Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Peer Review of "If there be faults"

Earl Wunderli wrote a book titled "An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself." The book elicited several responses:

The Reviews Are In

Earl Wunderli recently published a book arguing that the Book of Mormon is 19th century fiction. It was, unsurprisingly, published by Signature Books.

The reviews of Wunderli's work are in, and so far the critical responses to the book have been . . . not that great.

Matthew Roper, Paul Fields, and Larry Bassist, "'If there be faults': Reviewing Earl Wunderli’s An Imperfect Book," online here.

Brant A. Gardner, "The Book with the Unintentionally Self-Referential Title," online here.

Robert A. Rees, "Inattentional Blindness: Seeing and Not Seeing The Book of Mormon," online here.

Robert A. Rees, "Earl Wunderli’s Imperfect Book," online here.

In this post, I'll quickly address the response from Matthew Roper, Paul Fields, and Larry Bassist, a review titled "If there be faults." It was published by BYU Studies 53:3 (2014) here.

The summary provided by BYU Studies is well done:
Earl M. Wunderli rejects the Book of Mormon as a literal history of ancient America. He points to what he thinks are mistakes in the text, pointing to so-called anachronistic words such as steel and silk. Matthew Roper and his colleagues convincingly overturn Wunderli's assertions. The description of Laban's sword of "most precious steel" is now considered accurate since the discovery of a meter-long steel sword at the ancient site of Jericho dating to the time of King Josiah. Likewise, silk has recently been found in eastern Turkey dating to 750 BC.
Wunderli also presents textual evidence using statistics to show that the Book of Mormon is the work of a single author. Roper, Fields, and Bassist demonstrate how Wunderli's methods are lacking, and more rigorous standards clearly reveal multiple authorship in the Book of Mormon.
Roper's discussion of anachronisms is pretty good (except for his suggestion that obsidian bladed "swords" in Mesoamerica are cimeters).

But then Roper gets into some problems. For example, he writes this:

The author ignores or is perhaps unaware of important critiques of his work and the issues he discusses. In An Imperfect Book, he provides a truncated version of his critique of Book of Mormon geography from an earlier Dialogue article (254–67)14 but does not address Brant Gardner’s thoughtful critique of that article.15

I've reviewed Gardner's critique and found it far from responsive. Whether it is thoughtful or not is irrelevant; if it is nonresponsive, it is not worth responding to. I don't blame Wunderli for ignoring Gardner's critique.

Roper's next observations are themselves nonresponsive, mainly because Roper answers by citing his own articles, which themselves have serious problems.

He insists that the text requires readers to see Native American peoples as exclusive descendants of Book of Mormon peoples (267–78) and asserts that defenders of the Book of Mormon “have found little evidence of other people” in the Book of Mormon text. This claim, however, overlooks relevant literature on that matter.16 Knowing of possible reconciliations would probably be of interest to most readers.

Eventually Roper turns "to our main investigation," which is an analysis of "statistical methods" of word usage to determine whether the Book of Mormon is the product of multiple authors.

On this point, I have personal experience with Roper. I approached him to collaborate with me on the Winchester theory of the Times and Seasons articles. He agreed to do so, but then reneged because he didn't like my conclusions. He refused to provide me his database or to test Winchester using his own software. In my view, this is astonishing. Rather than seek the best data, Roper's primary objective appears to be defending his own theories about authorship. Roper's publications don't explain his methodology or his data assumptions. In the case of the Times and Seasons, he won't even reveal what texts he used as samples of Joseph Smith's writings, let alone other candidates.

Consequently, when Wunderli responded to Roper's review here, this observation of his rings true to me:

 Roper et al. may well have thought their statistical analysis superseded all other evidence, but I find they mislead more than enlighten.

Overall, I consider some of Wunderli's observations to be straw men; i.e., he sets up expectations the text doesn't require and then complains when his expectations are not met. For example, he focuses on "therefore" vs "wherefore" to criticize the idea of a word-for-word translation. Of course, it's possible the shift in usage in the text reflects what was actually on the plates and so does not reflect merely a change in Joseph's rendition according to the chronology of the translation process. It's also possible there was no exact word on the plates, so that neither "therefore" nor "wherefore" are perfect translations and they are essentially interchangeable, which explains why Joseph moved from one to the other over time.

I generally agree with Wunderli's critique of the Mesoamerican theory. I also agree with Roper about some of the anachronisms. I'd like to agree with Roper about his authorship analysis, but I have zero confidence in either his objectives or his methodology, based on my own experience, Wunderli's observations, and the content of Roper's published explanations.

I also agree with Wunderli that Roper avoided his main points.

That said, the most puzzling thing to me about the review was why Roper failed to address the main points of my book: my discussion of how Professor Jack Welch, who happens to be editor of BYU Studies, “discovered” that Alma 36 is an extended chiasm but which is really a product of his imagination; my critique of Professor John Sorenson’s attempt to locate geographical sites for the Book of Mormon; my discussion of simple mistakes in the Book of Mormon; my study of the creative ways in which Book of Mormon names were devised; my discussion of the earnest but misguided way in which John Tvednes found Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon; my summary of nineteenth-century scientific and political ideas embedded in the book; and my noting of how the prophesies in the Book of Mormon differ according to whether predicted events were to occur prior to or after Joseph Smith’s day

Some day I'll address each of these. Apart from the Sorenson criticism, I think Wunderli's arguments are not very persuasive because they rely primarily on the disparity between what he expects to see and what the text says.

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