradicts the accounts we have of the translation process:

      "Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man." (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)

      "Martin Harris related an instance that occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon, which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.

      "Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, 'Written,' and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used." ( accessed 2/21/2017)

      Here we have two witnesses telling us that the precise language and phrasing of the Book of Mormon was so important that the very tool used for translation would not allow any mistakes to be made in the transcription. Why should we believe that mistakes where introduced in the editing process when God or the Holy Ghost, or whichever member of the Godhead was giving power to the Seer Stones, was making sure that the the translation was precise as it was dictated by Joseph and transcribed by the various scribes?

    3. Exactly this. Can't have it both ways. Or a three or more ways. It's dizzying.

    4. Neither David Whitmer nor Martin Harris actually translated anything. Their accounts are not trustworthy because they have no experience with what they claim to know and the only person who would know, Joseph Smith, never said. So I see no reason to accept their accounts as authoritative.

      But even if they were it isn't relevant. When translation takes place often words in one language could be translated as three or four, or more, words in the new language. For example, if you translate the phase "I love you," into Greek which word for love do you use? There are at least four different words that mean love in Greek but all of which have different meanings based on context. Further the translator's mastery of both languages will effect how the text is rendered in the new language. These are all issues that come with translations of texts that everyone acknowledges.

      So, why would it be different for Joseph Smith? I see no reason. In fact I see clear evidence of it. When Joseph goes back and makes textual alterations to the BoM in the second edition he does so no longer as an ignorant farm hand but as a man who has pursued education for years now, including multiple languages. The translator's mastery of languages advanced and as a result a clearer translation was given.

      Even if Whitmer is right that original translation was based off of what God had to work with in his chosen seer. The words that would appear could only be what he already knew.

      In the case of the Bible, the words that would come would be those he was already familiar with.

  2. Blake please show anywhere in church historical records from those who were involved in the production of the book of mormon where anyone claimes Joseph used the KJV of the bible as a "crib" text. To claim that is an anti mormon and heretical statement. Those who were involved time and again state he used a seer stone place into his hat and a parchment would appear with words on it and the words would not leave until they were written down correctly by the scribe.

    Making up that he used the KJV of the bible a crib notes is simple a lie to explain who unique problems with the KJV showed up in the book of mormon.

  3. If the Lord saw fit to have the text of the KJV of the Bible be the translation that appeared in the seer stones, I have no problem with that. I don't know of anyone who has claimed to have had experience with a seer stone participating in this topic of discussion, nor nor who has even pretended to, not even Jeremy Runnells. For those who don't speak two languages, translation is generally "close", and not always precise. The Lord is certainly sufficiently aware of the basis of meaning, the ways that languages transmit and represent meaning, and the structure of our brains that allow us to use and develop language, that he understands the weaknesses and limitations of language. This existence is not as complete as his arena is, and exists for us to have a body and experience in having one, and to exercise agency. As a thoughtful and wise philosophy major once pointed out to me at school, that just because one _can_ formulate a question _doesn't_ mean one _has_ to answer it. It is wisdom to be able to live with unanswered questions. Unless we have a brain-chemistry problem that hampers our focus and ability to exercise decision-making, we alone are responsible for who and what we allow to take up residence in our minds, or the focus of our attention.

    When the Lord said that His Grace is sufficient for us, can we accept that, or whine? He's the really smart and knowledgeable one. Assuming or pretending otherwise is pride, even hubris.

    Jeremy Runnells has a problem, or has problems, and they are his to solve or live with. Why should his problems live rent-free in my head? Or anyone's head?

  4. The CES Letter troubles me also. I started writing a response to the CES Letter, before I even read it. Meaning, I was responding to that same kind of unnuanced criticism of Mormonism that the CES Letter is doing. That material became the initial material I published at my blog site. And then I also published a very specific response to the CES Letter.

    My premise is similar to what I think Patrick Mason was saying in his 2016 FairMormon presentation. There is a version of Mormonism you can kill with the CES Letter. Frankly, it's the only Mormonism I knew for a long time in my life, and the version of Mormonism that many (most?) members know. That Mormonism teaches whitewashed history, relies too much on scripture literalism, implies infallibility of scripture and prophets, is too certain in its assertions of doctrine and absolute truth, and places too much emphasis on exclusivity. The CES Letter does a very good job chopping down that version of Mormonism.

    But, Mason referred to a different kind of Mormonism, a "sustainable" Mormonism, that you can't easily chop down with CES Letter type arguments. This is a Mormonism that's more nuanced on these issues, that embraces science and intellectual discovery, that doesn't fret over fallibility of prophets or scripture, or the messiness of church history. This is what most of us actually experience on a personal level, as we worship and serve in our wards each week.

    The CES Letter is very black and white with its conclusions. The brethren got something wrong => they must not ever be inspired. Joseph had sexual relations with polygamous wives including possibly teenage brides => he's a pedophile. The Book of Abraham papyri isn't authentic record of Abraham => Joseph is a fraud. The Book of Mormon doesn't appear to be historical => it can't be scripture. I accept each of the facts, but disagree with each of the conclusions.
    I look forward to reading more from you on this, including the response from Munns. Good luck with it.

    1. The problem, mate, is that the Mormonism you're talking about doesn't really exist. The absolutist, dogmatic Mormonism you pan is the Mormonism you'll hear at General Conference, the Mormonism you'll read about in all the correlated lesson manuals and the Ensign, and the Mormonism you'll hear preached over the pulpit every week in sacrament meeting. Just try and take your flexible, non-linear, nuanced Mormonism into your next Saturday evening Stake Conference adult session with the visiting member of the Area Presidency and let me know how that goes.

    2. Do you see an evidence that the leadership of the church embraces this "sustainable" Mormonism? I sure don't. I also agree the CES Letter conclusions are very black and white, but the leaders of the church seem to be very black and white as well. I would love that to change, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.

    3. It would seem to me that "sustainable Mormonism" is very similar to the RLDS around the time of its transformation into Community of Christ. Although perhaps a tad more Republican. Would that be a fair observation?

    4. Stephan,

      Sustainable Mormonism will be Mormonism of the Leonard Arrington and Richard L. Bushman variety; a type that is open about Church history, doctrine, and practices. We have a long way to go to be sure, but the gospel topics essays are a good start.


      Mormons tend to be black and white in their thinking, no doubt about it. But, that is to be expected from the Joseph Fielding Smith- Bruce R. McConkie generation who only valued that type of thinking. That does not need to be the case with generation.


      Depending on who the area authority was, Randall might have no problem or severe problems. Dallin H. Oaks, for example, is one of Richard L. Bushman's biggest fans. So there are those among the leadership of the Church who are open to nuance.

  5. Pretty much translation seems to be the issue here not authenticity.

    1. Terri,

      I think that Jeremy Runnells has a problem with both issues, due to his simple thinking of the process.

  6. CES questions are all answered here

    1. MWAWTV,

      Yes, thanks for that. The CES Letter has been answered several times.

  7. Your assertion that the errors from KJV got into the book of mormon from Joseph due to his familiarity to the KJV is exactly right. It's called plagiarism.

    However, your own church essay on translation has already DEBUNKED your theory. It says that the words appeared on the seer stone word for word:

    "According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English."

    Are you going to tell me that the seer stone inside Joseph's hat was delivering him words in KJV English along with all it's associated errors?

    A better theory that fits the evidence is that he likely had pages of KJV passages inserted into his translation hat. There's a reason that the top hat is the most common tool of an illusionist/magician.

    1. "Are you going to tell me that the seer stone inside Joseph's hat was delivering him words in KJV English along with all it's associated errors?"

      Why not? That's exactly what I think happened.

      "A better theory that fits the evidence is that he likely had pages of KJV passages inserted into his translation hat."

      This is an ad hoc rationalization that has no historical evidence.

      "There's a reason that the top hat is the most common tool of an illusionist/magician."

      This is just silly.

    2. The entire field of apologetics is riddled with rationalizations with no historical evidence. If you follow the historical evidence then everything falls apart. No steel, sheep, horses, references to a judeo-christian god, remnants of wars involving over a million people, no signs of the language being descended from hebrew, no DNA evidence has ever been found.

      So if you go with historical evidence the LDS church is false.

    3. Steven Smoot,

      Let me get this perfectly straight. You actually believe that God passed KJV translation errors (including italicized words and phrases that were added to the translated text for clarity) through an egg shaped seer stone placed in the bottom of a hat?

      I have no words. This lack of reason is mind-boggling. There is no possible way that those errors would have been contained on ancient records written thousands of years before the King James version was translated between the years 1604 and 1611.

      The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the Book of Mormon was/is a 19th century creation written in very bad 17th century grammar. The academic community is in total agreement. The book of Mormon is an obvious work of fiction.

      And yes, it is rather silly to believe that Joseph Smith translated an ancient record by placing a seer stone into a hat and dictating the words that appeared to him thereon. Especially when this was the precise method that he was documented to have employed to pretend to see buried treasure in the ground, and to defraud people seeking buried treasure. It is this activity for which he was arrested and later convicted of.

      Rational minds don't subscribe to these sorts of unfounded, supernatural religious claims. Not in the information age, anyway. You can believe whatever you like, but, don't pretend that your beliefs are founded in fact, evidence, or reality.

    4. Charles,

      Let's break that down. First, I mentioned that translation is interpretation, and that there is no reason why Joseph could not have used a King James Version of the Bible for clarity purposes; that is what those of his day thought of when they thought of scripture.

      Second, even the most sophisticated of anti-Mormon critics doubt that Joseph wrote the text-it is simply impossible. Also, the findings of Nahom and Bountiful in the near east substantiate what Joseph said, and he had no knowledge of that area.

      Is it hard to believe that Joseph translated with a seer stone? Yes. Harder to believe than that he made up a sophisticated text with his limited knowledge? No. As David Hume said, always go with the less miraculous miracle.

  8. That was a whole lot of build up with no delivery. CES letter 1: Tarik 0

    1. Ricko,

      I am not sure what you were expecting, these are not deep questions.

  9. "even the most sophisticated of anti-Mormon critics doubt that Joseph wrote the text-it is simply impossible."

    Balderdash on both counts. Many critics do think he wrote it, and it's not remotely impossible. Many have written books of similar length and content and style, with more depth and consistency. And it's especially believable considering the influences and remixing apparent within. Biblical fan fiction. Some originality and creativity involved, to be sure, and an audacious work, regardless, but also clearly a product of its own time and full of blunders and anachronisms that anyone without a vested sunk cost in its veracity can easily see.

    Heck, a sophisticated Mormon GA/scholar (BH Roberts) acknowledged exactly the opposite of what you suggest; that JS definitely could have written the BoM, and that it reflects the inconsistencies and wonder-tales of an immature mind.

    Read the first few verses of The First Book of Napoleon, from 1809, and tell me that wouldn't be right at home in the Book of Mormon if you changed the word "Gaul" to "Zarahemla." Not only is the BoM not a divine work for the ages; it's not even that unique for its own time and place.

    1. Gruduzna,

      Many critics do thing he wrote the book, I said the most sophisticated critics. There is a reason the Ethan Smith, Solomon Spaulding, etc theories come up, things are found in the text that just do not add up to a man of Joseph's knowledge to have.

      B.H. Roberts in his Studies of the Book of Mormon did say that it is possible the Joseph wrote the book, and even I admit that it is possible; but it is highly improbable. Critics also fail to mention when quoting Roberts that he mentioned many things were in the text that didn't add up to Joseph writing it.

      The Book Of Mormon has similarities to other texts, but not to the degree that critics are mentioning. The First Book of Napoleon is certainly not a text that accounts for a book as sophisticated as the Book of Mormon.

      A linguistic anthropologist, Daymon Smith, wrote a book called The Abridging Works, where he reconstructs the Book of Mormon and shows the linguistic complexity of the book. You can purchase it here.

    2. My reply to this statement....authors come up with complex story lines all the time. Are they "prophets"? J.R.R. Tolkien created worlds and new languages, he had a gift. The book of Mormon isn't even on the same level as that. Does that make Tolkien a prophet. The standard line that Joseph couldn't have written such a complex book is a stretch.

  10. As one who left the church after deconstructing Christianity, I find the mental gymnastics one uses to defend the Mormon church exhausting. The church, as an organization, is unmatched in its redefining of words, such as "translation". It gets frustrating when members, like my wife, will say, "well translation in this case is different". If it isn't translating from one language into another than use the correct term to define the process. In my opinion, I feel a more accurate definition would be "auto writing". That would make more sense. At least have the maturity to admit to something that makes sense. KJV mistakes make sense when we understand that we are influenced by the words of other authors. If the words "lit up" the stone as leaders have stated, then that is from "god", so there should be no errors. However, if Joe is making up a story, or possibly filling in parts for the lost 116 pages....this is more plausible.

    Joseph never looked at the plates, the church has finally admitted that. The problem arises when those that advocated this line of thinking were punished in the past. Yesterday's "anti Mormon" lies are today's truths. It is mind boggling and tiresome. Why move the goalposts when "god" is unchanging and perfect. I understand that men make mistakes, but if "god" really did help old Joe, then why all the mistakes and alterations. I was taught it was the most correct out of all the books ever written...whatever that means. Yes the most correct book that was riddled with punctuation errors and doctrinal errors. Now it seems all the changes over time have made it more fluid.

    The Mormon church is simply one belief system out of thousands. To claim absolute truth, and the only way to back to heaven and live with loved ones, is to open it up to scrutiny. That statement has offended, and continues to offend, good people everywhere.

    1. One thing is certain.... none of us are in possession of all truth, so a lot of this to-ing and fro-ing and arguing are all feeble and biased attempts at best at realising the complete truth on the things of the workings of God (and perhaps this is the way it should be). As far as people being offended... this will always be the case no matter what the subject and conclusions may be. So how do we know the truth? I think we all know the answer to that one, or is this just the start to another debate going nowhere in particular? Better that we are true to our own consciences and let God be the judge in the end.