Who wrote Ether 3? Or, Why Mormons do not fear the Documentary Hypothesis

The story of the appearance of Jesus Christ to the brother of Jared is one of the highlights of the Book of Mormon.  Searching out who exactly the author or authors of this chapter are can be illuminating. Let’s take a look: I can see five authors – how many do you count?

1. Moroni.

The Book of Ether, we are told, is transcribed by Moroni on to plates. Ether 1:1 states:

AND now I, Moroni, proceed to give an account of those ancient inhabitants who were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country.

This seems pretty clear: Moroni states he is an author. His commentary is present throughout the Book of Ether.

2. Ether.

While Moroni did the engraving onto the plates, though, he did not originate all of the material. He writes in Ether 1:6:

 And on this wise do I give the account. He that wrote this record was Ether, and he was a descendant of Coriantor.

Simply put, Moroni states he is reworking material at hand, a record originally written by Ether. And indeed, we are reading from the Book of Ether. So far, two authors. But let’s keep going.

3. The brother of Jared.

Ether 3 recounts a theophany, where Christ appears to the brother of Jared. Ether wasn’t there at the time, nor was Moroni. They do not claim to be writing this story via revelation. Rather, the brother of Jared wrote down his experience. After the theophany, the brother of Jared is commanded to record it, as described in the last verses of chapter 3 and the first verses of chapter 4:

And the Lord said unto him [the brother of Jared]: Write these things and seal them up; and I will show them in mine own due time unto the children of men. …And the Lord commanded the brother of Jared to go down out of the mount from the presence of the Lord, and write the things which he had seen; and they were forbidden to come unto the children of men until after that he should be lifted up upon the cross; and for this cause did king Mosiah keep them, that they should not come unto the world until after Christ should show himself unto his people.

OK, so far this is pretty straightforward: the brother of Jared had an amazing experience. He wrote it down, then Ether re-recorded it onto his record, and then Moroni wrote the story again, with plenty of commentary inserted as the story is related.

Neither Ether nor Moroni indicate that they are writing a word-for-word transcription, and we also know that Ether’s recording was not in the language that Nephites typically read. How do we know this? Because earlier on, Mormon records that when Ether’s record was found, no one could read it. It had to be translated. This brings us to our fourth author:

4. Mosiah.

Remember that Mosiah (son of King Benjamin) is brought twenty four gold plates to translate, plates that the people of Limhi had found.  Moroni reminds us of this in the second verse of the book Ether:

And I take mine account from the twenty and four plates which were found by the people of Limhi, which is called the Book of Ether.

Recall that these plates were translated by Mosiah – one of the places we first meet the two stones fastened into a bow for the purposes of translation in the Book of Mormon, back in Mosiah 28. Here are some relevant verses:

11 Therefore he took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, and also the plates of Nephi, and all the things which he had kept and preserved according to the commandments of God, after having translated and caused to be written the records which were on the plates of gold which had been found by the people of Limhi, which were delivered to him by the hand of Limhi;

17 Now after Mosiah had finished translating these records, behold, it gave an account of the people who were destroyed, from the time that they were destroyed back to the building of the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people and they were scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth, yea, and even from that time back until the creation of Adam.

 18 Now this account did cause the people of Mosiah to mourn exceedingly, yea, they were filled with sorrow; nevertheless it gave them much knowledge, in the which they did rejoice.

 19 And this account shall be written hereafter; for behold, it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account.

Here it is clear that Mosiah was the source of the understanding of this record. While it is possible that Moroni might have re-translated these plates, he never mentions translating during his extensive work, whereas he does a lot of transcribing and editing of records he already has. Thus, it seems likely that Moroni is working from Mosiah’s translation of Ether’s record of the brother of Jared’s original account.

However, now that the subject of translation comes up, we must acknowledge that in any translation, the translator plays a role. The Book of Mormon is filled with passages that mirror the King James Bible, no doubt in part because Joseph Smith was familiar with the King James translation.  This brings us to our fifth contributor:

5. Joseph Smith.

That Joseph Smith’s input to the Book of Mormon was not divinely fixed but rather in part depended on Joseph himself was asserted by his biggest fan, Brigham Young, as recorded in the Journal of Discourses:

When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities. He spoke to the children of Jacob through Moses, as a blind, stiff-necked people, and when Jesus and his Apostles came they talked with the Jews as a benighted, wicked, selfish people. They would not receive the Gospel, though presented to them by the Son of God in all its righteousness, beauty and glory. Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiff-necked, the Lord can tell them but little. (JD 9:311)

It seems that Brigham Young understood the translation of the Book of Mormon to be similar to other forms of translation – that frequently there is no single optimal way to translate passages, and so different translations are not a sign of imperfection but rather the limitations of human language.

There may be other authors. We don’t know, for example, if Mormon did any editing of the Mosiah translation when he received the plates (before Moroni got to the task), or if anyone else who held the plates between Mosiah and Moroni had any input. Nor do we know whether Ether had the original account of the brother of Jared, written hundreds of years (at least 28 generations) earlier. It seems possible that during those hundreds of years, some other translation or editing might have occurred.

So, I can estimate at least 5 different authors for Ether 3: Moroni, Ether, the brother of Jared, Mosiah, and Joseph Smith. The presence of multiple authors isn’t really surprising, once you reflect on it; we are fully comfortable as Mormons with all of these authors. We are completely fine with inspired editing and record keeping, the passing down and reworking of sacred writ.

Why is this of interest? One reason is our course of study this year in Sunday School, the Old Testament. All modern commentaries discuss the Documentary Hypothesis – the idea that the Five Books of Moses are a synthesis of four earlier documents.  While all agree it is only a hypothesis, and there are still ongoing debates about the degree of its applicability or validity, it is a concept that those who search the scriptures will come across.

To me, it seems Mormons are uniquely well equipped to not only accept, but embrace the idea underlying the Documentary Hypothesis. We are totally fine with one prophet editing and adding to what another prophet wrote, and still calling it The Book of Ether (or Alma, and so on).

And this analysis can be useful. For example, as Grant Hardy showed in his outstanding book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, we can learn a lot by thinking about who authored which verses in the Book of Mormon. I find his analysis of story in Ether 3 and the Christology of both Ether and Moroni to be fascinating.

Why not consider the same concepts for other scriptures?