Los Angeles Times
Saturday June 19, 1993
Metro, Page 4
SALT LAKE CITY-- To most Mormons, the volume of scripture that defines the faith is "a marvelous work and a wonder" of ancient origin that was revealed to church founder Joseph Smith by an angel.
But to Brent Lee Metcalfe and a handful of other Mormon researchers, the weight of linguistic, textual, archeological and other evidence places the origin of the Book of Mormon squarely in the 19th Century.
What they challenge is perhaps the most cherished and unique Mormon belief: that Smith's 1830 translation of the Book of Mormon was based on writings he found on gold plates left by Hebrews who migrated to the Americas in 600 BC and were later visited by a resurrected Jesus Christ.
Last year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sold or distributed nearly 5 million copies of the 531-page work that Smith called "the most correct of any book on earth."
That statement is questioned by the 10 contributors to "New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology." The book is edited by Metcalfe and was published this month by Signature Books.
Nine of the 10 contributors are Mormon church members with varying degrees of participation. Three--Edward Ashment, Melodie Moench Charles and Stan Larson--formerly worked in the church's Translation Services.
"Every one of us started as believing that the Book of Mormon was an ancient historical document translated from gold plates, and this is where we've come," said Metcalfe, a technical editor in the computer industry.
Among many conclusions is that Smith's extensive reliance on the King James version of the Bible peppered the text with anachronisms, and that existing geographical and archeological evidence in Mesoamerica does not "achieve even a partial fit" with Book of Mormon civilizations.
Metcalfe sees the book's contributors as "more scientifically inclined, more analytical in their thinking" than mainstream Mormons and views their work as a natural outgrowth of the church's emphasis on scripture study.
He contends that he is not out to shake the Mormon faith, but church-owned Deseret Book has banned Metcalfe's work from its chain of bookstores.
Indeed, church leaders consistently warn members against purely intellectual examination of a scriptural canon that includes the Bible, saying faith and prayer are essential to its understanding.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the church's Council of the Twelve Apostles pointed out that the Mormon founder translated the gold plates of the Book of Mormon quickly, at a rate of seven to 10 pages a day without review or revision.
"King James scholars--54 of them over seven years--averaged about one page per day in producing the precious Holy Bible," Maxwell added.
If the critical essayists doubt the book's antiquity, they do not necessarily see it as a worthless fraud. Former Brigham Young University professor David Wright, now in Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., finds Smith just "as interesting and religiously relevant when understood to be the author of the Book of Mormon as when he is considered the translator."
Although he doubts its antiquity, Wright considers the Book of Mormon scripture, just as Christian and Jewish scholars view portions of the Bible as Scripture but not literal history.
"That, to me, is intellectually incoherent," said William Hamblin, a BYU history professor and board member of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.
For Hamblin, and for other believing Mormon scholars whom Metcalfe labels apologists, Smith's prophetic mantle and the Book of Mormon's historical authenticity are inextricably linked.
The foundation is planning responses to Metcalfe's book, some of whose contributors Hamblin characterized as "people who really don't believe anything."
Wright said he believes that Mormonism will come to resemble Catholicism in its accommodation of diversity within its ranks, "where you have people adhering to one general common tradition, but you have scholars that are developing academic perspectives and critical perspectives."
For now, however, Wright said Mormons who believe as he does and "still love the church and want to be part of it" have trouble finding a place.
"That's where the real difficulty lies--in the sociology and the politics of the religion and scholarship," he said.