A Recent “Anti-Mormon” Essay: Trying to Understand Gee’s Response, Part II

In the last post I looked closely at the details of Dr. John Gee’s critique of Dr. Paul Owen’s essay in the most recent volume of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (JBMS). In that post I dealt especially with (1) Gee’s misrepresentation of Owen’s essay, (2) his lack of understanding of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra, and (3) how Gee’s response shows a lack of thoroughness in checking historical sources in making his critique of Owen’s paper. I promised at the beginning of that post that in a second part I would discuss Gee’s lack of awareness of the field of intertextuality in general. More specifically I will first describe Owen’s essay and how he understands the parallels, then I will contrast that with how the essay is portrayed by Gee’s statements. I will discuss the parallels between 2 Esdras/4 Ezra and 1 Ne. 13-14 in the context that they are placed in Owen’s essay, at the same time bringing his piece into dialogue with the broader field of intertextual studies.

 

Bringing 2 Esdras/4 Ezra into Dialogue

One of the most significant contributions of Owen’s essay is that he brings the Book of Mormon (BM) into dialogue with an apocryphal work. As will be seen further below, although Owen is not the first to note the general connections, he is the first to bring the two texts into dialogue by noting specific parallels.[1] Studies on the parallels between the BM and the Apocrypha have been very limited, relegated mostly to the realm of polemical literature.[2] Owen invites the reader to critically explore these parallels in many different ways after first making the connections.

At the beginning of his essay Owen notes that within 1 Ne. 11-14 there are “thirteen apocalyptic visions in which the future mysteries pertaining to the Lamb and his church are disclosed to Nephi…”[3] He then details specifically which verses throughout chs. 11-14 constitute the vision of the tree of life, the vision of the virgin mother, and so on. After noting the literary structure Owen explains the “arguments and contributions” that he will make in the paper to the discussion of 1 Ne. These include: the main role that the great and abominable church will play is in corrupting the Old Testament (OT); 1 Ne. supports the idea that the OT was bigger at one time than it is now, including both public and private texts; “the Jew” highlighted in 1 Ne. 13-14 is Ezra; “In all likelihood some sort of literary relationship exists between 1 Nephi and 2 Esdras in the Apocrypha”;[4] among others. These points will have direct bearing for understanding the sections of Owen’s paper that discuss the parallels.

Owen goes into a detailed discussion of the “vision of the great and abominable church” in 1 Ne. 13:1-14:8,[5] then the “vision of the mother of harlots” in 1 Ne. 14:9-17,[6] and finally the “vision of John the apostle” in 1 Ne. 14:18-30.[7] This overview provides a clear understanding of the narrative setting of these visions, and how they connect to one another. Owen claims that “the author of 1 Nephi employs apocalyptic conventions in relaying the content of these visions.”[8] The benefit of employing these conventions is the fact that the symbolic or mythical overtones of the section can repeatedly find new meaning and interpretation. In order to discern the identity of the great and abominable church, Owen claims that 1 Ne. 13:7-9 holds the key. “These verses emphasize the financial power and worldy prosperity of the great church, which destroys the saints “for the praise of the world” (v. 9),” and “The saints are destroyed when they are allured and attracted by the visible pomp and circumstance of the worldly church.”[9] This church is set in history as it is described as corrupting the scriptures “after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (1 Ne. 13:26).

Owen asks what the identity of this church is and concludes that it is postapostolic and slowly exercises control over the contents of the earlier Jewish texts. He argues that this represents a form of Christianity in the Roman Empire after the time of Constantine. In a footnote Owen explains how he disagrees with Stephen Robinson in his essay “Early Christianity and 1 Nephi 13-14,”[10] in identifying the great and abominable church with Christianity post-313 CE. They disagree because Robinson views the scripture that is to be corrupted by the false church as the New Testament (NT), whereas Owen sees it as the OT including other now lost apocryphal works that were in circulation and used by the “wise” up to the death of the apostles. There are several considerations that support Owen’s thesis over Robinson’s.

First, the angel describes to Nephi in 1 Ne. 13:23 that the future bible “is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many…” The brass plates that Nephi took from Laban contain many more texts than will be included in the bible in the future. As Rex C. Reeve, Jr. put it (in the same publication as Robinson), “The brass plates were comparable to, but more complete than, our current Old Testament down to about 600 B.C.”[11] Later in the same publication Robert J. Matthews comments on the contents of the brass plates as described in 1 Ne. 13:

This explanation gives us to understand why the Bible in its reduced form–the Protestant and Catholic versions of the seventeenth century–is smaller than the plates of brass, as noted in verse 23. This comparative expression by the angel gives us a clue as to just how much has been “taken away” and lost to our present Bible. The plates of brass contained a record beginning with the five books of Moses down to Jeremiah–only a portion of the time period of the Old Testament and none of the New–yet the reduced version of the whole Bible–the Bible with which we are acquainted, containing both the Old and New Testaments–is “not so many” as the record on the plates of brass.[12]

According to 1 Ne. 13 there is a large portion missing from the bible that was there originally. This brings me to my second point that various individuals throughout the BM are aware of some of these texts. They are explicitly alluded to and even occasionally quoted at length. A good example of this is found in Jacob 5, where part of the now lost writings of Zenos, the “allegory of the olive tree,” is brought to light.[13] The writings of Zenos are referenced twelve times altogether,[14] and another ancient prophet Zenock is five times.[15] There is yet another prophet, Ezias (different from Isaiah), who is named once in Hel. 8:20.

The text of the BM is aware of several of these writings that were included on the brass plates that are not included in the present OT. From the text itself the focus of the corruption of scripture is on the books that are thought to be inherited by the apostles, and among those are known records of scripture that are now lost. It is not the text of the NT that is corrupted, as Robinson has argued; rather it is the earlier version of the OT.

Owen’s paper then focuses on identifying the specific Jewish individual who dictates “the book” in 1 Ne. 13:21-23. In 1 Ne. 13:23 the book/bible is referenced as “proceed[ing] out of the mouth of a Jew.” Elsewhere this figure is referenced as “the Jew” (13:38; 14:23), and the reader is left to question who exactly this is. Owen points out how “this Jew’s primary role is that of an oral dictator of scripture.”[16] It seems then that the identification of this Jewish individual fits well with the role of Ezra in Neh. 8, when he reads the Torah aloud for seven days. The connection with Neh. 8 does not fully answer the role of “the Jew” in 1 Ne. 13. Owen points the reader’s attention to 2 Esdras/4 Ezra, and makes several connections between this text and 1 Ne. 13-14. It is important to note that although Owen is the first to connect this section of the BM with 2 Esdras/4 Ezra, he is not the first to bring the two traditions together.

In their edited commentary on the BM George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjödahl made this connection long before Owen, and they have never been considered as anything other than faithful LDS researchers.[17] First published in 1955, Commentary on the Book of Mormon has long been out of date, largely due to the fact that Sjödahl had completed most of his contribution to the commentary on the BM when he died in 1939. Years later his son in law, Philip C. Reynolds, took both the manuscript Sjödahl left behind and combined it with notes from his father, George Reynolds’, research to create this commentary.[18] Not only was it written years before publication (Reynolds died in 1909), it was also edited and published 60 years ago. The two commentators were well known for their research in the church toward the late 19th and early 20th century. The details of their commentary will be discussed further below to show how they highlight the four options Owen proposes for understanding the connections he makes between the BM and 2 Esdras/4 Ezra.

It is important to note that the connections that Owen draws between the two texts are primarily thematic. He does not draw tight lexical connections between the two texts, but instead sees similar themes linking them together. Rather than quoting the connections in their entirety here, it is easier for the reader to see them in full in Gee’s blog post discussing the parallels here. For ease in finding Owen’s parallels, in each of the numbered sections only the first quotation is from Owen’s essay.

Owen notes how in 2 Esdras Ezra’s community only has access to the “public canon,” or twenty-four books. Only the wise have access to the broader canon that includes the seventy inspired texts. He draws a parallel here with 1 Ne. 13:39-40, where the records that are not included in the Protestant or Catholic bible today are said to come forward to “establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them.” The BM is among the hidden texts that come forth to restore the plain and precious truths that had been lost from the earlier version of the bible. Owen finds this fact all the more striking in reference to 2 Esdras 12:37-38, where Ezra is told to write everything down in a book and hide it. The writings in the book would be kept hidden except for the wise among the Jews.

For Owen these connections open up the possibility that the BM and other texts revealed in the latter-days (not limited to the current LDS standard works) are

a restoration of the contents of esoteric texts that were passed on to the “wise” in times past, at least until the death of the apostles. Subsequently, in the centuries following the writing of the New Testament…these texts were suppressed by the false church (through destruction and corruption), leaving the saints without that ancient collection of apocryphal wisdom necessary to see the plain and precious things in the Hebrew scriptures with adequate clarity (1 Nephi 13:40-41; 14:23).[19]

According to Owen there are several ways to explain these parallels: (1) coincidence, (2) Nephi could have prophetically seen the “role of Ezra, as accurately described in 2 Esdras,” (3) Joseph Smith (JS) or an associate could have read the KJV and known through a book or cultural knowledge, or (4) “the BM could be viewed as a restoration of an ancient Christian apocryphal text, which itself made use of earlier Jewish sources.”[20] For Owen, the first option is null due to the numerous parallels he lists between the texts. That solution also does nothing to help explain who “the Jew” is in 1 Ne. 13-14. The second option has more support logically, as it could be argued that since Nephi never explicitly calls “the Jew” Ezra he may have written prior to Ezra’s lifetime. If Nephi had written after the fact then you would expect him to include Ezra’s name. This option also falls short for Owen because it cannot explain the connections between the two texts either, and seems to only be necessary if one has a prior commitment to the historicity of the narrative of the BM. In Owen’s mind, “This cluster of shared features points to (but does not secure) a literary connection of dependence.”[21] Even though Owen does not find number 2 convincing, this is exactly how Reynolds and Sjödahl understood the parallel they saw between these texts.

Beginning on page 125 and ending on 127 in volume one of their commentary, Reynolds and Sjödahl make the following note for 1 Ne. 13:23:

Verse 23. It proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. The book which Nephi saw was the Old Testament, and more especially the Law, also called the “Torah,” as given to the world by Ezra…Among the Jews there is a saying, something like this, “If the Law had not been given by Moses, Ezra was worthy, and by him it would have been given. And Christian authors, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and others actually thought that the Old Testament had become lost during the Babylonian captivity, and that it was restored through Ezra, by divine revelation…We can now understand why the Prophet Nephi sees the ancient Scriptures proceeding from the “mouth of a Jew.” His prophetic vision was fulfilled in the year 444 B.C.

This description offered by Reynolds and Sjödahl of the relationship between 1 Ne. 13-14 and 2 Esdras/4 Ezra fits Owen’s option 2 very well. They view Nephi as prophetically envisioning the restoration of the bible after the exile by Ezra the scribe, who fits the description of “the Jew” in 1 Ne. 13-14 perfectly for them. Owen disagrees with their understanding of the connection, but Owen and Reynolds/Sjödahl agree that Ezra is “the Jew” as described in 1 Ne. 13-14.

Owen believes that we are only left with options 3 and 4. For him option 3 would provide a simple, straightforward way of understanding the textual evidence, excluding the difference between the BM and the KJV’s “box trees.” I have already dealt with this point in the previous post, and have shown that the printed editions of the KJV that included the Apocrypha and notes also had a marginal reference explaining that box trees were “box tables to write on.” This, along with the fact that the context of 2 Esdras 12 and verse 44 provide an adequate explanation, negates the various ways that Owen tries to explain how JS and his associates could have known what was meant in 2 Esdras. They had ready information within their copies of the King James Bible copies. If one is inclined to agree with option 3, then there is further evidence for having this understanding. Owen does not agree with option 3 though, as Gee and others would seem to think. He agrees more with option 4.

Option four is analyzed by Owen, in which he claims that an apocryphal Christian text written prior to the death of the apostles and the publication of 2 Esdras (ca. 90-100 CE) could explain the literary dependence he notes in his essay. The context of the false church in 1 Ne. 13-14 is that of a state-sponsored church that has suppressed parts of the bible. As Owen notes, this “could not have been warranted prior to AD 313, when Constantine began to give Christianity protection and patronage.”[22] Owen wonders if JS could have restored an ancient Christian text, itself based on earlier Jewish sources, in the dictation of the BM? Owen would not find the parallels between the BM and 2 Esdras/4 Ezra surprising if this was the case.

Owen makes several suggestions for Latter-day Saint thought if option 4 is accepted. He says that (1) it would allow for traditional LDSs to maintain that Moroni showed the plates to JS, although the plates derive from heaven and not the ancient Americas, (2) it would also allow for LDSs to maintain JS’s claims of heavenly visitations, and that (3) the BM is an authentically ancient text, but compositionally it is located historically in a different place and time. This position also (4) takes seriously the last mentioned date of the BM as 421 CE, and also (5) allows for the updating and editing of the BM by JS when the contents were passed to him from the angel. Owen also thinks that (6) this option better explains the parallels between the BM and the History of the Rechabites, as explained by BYU Professor of Law John Welch.[23] This also (7) allows for the BM to be viewed simultaneously as “modern and fictional, on the one hand, and miraculous and inclusive of authentic material on the other.”[24] Option four also brings the BM more in line with contemporary LDS scholarly understandings of the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and D&C 7. (8) Owen suggests that this would relieve LDS apologists of the burden of discovering a determinate New World setting for the BM, and (9) it would go along with 1 Ne. “that apocalyptic revelation typically repeats and amplifies the content of previous divine disclosures…”[25]

Owen concludes with option 4, favoring it more strongly than any of the rest of the options. To him this one has the most explanatory power, and seems to bring together the widest range of positions on the origin of the 1 Ne. 13-14. There are aspects of his theory that everyone can agree with, which is very important in academic discussions of a highly controversial topic, especially a new book of scripture like the BM.

 

Gee’s “Unparrallels”

Dr. Gee discusses the parallels that Owen draws attention to in his second response to Owen’s paper. He does nothing to set the context, or discuss how Owen is defining the parallels. Rather, he explains how he has “had research notes on these parallels since mid-December last year but…puzzled with how to present them…” and simply states that “Paul Owen sets the following texts as parallel.” In the wider field of intertextuality it is important to define what is meant by terms like “parallel,” “echo,” and “quotation.” It might seem to the average reader that these terms are rather straightforward, but that is not the case in academic studies. The literature that discusses this field has consistently grown each year over the last fifty years. Although Owen does not define his use of “parallel” in his essay, it becomes apparent in his discussion of option 4 above that his definition of parallel fits somewhere between John Hollander’s definition of “echo,” and T. L. Donaldson’s definition of “strong genealogical parallel.”[26]

Hollander describes a “kind of rhetorical hierarchy” between quotation, allusion, and echo.[27] Quotation is the most explicit and at the top of the list, whereas the other two are more fragmentary or periphrastic. For Hollander, “in contrast with literary allusion, echo is a metaphor of, and for, alluding, and does not depend on conscious intention. The referential nature of poetic echo, as of dreaming…may be unconscious or inadvertent, but is no less qualified thereby.”[28] Since Owen views the BM as a restoration of an earlier Christian text, it is possible that this version echoed an earlier Jewish version of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra before it was redacted by Christian hands. This would explain the connection to 1 Ne. 13-14 as it stands today, with its lack of tight lexical similarities. If Owen’s argument is to be followed, the state of the relationship between both texts today is probably understood better when described as a “strong genealogical parallel.” This is defined by Donaldson as “a direct, straight-line influence from one element of the parallel to the other; one religious tradition has been directly influenced by, or has clearly appropriated something from, the other at this point.”[29]

In Owen’s essay there are no close lexical links to draw upon between 1 Ne. 13-14 and 2 Esdras/4 Ezra, so we cannot discuss quotation, allusion, or echo as the text now stands. Since there are several parallels that are pointed out by Owen, it would be possible to see these parallels as arising from an earlier connection that these two texts would have shared. If JS is restoring an ancient Christian apocryphal work, then the themes of restoration of scripture (particularly esoteric or secret texts) could have easily been utilized by the author(s) of 1 Ne. 13-14.

Gee has no introductory remarks for his reader about what is meant by the term “parallel,” and so it is assumed throughout Gee’s comments that “parallel” simply means that JS and scribe simply copied straight out of a KJV of 2 Esdras while working on the text of the BM. This obviously doesn’t hold up once Owen’s essay is understood in full, especially when the reader understands Owen’s fourth option for explaining the literary connections. This means there are connections between these two texts that date well before JS himself. Gee’s assumption of what Owen means by parallel, rather than sticking to Owen’s essay, dictates the way he understands each of the connections Owen makes. Gee also shows a lack of understanding the field of intertextuality, which would have assisted him in understanding Owen’s thesis even more. This will be seen below.

For the first parallel noted by Owen Gee states that “Owen’s argument cannot possibly hold.” For him the fact that “Ezra lived about five centuries earlier” is enough to simply dismiss the connection. He fails to realize that these are parallels, not a chronological history. They share themes that tie them together. Besides that fact, 1 Ne. states that the record that “proceed[s] out of the mouth of a Jew,” which is equated with the OT and Ezra by Owen and Reynolds/Sjödahl, leaves the mouth of the Jew “contain[ing] the plainness of the gospel of the Lord…Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles…And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles…there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book…” (1 Ne. 13:23, 25, 26, 28). Owen’s argument, although not completely dependent on a “chronological” reading, actually coheres with the chronology as presented in 1 Ne. Ezra would restore the OT in a post-exilic setting, and then thousands of years in the future JS would also need to restore many of these lost books, especially the BM. It needs to be emphasized, though, that the parallel between the two texts as argued by Owen is based on the theme of restoration.

Gee also makes the point that in 2 Esdras/4 Ezra the scriptures are completely destroyed, whereas in 1 Ne. the scriptures remain but need to be restored. This is inaccurate because it does not follow either the BM text or Owen’s argument. Owen is arguing that there are books that are completely lost to the OT, in both 2 Esdras/4 Ezra and 1 Ne. 13-14, which will need to be restored. Gee thinks that Owen has not read the BM carefully enough, but not only does the BM quote some of these lost texts (as noted earlier in this post), the BM is aware that it is a part of these lost books that will later become part of the canon. While we could all use a little more understanding in regards to the BM, Gee’s comment about Owen’s reading of the BM is off base.

Owen’s second parallel is then quoted and commented on by Gee. Gee focuses again on “whether a record of any kind survives,” continuing to miss Owen’s point. The connections are thematic, the theme of the destruction of the OT during the Babylonian exile, and then the restoration and hidden nature of several texts at one time included in the OT, is taken up by 1 Ne. 13-14 to explain what would happen once the “state sponsored” Christian church comes into power post-313 CE.

For the third parallel Owen argues that “The restoration of scripture will be accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[30] In this case he cites 2 Esdras 14:22, 40 and 1 Ne. 13:37, 39, which both discuss the role of the Holy Spirit in restoring these ancient texts. Although Gee notes how both of these texts discuss the importance of the Holy Spirit, he downplays the connection by stating “Nephi sees that his own record will go among the people and that “other books” would come “forth by the power of the Lamb.” For the Book of Mormon, Jesus (the Lamb) and the Holy Ghost are not the same thing.” Gee follows Owen’s statement until Gee’s last sentence. He seems to think that “by the power of the Lamb” simply means by Jesus only, without any action of the Holy Spirit. In only the next chapter of the BM it is apparent that the “power of the Lamb” is the Holy Spirit. 1 Ne. 14:14 says, “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb…” Gee’s statement that Jesus and the Holy Ghost are not the same thing in the BM is irrelevant because Nephi is not talking about Jesus when he references the “power of the Lamb” in 1 Ne. 13:39. He misrepresents not only Owen’s essay, but also the BM in this case.

For Owen’s fourth parallel Gee again refers to how “Joseph Smith (or an associate) has somehow read about “box trees” and somehow transmitted them into brass plates. That is even more miraculous than being handed actual plates of gold and thinking of plates of brass.” The issue of the “box trees” in the KJV of 2 Esdras has been discussed already in Part I of this response, and therefore does not need to be discussed again. However, it does need to be stressed that Gee misrepresents what Owen is actually arguing in relation to “box trees.” He offers the example that Gee alludes to only as a possible solution (option 3), not the solution.

It is difficult to decide how to approach Gee’s response to Owen’s fifth parallel. This was probably one of the most surprising to me, and painful to wrap my mind around. Owen says that “Ezra (the recipient of the revelation) is to dictate the contents of these books to chosen scribes (2 Esdras 14:24). So also Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon (cf. 2 Nephi 3:17; 27:9-10).”[31] In 2 Esdras/4 Ezra 14:24 Ezra is told to take five named scribes with him because they “are ready to write swiftly” (KJV). The connection is made to these BM passages because 2 Ne. 3 is a prophecy of JS, as is 2 Ne. 27 (=Isa. 29) as well. Both of these texts have always been traditionally understood as referring to JS and the translation process of the BM. Gee completely flips this LDS interpretative tradition on its head when he says,

While Ezra has a number of scribes to write for him, the passages cited from the Book of Mormon never mention scribes. In one of them Moses is provided with a spokesman because he could not speak well. The other has a book being given to a man but no scribe is mentioned. The two book of Mormon passages are connected with known biblical texts (Exodus and Isaiah).

It is both surprising and troublesome that Gee would take this interpretive route. To the reader who does not look the passages up in the BM it seems that Gee is making a good point. What do these texts have to do with 2 Esdras/4 Ezra at all? But this is why Gee’s statements are troublesome. Very few of his readers will check the sources. These BM passages are explicitly about JS, and the context requires the relationship to the scribes of the translation of the BM.

In the chapter heading of 2 Ne. 3 we are told “Joseph in Egypt saw the Nephites in vision–He prophesied of Joseph Smith, the latter-day seer; of Moses, who would deliver Israel; and of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. About 588–570 B.C.” Although Joseph (of Egypt) does prophesy of the work that Moses would do, the relevant verses in this chapter that are noted by Owen are specifically about “a Moses,” not the Moses (v. 17). This Moses will be given “power unto him in a rod,” reminiscent of the early version of D&C 8 where Oliver’s gift was “the gift of working with a rod” (“sprout” instead of rod in the earlier version).[32] The context requires that this “Moses” figure is interpreted as JS, and it is said that he will not be “mighty in speaking,” but God “will make a spokesman for him” (2 Ne. 3:17). He will “deliver the words of the book unto another” (2 Ne. 27:9), but these words will not include the sealed portion of the BM (cf. 2 Ne. 27:10a). Both of these chapters in the BM have always been understood as prophecies of JS and the interactions he has with the scribes, primarily Oliver Cowdery, during the translation process of the BM. The connection that Owen makes between 2 Esdras 14:24 and 2 Ne. 3 and 27 is not as strained as Gee makes it appear.

In responding to Owen’s sixth parallel Gee again misrepresents the essay. He focuses specifically on the ratio of what is held back in the hidden writings that Ezra is to produce compared to the ratio of what is sealed in the golden plates (one-third to two-thirds, respectively). This has nothing to do with Owen’s argument, as the exact ratios do not matter when the theme of hidden literature is parallel. Gee fails to realize that Owen is here, due to the context of the BM passages, arguing that there is a section of the golden plates (i.e. the sealed portion) that will remain hidden from the world the same as the seventy books that Ezra would keep hidden.

Gee could have understood this correctly if he had read the passage of the BM that Owen cited more carefully. Owen connects 2 Esdras 14:26, 45-46 with 1 Ne. 14:26, 28. Unfortunately, Gee misread the BM passage as 1 Ne. 13:26, 28, which he then cites in full. This is a completely different context than 1 Ne. 14, which leads Gee to wrongfully question, “Is Owen trying to argue that God is the great and abominable church?” If Owen had cited 1 Ne. 13 we might plausibly ask that question, but he wasn’t. Instead, he cited 1 Ne. 14. In this passage Nephi describes writings that “are sealed up to come forth in their purity, according to the truth which is in the lamb, in the own due time of the Lord, unto the house of Israel” (v. 26). In this context, God has commanded certain texts to remain hidden. It is surprising that Gee did not catch himself reading the wrong chapter. He cites the correct chapter, 1 Ne. 14, when he quotes Owen’s essay, but then failed to turn to the correct chapter when he made his comparisons.

Gee claims that Owen “has misread 4 Ezra/2 Esdras” in Owen’s seventh parallel, where he states that “In order for God’s people to have all the wisdom they need, they must have access both to the public and the esoteric texts dictated by Ezra…” (Owen, 92). Gee argues that Owen has misread the text because in 2 Esdras/4 Ezra “God’s people (or at least the common people) have no need to “have access both to the public and the esoteric texts dictated by Ezra.”” To Gee this is in “stark contrast” to what we find in the BM passage cited by Owen. In the BM the hidden scriptures “refers to those that God will bring forth in the latter days…[and] are given “to all kindreds, tongues, and people.””

In 2 Esdras/4 Ezra 14 seventy of the revealed books are kept secret. It is important to keep in mind, as Michael Stone has pointed out, “that these books, the esoteric ones, are also those which contain saving knowledge.”[33] Although exactly what books are included in the seventy is unclear, many scholars think that the author of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra viewed his book as a part of that group. This is hinted at in 2 Esdras/4 Ezra 12:36-38, where “In that passage Ezra is commanded about the secret transmission of the teaching of the eagle vision. The language used to denote the vision and its transmission is exactly the same as the language used by chapter 14 to describe the transmission of the secret writings.”[34] 2 Esdras/4 Ezra serves, then, as a part of this esoteric tradition, which was important so that “they which will live in the latter days may live” (4 Ezra 14:22, KJV). In the same way, the text of the sealed scriptures or “last records” that are mentioned in the BM will be revealed in the last days for all those who wish to live. In reference to the author of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra, his community needed these hidden records for salvific purposes. The knowledge and wisdom that was held in them would save them in the end. This theme of salvation is also found in the BM text, as the “plain and precious” things are removed from the bible people stumble, “insomuch that Satan hath great power over them” (1 Ne. 13:29). The parallel is much closer than Gee allows in his representation of the text.

Owen’s eighth parallel could have been more explicitly stated. He simply says that,

The scribes who wrote on the tablets “wrote what was dictated, using characters that they did not know” (2 Esdras 14:42 NRSV; “they wrote the wonderful visions of the night that were told, which they knew not” KJV). So also the Book of Mormon (cf. 1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:2; Mormon 9:32).

To those who are not familiar with the phrase “characters that they did not know” in a post-exilic Israelite context it would be understandable to state as Gee does that “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.” The phrase “characters that they did not know” actually alludes to the Aramaic script that was employed in the post-exilic period, rather than the original paleo-Hebrew. This is also discussed by Stone in his commentary on 2 Esdras/4 Ezra, where he states that, “This is also related to the traditions that set the introduction of the square Aramaic script into the period of Ezra. This is known to the Rabbis and to Jerome and perhaps preserves actual historical memory.”[35] Ezra’s scribes did not simply not understand the characters, they were characters they had learned in a foreign land. They also “learned them the hard way.” This goes along well with the passages that Owen cites from the BM. Although they write in the Hebrew language, the “reformed Egyptian” script are the “characters that they did not know.” Although Owen could have more explicitly stated this in citing the parallel, a reader familiar with 2 Esdras/4 Ezra and early Rabbinic and Christian writers would be familiar with what Owen meant.

Gee only gives a passing comment to Owen’s ninth parallel. He fails to include verse 41 of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra 14, which continues to emphasize the mouth of Ezra. Gee simply writes off the parallel with the statement that, “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).” Because Gee fails to adequately address the parallel and describe why he discards it, it is difficult to fully engage with his reasoning. It can only be noted that the emphasis on the mouth of Ezra in 2 Esdras/4 Ezra 14 does find a parallel to the emphasis on the mouth of “the Jew” in 1 Ne. 13-14. This is the only parallel noted between the two texts in this instance.

Owen’s last parallel, number ten, could have been worded more explicitly as well. It seems that the connection he was making between 2 Esdras/4 Ezra 14:5-6, 21-22 and 1 Ne. 14:24-26, 29 was that of the revelation of esoteric writings to an ancient individual, then the revelation of these secrets to a more contemporary author (according to the time of the text). Instead, he simply states the parallel as, “What was previously revealed to Moses is now freshly disclosed to Ezra.”[36] This causes Gee to focus on the difference between the characters in each text. Second Esdras/4 Ezra has Moses as subject, and 1 Ne. has the apostle John as subject. As Gee puts it, “The Book of Mormon refers not to Moses but to John. Nephi refers to an angel, but Ezra never does.” Gee continues to interpret Owen’s parallels through the lens of exact textual borrowing, which Owen clearly states later in the essay that he does not accept. He offers it as a possible solution, option 3, but he does not think that is the best way to understand the parallels. This parallel is presented by Owen to connect the theme of revelation of esoteric doctrine once lost, but restored in the “latter days,” which is found in both the traditions in 2 Esdras/4 Ezra and the BM. The author of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra believed himself to be in the latter days,[37] and the BM is supposed to be revealed and translated in the latter days. Gee claims that Owen’s argument here only works if one assumes his conclusion, and therefore it is circular reasoning. I suggest that Gee is assuming too much about what exactly Owen is concluding. A closer reading of his essay, especially Owen’s sustained argument for option 4 in understanding the relationship of these two texts, would help Gee to understand Owen’s parallels.

 

Conclusion

It is again, as I pointed out in my first post, unfortunate that Gee has misread and badly misrepresented Owen’s essay. Gee takes Owen’s piece as “sleight-of-hand” and an error in the editorial process. Even if one does not agree with Owen’s overall argument in the last half of his paper, that there are strong literary parallels between the books of 2 Esdras/4 Ezra and 1 Ne. 13-14, his essay should at least deserve the respect of a careful reading. The general parallels that he sees between these passages were also noted by two LDS scholars in the past, and they saw the work of Ezra restoring the OT as a fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy. Although I do not believe myself that every single parallel is as tight as they could be, I found Owen’s paper to be highly thought provoking and insightful especially when I took full consideration of the kinds of parallels he was making (i.e. thematic). I found his conclusions surprising and fascinating. Owen argues that the text of the BM is primarily divine in origin, and ancient in writing, even if he does not think that a historical Nephi wrote 1 Ne.

In any case, LDS scholars and interested lay readers alike would do well in the future to not follow the kind of approach that is found in Gee’s two-part response. Although one does not have to conclude the same as the author of every single essay written in the JBMS or any other journal, the arguments presented at least deserve the respect of a close and charitable reading, engaged in a professional and kindly manner. Unfortunately, in my opinion Gee has misrepresented Owen’s essay in a very unprofessional, and non-scholarly way.

 

[1] The first to make the general connection between 1 Ne. 13:23 and ancient Judeo-Christian beliefs about the role of Ezra in restoring the Old Testament (OT) after the Babylonian exile was Reynolds and Sjodahl in their commentary on the Book of Mormon.

[2] See the Utah Lighthouse Ministry’s discussion here. There have been reviews of and responses to this work by Latter-day Saints, but none of these have taken the parallels seriously. Owen contributes to this by not only noting a connection not made explicitly prior to his essay, but leaves the possibility of how the parallels came to be open to various lines of interpretation. The implicit connection made by Reynolds and Sjodahl will be discussed further on in the post.

[3] Paul Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture: A Thematic Analysis of 1 Nephi 13-14,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 23 (2014), 81.

[4] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 82.

[5] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 83-87.

[6] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 87-88.

[7] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 88-89.

[8] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 89.

[9] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 90.

[10] Stephen E. Robinson, “Early Christianity and 1 Nephi 13-14,” in Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, eds., The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988),177-191.

[11] Rex. C. Reeve, Jr., “The Book of Mormon Plates,” in Nyman and Tate, eds., The Book of Mormon, 103.

[12] Robert J. Matthews, “Establishing the Truth of the Bible,” in Nyman and Tate, eds., The Book of Mormon, 205.

[13] The allegory is also mentioned in 1 Ne. 10:12-14; and 15:12-18.

[14] See 1 Ne. 19:10, 12, 16; Jacob 5:1; 6:1; Alma 33:3, 13, 15; 34:7; Hel. 8:19; 15:11; and 3 Ne. 10:16.

[15] See 1 Ne. 19:10; Alma 33:15; 34:7; Hel. 8:20; and 3 Ne. 10:16.

[16] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 91.

[17] George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjödahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon (7 vols.; ed. Philip C. Reynolds; Salt Lake City: Deseret Press, 1955).

[18] See James R. Clark’s book review of the Pearl of Great price commentary by the same editor and commentators in BYU Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1966), 83-84.

[19] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 94.

[20] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 94.

[21] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 95. Emphasis in the original.

[22] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 97.

[23] John W. Welch, “The Narrative of Zosimus (History of the Rechabites) and the Book of Mormon,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo: FARMS, 1997), 323-374.

[24] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 98.

[25] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 99.

[26] T. L. Donaldson, “Parallels: Use, Misuse and Limitations,” Evangelical Quarterly 55 (1983), 200.

[27] John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 64.

[28] Hollander, The Figure of Echo, 64.

[29] Donaldson, “Parallels,” 200.

[30] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 92.

[31] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 92.

[32] See this for more details.

[33] Michael E. Stone, Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 439.

[34] Stone, Fourth Ezra, 439.

[35] Stone, Fourth Ezra, 440.

[36] Owen, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture,” 93.

[37] Cf. Stone, Fourth Ezra, 439-440.

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