Thursday, March 26, 2020

D&C 17: Can I Get a Witness?

This section is the preamble to the revealing of the Gold Plates to the Three Witnesses.  And there's some juicy manipulative language in here.

Say Anything
Verse 4 says that the witnesses will need to testify publicly of what they're about to see so "that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed...."  That's an odd thing to say.  Why would a prophet be destroyed because three other people failed to follow instructions?  Whatever happened to "we believe that men will be punished for their own sins"?

Also...Joseph Smith was destroyed.  I mean, it took 15 years for it to happen, so maybe God slowly became frustrated with the degree to which the witnesses were promulgating their affirmation of the plates' authenticity and he eventually decided it was time to let Joseph get murdered as the penalty.

Verse 8 promises that if they keep the commandment to testify of the plates, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against [them]."  Nothing motivates the troops quite like extravagant promises, right? Imagine being told that if you follow this one simple instruction to tell people about something you saw then you'll be pretty much guaranteed to triumph over the influence of the devil and have everlasting joy in the kingdom of Heaven.  Sign me up.

Totally Not a Scam
Verse 6 seems to hint at Joseph's desperation to prove that he was legit: 
And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.
Sounds like God is a little too obsessed with vindicating Joseph.  Shouldn't God be saying, "this book is a true record of my dealings with ancient Americans and contains the fullness of my gospel" instead of "Joe totally translated this, guys, just like I told him to."  If God's ways are higher than our ways, why is he more concerned with propping up Joseph than with promoting the gospel of salvation?

But, of course, neither God nor the golden plates have been proven to exist, so God swearing on his own existence to support the truth of the Book of Mormon is like me swearing on my mother's grave that the check is in the mail.  My insurance company doesn't know I haven't written a check yet and they don't know my mother's still alive.  Swearing to it doesn't make it true, especially considering your collateral isn't verifiable.

The Eye of Faith
The last thing I'd like to point out about this section is the really peculiar language used to describe the nature of the experience the witnesses were about to have.  Because it kind of sounds like Joseph Smith was prepping them to have a non-physical view of the plates.  The strange wording first jumped out at me in verse 2:
And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.
Of course it's entirely possible that I'm using the norms of modern language to misunderstand the meaning of nineteenth-century language, but...

The use of the word "by" here is notable, I think.  The way I'm reading it, it sounds like the witnesses will see the plates by means of their faith instead of due to their faith.  In D&C 10:47 and 10:52, God makes promises that will come to pass "according to their faith" and in D&C 31:1, Thomas B. Marsh is blessed "because of" his faith.  In these examples, when God is indicating that one thing is directly caused by another—as opposed to one thing merely facilitating another—he opts not to use the preposition "by."

And, more famously, in D&C 88:118, God advises us to "seek learning, even by study and also by faith."  Clearly, in this context, the word "by" indicates that the learning should be sought by means of study and by means of faith.

With those other examples of God's word choice in mind, it seems more and more likely to me that when this section says the witnesses will see the plates by their faith, it's saying by means of their faith.  The faith is a vehicle to obtain the view.  

Call me crazy, but you don't need faith as a vehicle to see physical objects.  After all, Alma taught us that if you have faith, you hope for things which are not seen, so if faith was the method by which the witnesses were able to see the plates, then maybe their definition of "see" in this case isn't the same definition you and I are accustomed to using in daily conversation.

This is also supported, I think, by verse 5:
And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.
This is an important contrast.  Joseph Smith never claimed to have seen the plates with his spiritual eyes—as far as his contact with the plates was concerned, they were a solid, physical object observable with the natural eye.  The word "because" is used in Joseph's case because his faith was not the method by which he was able to see the plates, it was the catalyst for his possession of them in the first place.  Although, to be fair, the word "by" is used as well, but it seems to me that when God is saying "it is by my power that he has seen them," he's not talking about the act of seeing the plates, he's talking about the state of having access to them.

I think this wording helps bolster the quote attributed to Martin Harris that "I did not see [the plates] as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith."  It further muddies the waters when it comes to determining just how literal the witnesses' testimony is.

And if the testimony of the witnesses can be muddied, then the legitimacy of Joseph's narrative of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon may need further examination.

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