The Importance of Good Questions
Good questions can be very powerful things. They can lead to major insights. But what about when a question can’t be immediately answered; does it create doubt, or might its simple existence show something else?
I am a lifelong student of the Book of Mormon. How it undergirds my life is explained in the About entry on this blog. As the Book of Mormon has been examined and studied for nearly two centuries now, people have raised questions, which in some cases were not immediately answered. Yet these questions have led to many insights about how impossible it would have been for Joseph Smith to have written it by himself.
In my professional blog, I noted that generated data used in financial systems tend to be one dimensional, like a painted picture, rather than a real landscape. If one changes perspective when looking at a picture, not much really changes. But if one changes perspective when looking at a real landscape, entirely new things are found. One can literally walk into a real landscape, and discover all sorts of new things.
As I have written the below, I find it fascinating that I can “walk into” the Book of Mormon, unlike works of fiction, and find all sorts of new things.
It is more evidence to me that, no matter how unlikely it is that Joesph Smith actually had gold plates, delivered by an angel, containing a record of a literate people in the Americas over two millennia ago, and he, as a nearly illiterate country boy translated it into English, there is no other explanation than that must be true. This witness comes in spite of–or perhaps as a result of–many good questions.
My question is: How is it possible that from 24 Plates of the original record recorded by Ether, the English translation of an abridgment is slightly longer, at nearly 30 printed pages?
After considering this question analyzed below, I have concluded the following is possible:
- The contents of the 24 plates is mostly contained in the current text of the Book of Mormon; in other words there was very little abridgment that was done of this material.
- The 24 plates did not contain the record of the vision of the Brother of Jared.
- Moroni must have had access to other records beyond the 24 plates which contained the vision of the Brother of Jared and others which he did not include in the Book of Mormon.
Size of the Original Record
Moroni, the editor clearly states the number of plates of the source of the material he is abridging in the Book of 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.Ether 1:2 (emphasis added)
It’s doubtful Moroni made some mistake in stating the length of the record, as the length is noted in the first description of these plates, soon after discovery:
And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold.Mosiah 8:9 (emphasis added)
And the size is reaffirmed by Alma:
And now, I will speak unto you concerning those twenty-fourplates, thatAlma 37:21 (emphasis added)
The page count of the standard printed English version of the Book of Mormon can be seen in the on-line version as small page numbers in the right hand column.
The Book of Ether begins just before page 488. And it ends over half way down page 518, a total of nearly 30 pages.
Certainly 24 “pages” in one language could easily turn into 30 pages in another language. But it is clear from Moroni’s concluding comments in the book that what he wrote in his abridgment is much less than what he had access to.
…and he [the original author] finished his record; (and the hundredth part I have not written) and he hid them in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them.Ether 15:33 (emphasis added)
It is possible that in the language of the Nephites that the phrase “hundredth part” was a common phrase, for it is used five other times in the Book of Mormon when talking about the source materials verses the abridged results (See Hel. 3:14, 3 Ne. 26:6, Words of Mormon 1:5, Jacob 3:13, and 3 Ne. 5:8).
The phrase may be an approximation, and not literally 1/100th. That is it might be a very broad term that could perhaps mean as much as perhaps 1/5th, rather than 1/100th. It is difficult to conceive that it might mean as much as a half, a third, or a fourth. And likely it meant much less than that.
Be that as it may, the amount of Jaredite material in today’s Book of Mormon is a substantially smaller than what Moroni had access to.
For purposes of our analysis, as a test let’s see if we can understand how the material included might not have been more than 1/10th as much.
Plate verses Paper Size?
A possible reason for the difference would be that the size of the plates was much, much larger than the page used in modern printing. To make the point by taking an extreme, if a book’s contents where copied into a book with pages the size of a postage stamp while holding other things constant, the copy would contain many, many more pages a than the original.
There is no description of the plates of Ether. If the standard, printed English Book of Mormon at 7 inch by 5 inch or 35 square inches is the postage size book of this analogy, it is difficult to conceive of being able to effectively handle plates 10 times larger. Plates of 350 square inches with the same dimensions would be over 5 feet high and over 4 feet wide; perhaps an appropriate size for something called a stele, but hard to conceive of them having a book form.
It is unlike differences in the sizes of the plates and paper account for the difference in content.
(Footnote: Although there is no description of the plates of Ether, it is interesting to contemplate that there might have been some standardization of Nephite plate sizes. Nephi speaks of large and small plates. This description might be for either the length or the surface dimensions. If it was surface dimensions, it is interesting to find that Mormon chose a plate size for his abridgment of the large plates that might have been the same as the small plates, for when he came to Nephi’s small plates, he was able to add them to his record, it sounds like without re-writing them. It seems they must have been the same size as his chosen format, as the modern witnesses to the appearance of the Book of Mormon mention no difference in sizes for any of the plates or differences in bindings some portion of the plates.)
Another possible explanation is that the language used on the plates contained much more information per inch or character than is used by English. In other words, perhaps the language used on the 24 plates contained so much information that one line of it would have been translated in 10 lines of English.
We see these differences in language lengths modern language comparisons. The following table shows some typical estimates for how the length of text changes when translated from English into other texts.
|Language||From English||Into English|
|Albanian||+15%||-5% to -15%|
|Arabic||+20% to +25%||-20% to -25%|
|Burmese||+15%||-5% to -15%|
|Catalan||+15%||-5% to -15%|
|Croatian||+15%||-5% to -15%|
|Czech||+10%||-5% to -10%|
|Danish||-10% to -15%||+10% to +15%|
|Dutch||-10% to -15%||+10% to +15%|
|Estonian||+15%||-5% to -15%|
|Finnish||-25% to -30%||+30% to +40%|
|Flemish||+10%||-5% to -10%|
|French||+15% to +20%||-10% to -15%|
|German||+10% to +35%||-20% to +20%|
|Greek||10%||-5% to -15%|
|Hebrew||-20% to -30%||+20% to +30%|
|Hindi||+15% to +35%||-15%|
|Italian||+10% to +25%||-15%|
|Japanese||-10% to -55%||+20% to +60%|
|Korean||-10% to -15%||+15% to +20%|
|Norwegian||-5% to -10%||+5% to +10%|
|Polish||+20% to +30%||-5% to -15%|
|Portuguese||+15% to +30%||-5% to -15%|
|Russian||+15%||-5% to -15%|
|Spanish||+15% to +30%||-5% to -15%|
|Thai||+15%||-5% to -15%|
Note from this table that Japanese can compress English up to 55 to 60%.
I was not able to find a typical estimate for conversion of English to Chinese, which I believe may be one of the most efficient languages in terms of space consumed for writing. This is because Chinese writing is composed of logograms, which are much more compact than a language based upon an alphabet of phonograms like English.
To compare Chinese to English let’s count the character for the entire Book of Ether in English and Chinese (Mandarin).
- English: 16,627 words, 69,901 characters without spaces, 86,512 with spaces
- Chinese: 21,496 words, 21,496 characters without spaces, 22,771 with spaces.
So English’s 86,512 with spaces (required in English), to Chinese 21,496 without spaces (which are not required in Chinese) results in a reduction of over 75% reduction in space required. (Footnote: This estimate seems reasonable when compared to Japanese’s 55 to 60% as Japanese uses Chinese characters, but also has elements of phonograms in the Hiragana and Katakana as well.)
Like Chinese, Egyptian is composed of some logograms; perhaps the “reformed Egyptian” used by the Nephites to record the Book of Mormon also was similarly compressed.
This 75% or 3/4ths reduction in the resulting abridged text helps explain how a text in a highly compressed language might be abridge and translated into another language and result in a larger page count than the original text. In other words, if the the 24 plates were written in a language as compacted as Chinese, the resulting abridgment in the same language might conceivably have been approximately 7.5 pages.
Yet this point does not give a sense, from the examined modern languages, how the abridged material might have been 1/10th (90% compression) of the original size, let alone 1/100th to meet Moroni’s comment about having omitted so much material.
(Footnote: The Chinese Book of Mormon page count of 7.5 is calculated as 30 English pages x .25% since I don’t have a Chinese Book of Mormon and I don’t see the pages displayed on that version of the text).
Base Text Analysis
John W. Welch, in his 1986 preliminary paper, “Preliminary Comments on the Sources behind the Book of Ether” wrote the following:
Which parts of the book of Ether were composed by Moroni? It seems quite clear that Moroni composed several sections of the book of Ether as his own original compositions. Such sections stand out fairly obviously from what was contained on the 24 gold plates. Here are some main passages; there may be others.
a. l:l-6a. Introduction
b. 3:17-20. Moroni draws a parallel between the Lord’s ministry to the brother of Jared and his appearance to the Nephites.
c. 4:lb-6:1. Interlude explaining that the record was kept secret by the Nephite kings until after Christ appeared and said that they should be made manifest, for God controls when the heavens are open and shut.
d. 8:18-26. Comments on secret combinations and warnings to the Gentiles.
The fact that Moroni felt free to insert his own material into his abridgment of the book of Ether indicates that, in general, he was not attempting to produce a technically rigorous version of Jaredite history.
Coming immediately before and after each of these sections inserted by Moroni, the seams in the underlying text can be discerned with remarkable clarity. Eth. 3:16 leaves off with the Lord’s reference to his corning “in the flesh,” and 3:21 picks up with the injunction not to release this information until Christ glorifies his name “in the flesh.” Eth. 4:1 is interrupted at the point where the brother of Jared is commanded to “go down out of the mount,” and 6:2 resumes at the point where “the brother of Jared came down out of the mount.” Eth. 8:17 breaks off after speaking of Akish and his kindred and friends, and 9:1 resumes again speaking of “Akish and his friends.” Eth. 12:5 ends by saying that the people “did not believe” the “great and marvelous” prophecies of Ether; 13:2 commences again where the people “rejected all the words of Ether” and 13:13 resumes with a description of Ether’s “great and marvelous” prophecies, after interspersions by Moroni on belief and on Ether’s prophecies respectively. In each case, the underlying text continues after each textual insertion by Moroni precisely where it had left off.(“Preliminary Comments on the Sources behind the Book of Ether,” Welch, John W.,Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies 1986)
The fact that Moroni appears so clearly to be quoting directly from another record makes one wonder if it might have been straight from the contents of the 24 plates. Our analysis so far has shown a correspondence of material in the Book of Ether with something that might have been recorded on 24 plates. The length of the material is not different by an order of magnitude–10 times–let alone two orders of magnitude–100 times.
(Footnote: The above analysis of language compression could perhaps be made more accurate because the character counts include Moroni’s editorial comments as identified by Welch which would not have been part of the plates. If they are removed from the English text of the Book of Ether, the word count of the book is reduced from 16,627 words, 69,901 characters without spaces, 86,512 with to 13,337 words or 55,870 characters without spaces, 69,197 with spaces, a nearly 20% drop in word count. I didn’t calculate the Chinese. I’m not sure there is a good reason to believe Moroni’s words are more or less verbose than the other text in Ether. Further analysis is possible using other languages via Language Availability of Latter-day Saint Scriptures. )
Welch goes on to analyze what the source of Moroni’s underlying text is, asking if perhaps it was from original Jaredite records, Ether’s copy or abridgment of them, Mosiah’s translation, or something else. Taking the first step backwards from Moroni to Mosiah’s text is the most visible to us as Mormon describes separately the results of Mosiah’s translation.
It is interesting to note that both Mormon and Moroni’s descriptions of the plates contain references to early biblical material. Here is Mormon’s description of Mosiah’s translation:
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.Mosiah 28:17
Here is Moroni’s from Ether chapter 1:
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.
And as I suppose that the first part of this record, which speaks concerning the creation of the world, and also of Adam, and an account from that time even to the great tower, and whatsoever things transpired among the children of men until that time, is had among the Jews—
Therefore I do not write those things which transpired from the days of Adam until that time; but they are had upon the plates; and whoso findeth them, the same will have power that he may get the full account.
But behold, I give not the full account, but a part of the account I give, from the tower down until they were destroyed.Ether 1:2-5
It seems quite clear the 24 plates contained Biblical material left out of the Book of Ether. Thus the difference between Chinese-like 7.5 pages verses what was on the 24 plates might be explained by this material.
(Footnote: If this Biblical material were similar to the length of the Book of Moses (27 pages) and the additional material needed to get to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis (11 more pages) and were compressed as Chinese (25% English volume), it would be 8.75 pages in length, added to our 7.5, giving nearly 70% of the plate of Ether content.)
Works of Darkness
However, given the Book of Mormon’s description of darker contents of the plates, it is probably more than just this Biblical material that has been dropped.
Alma speaks of the record containing the secret combinations of those who were wicked, and Alma is clear about not publishing them:
21 And now, I will speak unto you concerning those twenty-four plates, that ye keep them, that the mysteries and the works of darkness, and their secret works, or the secret works of those people who have been destroyed, may be made manifest unto this people;…
27 And now, my son, I command you that ye retain all their oaths, and their covenants, and their agreements in their secret abominations; yea, and all their signs and their wonders ye shall keep from this people, that they know them not, lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed….
29 Therefore ye shall keep these secret plans of their oaths and their covenants from this people, andAlma 37:21, 27, 29
Similarly, one of Moroni’s editorial comments indicate this material is purposefully omitted from his abridgment.
And now I, Moroni, do not write the manner of their oaths and combinations, for it hath been made known unto me that they are had among all people, and they are had among the Lamanites.Ether 8:20
But again, these oaths and such might have been described at the same level of detail as the material Moroni appears to be quoting immediately before and immediately after, and would be accommodated in the variations of 24 plates to 7.5 pages of Chinese-like content.
The Book of Ether may in fact be the total history of the Jaredites as recorded by Ether on the 24 plates, less the Biblical and secret oath material.
This then raises the question what was Moroni referring to when he said he had not written 100th part? What was the additional material?
The Sealed 2/3rd of the Book
Those in 1830 who described the Book of Mormon indicated Joesph Smith only translated about 1/3rd of the total plates. The remaining 2/3rd of contained the vision of the Brother of Jared, a portion of the Jaredite record (Henrichsen, Kirk B. (2001) “How Witnesses Described the Gold Plates,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 10 : No. 1 , Article 4.). From these eye-witness observations, there is no evidence the Book of Mormon plates varied by size between those which were translated, and those which were sealed.
We can estimate the size of this material in English:
- The Book of Mormon plates resulted in 421 English pages,
- Those pages were 1/3rd of the plates in the Book of Mormon,
- All the Book of Mormon plates are the same dimension, and
- The language compression used on the plates is consistent throughout:
Then the untranslated portion of the plates would be approximately 638 pages of English material (421 pages in the Book of Mormon / 66% untranslated plates).
This is a substantial amount of material. The 30 English pages of the Book of Ether would be only about 4.7% of the total Jaredite material included in the Book of Mormon when the vision of the Brother of Jared as recorded on the sealed portion of the plates is considered. This number closely approximates the 1% which would be 100th part Moroni stated.
However, Moroni’s 100th part comment is about that which he did not include in the Book of Mormon. How might this be explained?
(Footnote: 30 English pages of the Book of Ether / 638 pages in the vision of the Brother of Jared = 4.7%. It may be more appropriately stated as 4.4% if the 30 pages is added to the 638).
Brother of Jared Plates
It might be explained if Moroni considered the vision of the Brother of Jared as material that, although included in the Book of Mormon plates, he did not actually write or copy it. Thus he could refer to it as “the hundredth part I have not written“
But Moroni is very clear that he has written the vision with his own hand.
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.
And after Christ truly had showed himself unto his people he commanded that they should be made manifest.
And now, after that, they have all dwindled in unbelief; and there is none save it be the Lamanites, and they have rejected the gospel of Christ; therefore I am commanded that I should hide them up again in the earth.
Behold, I have written upon these plates the very things which the brother of Jared saw; and there never were greater things made manifest than those which were made manifest unto the brother of Jared.
Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord.Ether 4:1-5
A careful reading of this passage makes it clear that it is possible Moroni wrote the Brother of Jared’s vision in the Nephite language upon the plates, and that he did not have to translate it from the Brother of Jared’s original record because it had been published among the Nephites after the appearance of the Savior. (Presumably translated by Mosiah as shown below.)
So the Brother of Jared’s vision clearly does not qualify as the 99% of Jaredite material omitted from the Book of Mormon. In fact, because it was included, it might make the amount of total possible material to include even larger than just the 24 plates.
And it is difficult to see how any language could be compressed, or the 24 plates could be large enough that they could have contained the vision of the Brother of Jared. This would have required such compression or plate size that the resulting Nephite language translation (assuming Moroni wrote it in his language) would have resulted in 638 more pages to the Book of Mormon.
In short, the 24 plates are inadequate to explain the total Jaredite record referred to in the Book of Mormon.
Then what was the other materials?
And how did they and the vision of the Brother of Jared come into Moroni’s hands?
Let’s examine Mormon’s description of Mosiah’s work. Mormon says “Now after Mosiah had finished translating these records…” (Mosiah 28:17). Note Mormon did not say the record.
This is in contrast to the description Mormon gave just a few chapters before of King Limhi showing the plates to Ammon.
And they brought a record with them, even a record of the people whose bones they had found; and it was engraven on plates of ore.Mosiah 21:27 (Emphasis added)
The singular nature of this record is difficult to miss in this description. And this singular record is composed of presumably 24 plates.
This raises some questions:
- Is it possible that upon return to the land of Zarahemla, that a party was sent into the north country to search for additional records, and that the record of the Brother of Jared was discovered at this time?
- Is it possible that other Jaredite records were also discovered, which Moroni did not use, on the order of 100 times more voluminous than what he used?
- Is it possible Ether had been inspired, like Mormon, to make an abridgment of the records of his people, and that he had left this one record–the 24 plates–in a place that it might be found, without exposing the other records?
- Is it possible Ether stated in his abridgment where the other records were located, knowing that someone would have to be able to translate his record in order to get the map to find them?
These seem to me to be interesting questions.
Let’s return to Moroni’s description of what he included in his record:
…and he [the original author] finished his record; (and the hundredth part I have not written) and he hid them in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them.Ether 15:33 (emphasis added)
Is it possible that Moroni’s comment about the hundredth part was not referring backwards to the singular record finished by Ether, but instead referencing forward to the plural records (“them”) which were hid by Ether?
In conclusion, based upon the above, I believe
- The 24 plates could not have contained the record of the vision of the Brother of Jared.
- The 24 plates did not contain enough material for Moroni to have omitted 90% of it in the Book of Ether, let alone 99% of it.
- The Book of Ether may be composed of mostly a translation of Ether’s words, with Moroni’s unique words only contained in his editorial sections.
- The Book of Ether contains from 1/3rd to 2/3rds of the contents of the 24 plates, and
- The Nephites must have had access to other Jaredite records besides the 24 plates.
Yes, it is fascinating to me to be able to “walk into” the Book of Mormon, and find all of this detail; to have a sense of the actions of real people and real documents and real decisions by those who lived thousands of years ago, who believed much as I believe, worshiped as I worship, and aspired to live as I aspire to live.