A Recent Experience with a Greek Manuscript

Not too long ago, as I was walking along the shores of the Aegean, I stumbled upon a fragmentary papyrus that read thus:

οἱ δὲ ἵπποι οἱ ποτάμιοι νομῷ μὲν τῷ Παπρημίτῃ ἱροί εἰσι, τοῖσι δὲ ἄλλοισι Αἰγυπτίοισι οὐκ ἱροί. φύσιν δὲ παρέχονται ἰδέης τοιήνδε· τετράπουν ἐστί, δίχηλον, ὁπλαὶ βοός, σιμόν, λοφιὴν ἔχον ἵππου, χαυλιόδοντας φαῖνον, οὐρὴν ἵππου καὶ φωνήν, μέγαθος ὅσον τε βοῦς ὁ μέγιστος· τὸ δέρμα δ᾽ αὐτοῦ οὕτω δή τι παχύ ἐστι ὥστε αὔου γενομένου ξυστὰ ποιέεσθαι ἀκόντια ἐξ αὐτοῦ.

Upon translating the fragment, I discovered, much to my surprise, that the text spoke of "river-horses." The author of this text, a supposed eyewitness of these beasts, was adamant that these "horses" were "four-footed, cloven-hoofed like cattle, flat-nosed, with a mane like a horse, showing tusks, with a tail and voice like a horse."


Being the intelligent, sophisticated Internet user that I am, I immediately applied the logic of ex-Mormons on Reddit and confidently dismissed this supposedly ancient Greek fragment as a modern forgery. After all, I knew that this is not a horse, and only a charlatan would try to say otherwise. The author of this bogus "ancient" fragment therefore never truly existed, and, I safely concluded, anyone who believes otherwise is a fool.


Of course, after some time I came, much to my horror, to realize that this text was an excerpt from the writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (History 2.71.1). It was his description of the strange creatures he saw swimming in the Nile as he traveled through the new, exotic land of Egypt.


Unable to handle the sudden cognitive dissonance, I proceeded to soothe myself by making snarky memes and finding reassurance from the proprietors of Zelph on the Shelf that "apologists" for the historicity of this text are bumbling idiots who suffer from confirmation bias.


Because, as we all know, hippopotamuses aren't horses.


Right?

Comments

  1. I mean, what else could you do?

    > Don Neighbors

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  2. Man, dude. You saw their "confirmation bias" and raised it to new heights with the logical fallacies on display here. Snarky Zelph may be, but at least they produce better work than this.

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    1. And exactly what logical fallacies have I committed here?

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    2. Strawman.
      Thanks for the shoutout. :)

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  3. I don't know if there's specific names for them, so perhaps I should just say your logic doesn't seem to work here. Whether you're using this as a hypothetical scenario or not I don't know, but immediately you presume that ex-Mormons would dismiss descriptions such as these as incorrect and thus forgeries.

    The description you use would be unlikely to cause people to question its truthfulness (for lack of a better term). You seem to be mixing metaphors or comparisons. Many scholars, for example, take issue with the fact that there is no evidence of horses during the times of the Book of Mormon. Therefore, some individuals have concluded that Joseph meant tapirs instead of horses which has spawned plenty a humourous meme. And yet, you seem to be trying to apply this to issues with translations in the Book of Mormon. Am I wrong?

    I guess what I find completely ridiculous about your assertion as I interpret it that ex-Mormons do not immediately dismiss translation issues with answers they found on Google or Zelph. Perhaps some do, but I would go so far as to say they are the exception, not the rule. People do not abandon their worldviews at the drop of a hat. Mormons especially. Could Zelph and others be more respectful towards the Church? Sure. But, disrespect does not equate to stupidity.

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    1. Let me clarify what the issue is, and what I'm parodying.

      For some reason Internet ex-Mormons of the Zelph type are obsessed with mocking the idea suggested by John Sorenson and others that the Nephites engaged in the well-documented practice of loan shifting, which is where a person or group gives familiar names to unfamiliar things due to a perceived resemblance. Think of the names of such animals as ground hog, prairie dog, sea horse, ant lion, buffalo, and, yes, hippopotamus. Nobody would bat an eye if I say I saw a "sea horse" while I was swimming in the ocean, right? Because that's the name we've given the animal. Of course it's not really a "horse," but we call it that because it kinda looks like one and so why not call it a "horse."

      But for some bizarre and illogical reason, according to the people at Zelph this suggestion that perhaps the Nephites gave unfamiliar animals in the New World familiar names is just too funny for words, and so they constantly mock those stupid apologists for suggesting such ridiculous things. (Although as I mention below they're actually mocking a straw man.)

      The point of this satirical blog post is to show how common this phenomenon is, including how it occurred in the ancient world. So if Herodotus is allowed to get away with it (you don't see Zelph mocking him for calling the damn thing he saw in the Nile a "river horse" do you?), why can't the Nephites? Why is just so laughably absurd to suggest that the Nephites encountered an animal they were unfamiliar with and so gave it a familiar name?

      I'm poking fun at the fact that if we were to use ex-Mormon logic here we'd have to dismiss Herodotus' account just like they want us to dismiss the Book of Mormon. So this isn't really about translation. For all we know it was Nephi/Mormon who used the word "horse" on the plates that Joseph Smith dutifully translated. Rather, it's about whether the suggestion by Sorenson (i.e. it was the Nephites that called tapirs or whatever "horses") is at all plausible. Anyone who knows about the phenomenon of loan shifting knows it absolutely is.

      "Therefore, some individuals have concluded that Joseph meant tapirs instead of horses which has spawned plenty a humourous meme."

      But see, the meme is based on a straw man that totally misses the point of the argument, as you've illustrated right here. This is NOT what people like Sorenson have ever actually argued. Do you know what he says about this in his book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon? It's a very specific argument with very specific claims. So while ex-Mormons are guffawing on reddit with their memes, they've fundamentally failed to understand the issue, and are mocking something out of their own ignorance.

      I am thus also somewhat poking fun at the fact that they're oblivious to their own straw man, since Sorenson's argument is based on an undeniable phenomenon that is well documented as happening in the past as much as today.

      By the way, as a pop quiz, do you know what the Mayans called the Spaniards' horses when they first encountered them, and what is therefore the word in modern Mayan for horse? :-)

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  4. OK. I see where you're coming from, now. Still, I feel like your parody is not entirely fitting. Nobody, to my knowledge, questions whether Herodotus existed. That is acknowledged as a fact. Nephi, Jacob, Enos, so and and so forth, are still up for grabs. You can say you feel strongly that they actually lived, but there is no definitive proof. Would it be foolish for Zelph to dismiss loan shifting? I would agree, yes. But, whereas we only have Joseph's word to go on here (if you want to throw in the 3 and 8 witnesses, go ahead), I don't think that's what Zelph is dismissing.

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  5. Hey, Tanner from Zelph here! I'm guessing you listen to our podcast? If so, thanks for listening. If not, then I don't know where you're coming from. Anyway....

    Question: What were the "horses" that the Nephites were trying to describe? Do you believe the Nephites were riding around on tapirs? If you do, more power to you. I'm not going to argue that one. Or were "horses" a different animal, like a deer? Wait, it couldn't be a deer because the Nephites were already familiar with deer so they would have just said deer. So what could it be?

    Another question: Which translation theory do you hold to? Do you lean more Royal Skousen or Brant Gardner, or some sort of mix?



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    1. Tanner,

      You ask, "Do you believe the Nephites were riding around on tapirs?"

      No, I don't. The Book of Mormon never, not ONCE, says the Nephites rode the "horses" described in the text. They aren't ridden into battle, for example, despite what popular Mormon artwork tells us. As Brant Gardner points out, all horses do in the Book of Mormon is eat and walk around. That's it. (They're also, it seems, used for food in 3 Nephi and Ether.)

      That's why I'm not opposed to the argument offered by Sorenson and others. Whether it's ultimately true or not cannot be proven, but it makes sense.

      You also ask, "Which translation theory do you hold to? Do you lean more Royal Skousen or Brant Gardner, or some sort of mix?"

      My views on the translation are complicated, but I go for a mix. Just based on my own experience as a translator of ancient languages (primarily the biblical languages) with no professed seeric abilities, there's no reason I can think of for why you can't have a mix. But that's a complicated matter I can't really get into at this time.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. K, so what animal was the "horse?" I think it's a safe assumption that the "horses," be they tapirs or some other beast also pulled the chariots. After all, why would Lamoni want Ammon to prepare the horses and chariots if the horses were only along to eat grass and walk around?

    I bring up the translation method because if it's a tight translation than it seems God would have just given Joseph the correct word. If it's a loose translation involving Joseph's own understanding than it doesn't make sense that he would call an unknown animal a horse but then invent an original name for cureloms and cumoms.

    -Tanner


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    1. You may think it is safe to assume the horses pulled chariots, but I don't. The text never says it, and perhaps rather than wondering why an animal and a conveyance might be prepared together if the one is not pulling the other, you could consider what we know about Mesoamerica and see if there is an answer. (Hint: there is, and it fits the context of Alma 18 very well.)

      As for translation, the fundamental problem here is that no REAL translation in the world would fit either a "tight" or a "loose" translation model. Real translations include moments that overly tight (thus betraying hints of the original language), and other times where it is really loose and seems almost unrelated to the original text. Real translations include translator anachronisms (say, "candles" in the KJV) and also include imported terminology (such as cherubim and seraphim, in the KJV). This is just a reality of translation.

      So, when you say "it seems God would have just X," I honestly can't make sense of it, either way. To me, it seems that God's translation would be real, and hence have the features of real translation. (These are features of translation precisely because tight or "literal" correlation between languages is in fact impossible, so God being perfect has nothing to with it--it is languages and their relationships to each other that are imperfect.) So if the Book of Mormon is in fact a translation then it should have instances of both translator anachronisms (perhaps "horse") and also examples where terms are imported rather than translated (such as Cumomns and Cureloms).

      None of that really is relevant though, because you are conflating translator anachronisms with loan-shifting. They are not the same thing. What Stephen has suggested is a loan-shift. Which is to say, that the Nephites used an Old World term for "horse" to refer to some animal in the New World they were unfamiliar with (just as Herodotus did). This term, which actually means horse then got translated as horse, even though in context it was referring to something else entirely. So Stephen is not suggesting a mistake in translation. Rather, he suggesting what can best be described as an overly-literal translation.

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    2. "so what animal was the "horse?""

      Dunno. Tapir works just as well as anything else, I suppose. It has, after all, been noted by some zoologists for it's horse-like qualities (see Roper). The fact that the Mayan word for "horse" and "tapir" is the same thing also helps. :-)

      http://www.studioetquoquefide.com/2015/06/tzimins-are-not-really-tzimins-theyre.html

      "I think it's a safe assumption that the "horses," be they tapirs or some other beast also pulled the chariots."

      Well at least you're admitting it's an assumption and not something explicit in the text (which actually has Lamoni's porters "conducting" him in Alma 18:9, not the horses).

      "After all, why would Lamoni want Ammon to prepare the horses and chariots if the horses were only along to eat grass and walk around?"

      The context of the passage is a royal procession, where Lamoni goes out to meet his father, another king, at a festival or "great feast." Not three weeks ago I heard it from a PhD in Mayan archaeology while sitting in the grand plaza of Tikal that Mayan royal processions included the king being conducted on a litter that was carried by servants while accompanied by the king's domesticated animals. (Think of the family packing up the old station wagon with Mr. Fluffy to head off to grandpa's house for his birthday.) This we know from iconographic representations of such.

      So the Mesoamerican context works for Lamoni to be carried by a litter being hauled by servants with his animals on parade. Such is just, if not more, as reasonable a reading of the text as the conventional idea that he's riding a wheeled chariot being pulled by horses.

      As for the translation issue, there's another possibility I think you're overlooking. What's wrong with Mormon writing "horse" on the plates (because that's the word the Nephites used to name X animal) and Joseph dutifully rendering it such? Would it not therefore be a "literal" translation while at the same time being a "loose" rendering of the underlying idea? The point is that the translation issue is much more complicated than you appear to allow.

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    3. Stephen and Neal,

      I hear what you're saying about translation issues and how it's complicated to say whether the BOM was loose or strict. However, unless you're aware of sources I'm not, I do not ever recall Joseph making such distinctions when describing the translation process. There are moments described such as when Joseph asked Emma about walls around Jerusalem that lead us to believe this was word-for-word as Joseph was afraid he had been deceived, but I'm unaware of when Joseph went into as great of detail as you two have done. The Intro to the BOM certainly makes no distinctions, but rather appears to place the burden of proof upon the spirit/reader.

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    4. Well I think the main problem we have is that Joseph gives us next to no indication how the translation was accomplished rather than it was done "by the gift and power of God." We are therefore left on our own to piece together what the process was, and this includes scrutinizing the historical, linguistic, eyewitness, and manuscript evidence that we have left at our disposal.

      So really I think any appeal to Joseph Smith is going to largely be an appeal to silence, since he gave us almost nothing to work with. Even the episode with Emma that you mention isn't from him, but from Emma, and it's up to us to determine how to interpret or make sense of the episode in a large scheme of translation.

      So you're right, Joseph didn't go into such great detail. But really he didn't go into any detail, so we're inevitably left on our own. This, incidentally, is why I'm not dogmatic about the translation issue. I have some strong opinions here and there, but nothing really that I'm willing to die on a hill for.

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    5. And see, as the author/translator (whichever you prefer) of the BOM, a book used to convert others to an incredibly demanding faith, I feel it's rather dishonest, or lazy at VERY least, to not go into more detail on it. When you tell people to focus on this book as pillar of testimony, I feel like people deserve to know more about its nuances and complications before making a life-changing decision. (I feel similarly about the Bible lest you think I'm singling out Mormonism.) But, then again, this was Joseph Smith. For all the biographies that will ever be written, I don't know we'll ever come to fully understand what was going through his brainspace.

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  7. What are we to make then, of Lucy Mack Smith's statement about Joseph Smith Jr reciting stories of the people which lived in the Americas anciently? Quote: "During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them." Note the reference to "mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode"
    They believed the idea that ancient Americans rode animals, and suggested there were modes of transportation beside walking (I would include traveling by the ancient equivalent of sedan chair too), but they are clearly incorrect. No animal here during that time was either capable or domesticated to accommodate this. Nor did they have the wheel to even have chariots.

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