In 1987 I published the theory of the Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source. I wrote the article as a bit of apologetics to show that assumptions made by both believers and critics lead to unwarranted conclusions.
I believe that the expansion theory is more cogent now than it has ever been. Let me explain three reasons why the expansion theory is essential to assessing the Book of Mormon:
(1) Those who write about the Book of Mormon in its ancient American setting necessarily adopt the expansion theory implicitly. (e.g., John Sorenson et al.) To make sense of the animals, plants, metals, weapons, directions and so forth mentioned in the Book of Mormon, we must assume that the words in the English are approximations or “conceptual translations” to make sense of what we know actually existed. For example, John Sorenson states: “In order to make sense [of animals identified in the Book of Mormon], we must consider a wide range of historical, linguistic and natural scientific information in search of clues to interpret the scripture’s statements…. But isn’t it ovious that the ‘cow’ of the Book of Mormon was our familiar bovine, straight out without all this hegding? No, it is not at all obvious. First, we are trying to figure out what the Book of Mormon really means by the words we have in English translation … Second, there is a lack of reliable evidence — historical, archaeological, zoological, or linguistic — that Old World cows were present in the Americas in pre-columbian times.” (AnAncient American Setting, 89, 294) Sorenson gives a long list of possible candidates for the animals mentioned in the BofM that were found in ancient America on p. 299-300. All of them are merely conceptual approximations. He does the same for metals, weapons, plants, compass directions and so forth listed in the Book of Mormon. My point is that to make sense of what we know from archaeology, paleo-botany, paleontology and so forth, we must assume that the BofM was translated rather loosely and was based on Joseph Smith’s conceptual abilities and horizons.
(2) To make sense of the text, we must accept that Joseph Smith was free to choose the language in which to express the translation. It is rather clear to me that the language chosen mirrors the KJV and adopts its phraseology and mode of expression throughout. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the expansion theory is somehow invalidated if we cannot find textual aporia or breaks in continuity that show where the ancient text leaves off and the new modern text begins. To look for such aporia (as Terryl Givens does) is to misunderstand what the expansion theory claims. Rather, the point of the theory is that the very nature of revelation included the limitations and horizons of Joseph Smith ability to conceptualize, express and explain the text. The theory is based on the fact that all human experience is conceptual and involves interpretation from a point of view. The theory thus argues:
(1) All human experience involves interpretation from a particular point of view.
(2) The revelation that resulted in the Book of Mormon was at least in part a human experience.
(c) Therefore, the revelation that resulted in the Book of Mormon involved interpretation from a particular point of view at least in part.
One of the strengths of the expansion theory is that it sees all of Joseph Smith’s prophetic translations as being of the same kind. Joseph didn’t translate the BofM because he knew Hebrew and/or reformed Egyptian; he didn’t translate the Book of Abraham because he read Egyptian etc. Rather, these translations were the same as the Book of Moses and the parchment of John that he translated now contained in D&C 7. He could translate because he received revelation; and the revelation involved his input in explaining, expanding and making sense of what he received. JS felt free to change, amend, add to, delete from and generally edit the revelations that he received in the Doctrine & Covenants — and he treated the BofM text in the same way when he made changes to it in 1837. The Book of Mormon cannot be a “literal translation” or JS’s changes don’t make sense. However, if JS is giving the best expression and explanation that he knows how to give, and later has greater capacity to explain the text or “translation” in a better way, he felt free to do so.
(3) It has now been 18 years since the expansion theory was first published and to date not a single critic of the Book of Mormon has attempted to explain the presence of convicing evidence of antitiquity that I cited in my 1987 article: viz., ancient prophetic call forms, ancient Israelite covenant renewal rituals and forms and formal Hebrew legal procedures. In my view, the presence of these forms is fairly clear in the text of the BofM and they are very difficult to explain on the assumption that it was written by anyone in the 19th century. To date, the only theory that accounts for these ancient forms and the presence of modern expansions that are fairly evidence is the expansion theory.
I believe that the Book of Mormon is precisely what it claims to be: a book translated by the gift and power of God that tells us about the record of an ancient people. However, translation by the gift and power of God isn’t translation based upon an isomorphic rendering of an underlying text into English based on a knowledge of the ancient textual language; rather, it is a revelation from God which involves necessarily the limitations of vocabulary, conceptuality and horizons of God’s servant chosen to render it into English for us.