Is the Expression “Make a Record” Evidence for the Book of Mormon? A Case Study in Testing Mormon Apologetic Arguments

Nephi makes a record

The “Book of Mormon Central” website, founded by LDS scholars Lynne Wilson and John W. Welch in 2015 and operated by the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, has quickly become a popular source for apologetic arguments in defense of the antiquity and authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Many of the arguments presented there were previously advanced by LDS scholars and other apologists, while some of the arguments appear to be new ones, presumably originating with the Mormons responsible for producing the website.

One such new argument for the Book of Mormon appeared on the website on June 26, 2018, in an anonymous article, as well as in a video on YouTube posted the same day.[1] Since it is anonymous, I will simply refer to the author as BMC (Book of Mormon Central). The opening sentences (which are the same in the article and the video) sum up the claim:

The writers of the Book of Mormon often stated that they would “make a record” of the things that they had seen or done. The fact that they said they would “make a record” rather than “write a record” or some other similar phrase may seem insignificant. However, this phrase provides evidence that the writers of the Book of Mormon had training in the ways of ancient scribes.

When reading or listening to an argument, it is important to pay close attention and to ask questions. Is this statement or assertion factually accurate? What is the source of this information? Does the conclusion follow from the premises or the information provided? Let’s use this recent argument as a case study in how to go about evaluating an argument.

 

What does the text really say?

The first thing we will want to do is to confirm the basic claim or claims being made. In this instance, BMC claims that the Book of Mormon writers used the wording make a record “rather than” the expression write a record or something similar. Immediately we will want to know if it is true that the Book of Mormon used one expression and not another. It turns out this claim is not correct.

In the Book of Mormon, we do find “make a/the record” (1 Ne. 1:1, 2, 3; 1 Ne. 19:4; 3 Ne. 5:11, 14, 17, 18; Mormon 1:1; 2:17; 6:6; 8:5) or “make/made my/this record” (3 Ne. 5:10, 16; Ether 13:14) some 15 times. However, we also find other expressions:

  • “wrote/written/wrote the/this record(s)” four times (1 Ne. Pref.; Mosiah 28:11b; Mormon 9:32; Ether 1:6)
  • “(make an) abridgment of the record” (Title Page; 1 Ne. 1:17); “abridged the record” (1 Ne. 1:17)
  • “engraven the record(s)” or the equivalent 15 times (1 Ne. 3:10, 24; 5:10; 19:1 [twice], 2; 2 Ne. 5:12; Jarom 1:14; Omni 1:11; Mosiah 1:3, 16; 10:16; 21:27; 28:11a; 3 Ne. 5:10)
  • “keep/kept a/the/their/this record(s)” 18 times (1 Ne. 5:16; 2 Ne. 5:29; Jacob 7:26; Omni 1:9; Mosiah 24:6; 28:20; Alma 3:12; 37:2; 45:2; Hel. 3:13, 15; 3 Ne. 1:2, 3; 8:1; 23:7; 4 Ne. 1:19, 21, 47)[2]

Of course, there are other descriptions that do not use the word record or records but that use such verbs as make, write, and abridge with other nouns such as account, plates, words, and writing.

Now, perhaps BMC meant to say that in certain places the Book of Mormon uses “make a record” instead of “write a record,” though in other places that expression and similar ones do occur. In any case, it is important to recognize that these other ways of speaking about the production of the Book of Mormon texts do occur, a fact BMC never mentions. We will see why this is significant later.

 

What does the scholar cited in support of the argument really say?

The heart of the argument takes as its point of departure an Old Testament text that refers to “making many books” (Eccl. 12:12).[3] BMC seizes on the use of “making” here, arguing that the statement probably refers to the composition or writing of books and not to physically constructing the book. (In modern terms, the difference would be that of a writer or editor in contrast to that of a printer.) In support it cites Michael Fishbane’s academic work Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (1985). This is the only secondary source, other than LDS writings about the Book of Mormon, cited in the BMC article (in eight of the first eleven footnotes). If we want to assess the soundness of the argument BMC presents, then, we will need to look at Fishbane’s book.[4]

Fishbane does take the view that the words in Ecclesiastes 12:12 “should be rendered ‘to compose’ or ‘to compile books,’ not to ‘do’ or ‘make’ them.”[5] Ironically, this means that Fishbane thinks the KJV rendering with “making” is a mistranslation, or perhaps we might say an overly literal translation. Be that as it may, Fishbane does say that the word translated “making” in Ecclesiastes 12:12 (Ꜥasah, an extremely common Hebrew verb with a wide variety of uses in different contexts) means to compose or compile books.

Unfortunately, BMC overstates the matter in zeal to defend the Book of Mormon. The article summarizes Fishbane’s linguistic argument for his interpretation of Ecclesiastes 12:12 and then concludes, “Thus, when these scribes were literally being asked to “make a record” they were simply being asked to write a book.” That is not an accurate statement. Neither Ecclesiastes 12:12 nor any other text mentioned by Fishbane uses the expression “make a record.” The expression in Ecclesiastes 12:12 is “make a book,” not “make a record.” No ancient scribes were ever “literally being asked to ‘make a record.’” That way of putting things has no direct corresponding expression in ancient literature, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly is not documented by Fishbane. The BMC video goes even further in its overstatement into outright falsehood: “Some scholars have argued that the unusual phrase, ‘make a record,’ as found in some Old Testament books, is a result of the influence of ancient Near Eastern scribal culture.” The phrase “make a record” is not found in any Old Testament books, and the expression “make books” is found in only one, Ecclesiastes 12:12.

We see the same problem when BMC goes on to make the same sort of claim regarding the Book of Mormon’s use of the term abridgement. Here is what the BMC article says on this matter:

This idea is strengthened by the use of the word “abridgement” in the Book of Mormon. Ecclesiastes 12:9, a nearby verse that also describes ancient scribal practices, states that “the preacher … set in order many proverbs.” The phrase “set in order” is a translation of a single word that means “to edit” or “to arrange,” or in other words, “to abridge.” This phrase was also commonly used by scribes in the ancient Near East.

The video likewise claims, with apparent unambiguous simplicity, that “the word ‘abridgement’…is also used in the Old Testament.”

The sole source for this claim is also Fishbane, and once again the claim made in the article (and especially the video) is not supported by what Fishbane actually says. The statement in the article is ambiguous as to whether the words “to abridge” are actually in Fishbane’s book (the expression “or in other words” leaves the matter uncertain). They are not. Fishbane says only that he thinks it likely that in Ecclesiastes 12:9 the Hebrew word tiqqēn “means ‘to edit’ or ‘to arrange’ in some sense.”[6] To “edit” or “arrange” textual material does not mean to “abridge” that material (i.e., to produce a shortened version of it). Editorial work, broadly considered, in some instances might include abridgement, but editing does not mean abridging, any more than it means expanding or censoring the text.

Both the article and the video argue that since in the Old Testament (specifically Ecclesiastes 12) “references to making a record and abridging texts occur next to each other,” these expressions, found in the Book of Mormon, “were almost certain technical scribal terms” in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which Nephi and his successors originated. But the argument proceeds from a false premise. Neither the expression “making a record” nor the term “abridging” (or any form of these expressions) is found in Ecclesiastes or anywhere else in the Bible.[7]

 

Who needs to show that a difference or a similarity is significant?

A Mormon defending the Book of Mormon might suppose that there is no significant difference between the expressions “make a record” and “make a book.” This supposition would need to be supported by evidence, however. But does the claim that I am making, that the difference is significant, also need to be supported by evidence? No. I shall explain.

Let’s go back to the starting point of the BMC argument. They notice the difference between “make a record” and “write a record.” They suggest that this difference is significant. Now we have another question to ask about this starting point. If there is a significant difference between “make a record” and “write a record,” why would there not be a significant difference between “make a book” and “make a record”? The BMC argument assumes that using make instead of write is significant but using record instead of book is not significant. However, in order to make (!) this argument work as showing evidence for the Book of Mormon, BMC actually needs to show why using make instead of write is significant but using record instead of book is not. The burden of proof—the responsibility to provide evidence to back up one’s argument—is on the Mormon claiming that this feature of the Book of Mormon text is evidence for its antiquity and authenticity. In order to show that this evidence is genuine, the Mormon apologist needs to explain why one verbal difference is important but the other verbal difference is not. The person questioning the argument does not need to prove that the other verbal difference (record instead of book) is significant.

Let’s put the matter another way. In both the article and the video, BMC claims erroneously that the expression “make a record” was used in ancient Near Eastern texts; the video even claims this expression occurs “in some Old Testament books.” That claim turns out to be false. Why did BMC make these claims? The answer is that BMC was attempting to draw an equivalency between the Book of Mormon expression and the wording found in Ecclesiastes and (as far as we know) in a handful of extrabiblical texts. That equivalency is clearly lost if in fact the Book of Mormon expression does not occur in any of those ancient texts. The word “make” by itself is not relevant; the supposed technical expression, according to Fishbane (the only source BMC cites on this point), is “make books.” And that expression is not the one in the Book of Mormon that BMC is trying to argue is the same technical expression.

 

What does that word really mean?

As we have already noted, BMC cites Michael Fishbane to support the claim that the Hebrew word tiqqēn means to abridge a text. That is not what Fishbane says at all. However, we should not be satisfied with determining what the secondary source (in this case, Fishbane) says. The term secondary sources refers to sources that comment on or engage with the meaning of the source that is our main concern, which is called the primary source (in this case, Ecclesiastes 12:9). One way to do that is to turn to secondary sources that provide information more directly about the primary source. Let’s look at Fishbane’s comment in full:

Thus, although the basic meaning of the biblical Hebrew verb tiqqēn in Eccles. 12:9 is ‘to correct,’ it is found with the developed scribal sense ‘to edit’ both in the contemporary Aramaic milieu to which Ecclesiastes was so indebted and in rabbinic Hebrew. It is therefore quite likely that the technical use of tiqqēn in Eccles. 12:9 also means ‘to edit’ or ‘to arrange’ in some sense, although it is unclear whether this development derives through an Aramaic or a rabbinic linguistic filter.[8]

Let’s see what we can find out about this Hebrew word tiqqēn and take a closer look at its usage in Ecclesiastes 12:9. Any number of reference works and biblical study tools[9] will inform us that the word occurs just three times in the Old Testament, all of them in Ecclesiastes (1:15; 7:13; 12:9). What does the word mean in the two earlier occurrences in Ecclesiastes?

What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. (Eccl. 1:15)
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? (Eccl. 7:13)

In both instances, the Hebrew verb tiqqēn is an antonym for being crooked or being made crooked (both verses use the same Hebrew meaning “is/made crooked”), and thus is translated “made/make straight” in English (in the ESV as quoted above, and in virtually all English versions). The image of being straight, of course, can be used to express something other than a geometrical straight line. When we turn to the standard lexicon by Brown, Driver, and Briggs, we find the following general definitions: “become straightarrange, put rightset in order,” with the meaning in Ecclesiastes 12:9 as “put straight, arrange in order (proverbs).”[10] Other lexicons, such as those by Holladay, agree: “be straightbe straightenedmake straight,” and in Ecclesiastes 12:9, “get (proverbs) into good order.”[11]

When we turn to contemporary English versions at Ecclesiastes 12:9, we find that the majority of them translate tiqqēn as “arranged” or “arranging” (CSB, ESV, LEB, NAB, NASB, NET, NRSV). This was one of Fishbane’s proposed translations of the word, as quoted above. A few follow the KJV rendering “set in order” (notably the NIV and NKJV). Both renderings understand the prosaic or literal use of the word to mean “to make straight” as referring to the setting or arranging of textual elements in some sort of order. The verb neither expresses nor includes, explicitly or implicitly, the concept of abridging a longer text.

There is another reason why abridgment simply cannot be in view here: What Ecclesiastes 12:9 says is that the Preacher arranged “many proverbs” (as all ten of the versions cited above agree). The word translated “proverbs” here (mashal) is the same noun used in Proverbs 1:1, the title of the book of Proverbs (“The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel”). It occurs four times in the book of Proverbs, which is attributed in 1:1 to Solomon because he was the main individual who initially compiled and arranged them (see also 10:1; 25:1). The “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes 12:9 is identified in the title at the beginning of the book, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Eccl. 1:1), worded parallel to Proverbs 1:1 and a clear reference to Solomon. Obviously, one does not and cannot “abridge” proverbs, which are by definition short, pithy sayings. Ecclesiastes 12:9, therefore, not only does not use a word that could mean “to abridge,” in context it definitely cannot be referring to the act of abridging a long text into a shorter one.

 

Is there a better explanation for all of the evidence?

We have shown that the evidence presented by BMC does not support the claim that the expression “make a record” in the Book of Mormon is an ancient Near Eastern scribal technical term. Still, a Mormon could reply that although the argument BMC offered does not prove the claim, it still might be true. Perhaps better evidence will be found. Perhaps evidence will also be found for ancient Near Eastern scribes describing some of their work as “abridging” texts.

There are at least three problems with such a hypothetical response. First, it would be a fallacious appeal to ignorance. That fallacy argues that just because we are ignorant of evidence supporting a claim doesn’t mean the claim is false. Such an argument is fallacious (logically invalid) because the issue is whether the claim is even credible. We see these sorts of arguments all the time on various subjects. If someone argues that there is good evidence out there for the existence of Martians and we just don’t know it yet, the proper response is that this argument assumes that the idea of Martians is itself credible. We actually have abundant evidence that no Martians exist (the surface of Mars has been photographed extensively, for example), but admittedly it can be difficult to prove a negative. (How do you know there isn’t a Martian civilization living underground?) The fallacy is in trying to defend a belief as credible on the bare possibility that evidence will someday materialize that supports that belief, even though at present the belief appears to lack serious credibility.

The second problem is that the Book of Mormon apologists have failed to consider if there might be a better explanation for which good evidence exists right now. This is a common failing in Book of Mormon apologetics. Mormons, enthusiastic about any apparent support for the Book of Mormon, seize on anything that looks like evidence for their view without checking to see if the evidence is adequately or even better explained in some other way.

Third, the issue raised by BMC concerns only part of the evidence regarding the language used in the Book of Mormon to describe the authors’ work. That is, it only addresses the expression “make a record” and the word “abridge.” As mentioned earlier, though, the Book of Mormon uses several other descriptions that involve the noun record, including “writing,” “abridging,” “engraving,” and “keeping” records.

None of these expressions using the term record(s) appears to have any direct analogue in the Old Testament (or in the New). We have already noted that Ecclesiastes 12:12 speaks of “making many books” but not of “making” a record or records. No biblical text speaks of “engraving” records, books, or the like. Nor does the Bible (whether in the KJV or in the ancient Hebrew or Greek texts) ever speak of “keeping” a record.

The KJV does speak in one place of a record being “written” (Ezra 6:2), but most contemporary versions construe the word “record” or “memorandum” as the title of the document that is quoted in what follows (see Ezra 6:2-12 in the ESV, NAB, NASB, NIV, NJB, NLT, NRSV, TNK, etc.).[12] The ESV is typical: “And in Ecbatana, the citadel that is in the province of Media, a scroll was found on which this was written: ‘A record. In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree (Ezra 6:2-3).

I have not attempted to research ancient extrabiblical literature, but the overall picture from the biblical writings does not look promising for the LDS claim that the Book of Mormon uses scribal technical terms in use in the ancient Near Eastern culture of Old Testament times. If this were the case, one would expect to find some trace of these expressions using the term record(s) in the biblical texts, but we do not.

By contrast, English works in the 1700s and 1800s did speak of “writing,” “keeping,” and “making” records. Specifically with regard to the expression “make a record” (and variants using “makes,” “making,” “made,” etc.), the focus of the BMC article and video, this expression appears to have been primarily a legal or governmental expression in Anglo-American culture in the 1700s and early 1800s. The expression occurs repeatedly in several legal reference works from the first half of the nineteenth century dealing with cases in (for example) Maine,[13] Pennsylvania,[14] Massachusetts,[15] and New York.[16]

One also finds the expression used in non-legal contexts, including religious contexts. For example, Thomas M’Clintock uses the term “record” repeatedly in reference to “the scriptures” as well as any post-biblical writings that might express Christian doctrines, even using the exact expression “make a record.”[17] M’Clintock, a Quaker abolitionist who lived in Pennsylvania and New York[18] and who had no connection to Mormonism, published this work in 1837, just a few years after the Book of Mormon.

The expression “made a record” does appears in the KJV translation of the Apocrypha, in the Greek additions to Esther: “And the king made a record of these things” (12:4). In this passage, however, the Greek text literally says, “The king wrote these words for a record” (ἔγραψεν ὁ βασιλεὺς τοὺς λόγους τούτους εἰς μνημόσυνον, 12:16 Greek). Notice that the expression in the English version reflects the predominant English usage of the expression as a legal idiom, whereas the Greek does not use a corresponding expression.

Thus, it turns out that “make a record” is a modern legal expression that could be used in other contexts, not an ancient scribal expression. Likewise, the expressions “write a record,” “abridge a record,” and even (to a very limited extent for obvious technological reasons) “engraving a record” were all in use in Joseph Smith’s Anglo-American culture.

 

Small details do matter!

The BMC article and video conclude their argument as follows:

Because these details of ancient Near Eastern scribal training were unknown at the time the Book of Mormon was published, these small points serve as evidence for its authenticity.

We can and should agree that small details can often be important clues or pieces of evidence. Like the seemingly picayune observations of television detectives like Columbo or Monk, paying attention to seemingly minor details can yield important pieces of evidence with regard to the authenticity of a text. This possibility, however, works both ways. Suppose the Book of Mormon did make appropriate, correct usage of scribal technical terms current in the ancient Near East that was neither known nor used in Joseph Smith’s day. That would be good evidence in support of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient literature reflecting the Near Eastern origins of its authors’ culture. On the other hand, if the Book of Mormon did not use such ancient Near Eastern terminology but instead used modern idiomatic expressions reflecting Joseph Smith’s Anglo-American cultural context, that finding would by the same reasoning count against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient literature. And that is precisely what we find when we cast a wider net in an effort to consider as much of the evidence as we can, rather than simply cherry-picking one piece of evidence that seems to support the view we favor.

It is not my contention that the expression “make a record” in and of itself disproves the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. However, it certainly is not evidence for it, and if anything it counts somewhat against it, by the very reasoning that BMC advances in its argument.

 

NOTES

[1] “How is the Phrase ‘Make a Record’ an Evidence for the Book of Mormon?” KnoWhy #444, Book of Mormon Central, and YouTube, June 26, 2018. Subsequent quotations are identified as coming from either the article or the video.

[2] It is possible in a few places to understand this expression to refer to the activity of safeguarding or continuing to possess existing records, but in many references the idea is clearly to maintaining updated records or accounts by adding to them as time passages.

[3] Biblical quotations are taken from the ESV unless noted otherwise.

[4] The book is widely available in academic libraries. Those who have Amazon Prime can preview the relevant pages of Fishbane’s book online: https://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Interpretation-Ancient-Clarendon-Paperbacks/dp/0198266995.

[5] Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 31.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] There does not seem to be even any reference using other words to abridging texts; for example, there are no references to a text being “shortened.”

[8] Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, 32. I have transliterated the Hebrew word for the reader’s convenience.

[9] Articles reviewing both free and commercial biblical study apps, software programs, and online tools can be found at http://bib.irr.org/category/bible-study.

[10] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, Hebrew-Aramaic and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), 1075, #10633, electronic edition, BibleWorks 10.

[11] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament: Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Leiden: Brill, 2000), electronic edition, BibleWorks 10.

[12] The NKJV and the CSB seem to be the only notable exceptions.

[13] Laws of the State of Maine (Brunswick: J. Griffin, 1821), 2:xlii, lxxix, 460, 508, 526, 540, 586, 689, 711, 824, etc.

[14] Thomas I. Wharton, A Digest of Cases Adjudged in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Third Circuit, and in the Courts of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Philip H. Nicklin, 1822), 223, 417.

[15] The Revised Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ed. Thomas Metcalf and Horace Mann (Boston: Dutton & Wentworth, 1836), 70, 175, 182, 728.

[16] Thomas W. Clerke, A Practical Elementary Digest of the Reported Cases in the Supreme Court of Judicature, and the Court for the Correction of Errors, of the State of New York (New York: Gould, Banks, & Co., 1845), 2:683, 831, 834, 837.

[17] Thomas M’Clintock, Observations on the Articles Published in the Episcopal Recorder, over the Signature of “A Member of the Society of Friends” (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1837), 37, see also 16, 38, 40, 42, 44. Note the use of the term “recorder” in the name of the Christian publication to which M’Clintock was responding.

[18] It is interesting to note that M’Clintock moved to Waterloo, New York, about 25 miles from Joseph Smith’s family farm in Palmyra, in 1836, six years after Joseph published the Book of Mormon.

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