Overview of Revelation, Part 1: Backdating Prophecy
Now that I’m starting to wrap up the overview topics on Mormonism, we need to start taking all of the previous overview topics and begin to look at the bigger picture with regards to the church’s truth claims.
For me one of the biggest selling points when I was an investigator was that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a living, breathing prophet of God to lead us through the latter days when it seemed like the world was constantly encountering uncertainty and increasing turmoil, wars, and crises.
This was increased by being taught that the Book of Mormon was an ancient document that miraculously predicted the coming forth of Columbus, the Revolutionary War, the coming of Jesus Christ, and provided us with a history of where the Native Americans came from.
Before we get to the ways that revelations have been used in the church’s history, I wanted to first look at how prophecies and revelations have been backdated into the scriptures, and why it is so important in understanding both when the Book of Mormon was written along with the fingerprints left behind by the author.
After that, we can apply it to the church today in order to understand how we also backdate prophecies to the current prophets in order to boost their credibility and authority, including in the past year by looking at how many have responded to the COVID pandemic.
There was a phenomenal podcast by Radio Free Mormon that deals with the concept of backdating prophecy, and in this overview I will be relying on his work a lot so I would highly recommend listening to his podcast for much more detail than I will cover here. In simple terms, this is a technique where a writer can fulfill a revelation by writing after the time it occurred, but putting an event in the mouth of an ancient prophet.
As I covered in the overview on Deutero-Isaiah, scholars now can now tell that parts of Isaiah were written by a second and third author because there are fingerprints left behind that tell them it was not all by one author including the prophecy of Cyrus, a change in tone, and other textual hints.
Furthermore, if you read the four Gospels in the New Testament, they were all written long after Jesus would have lived. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written about 35 years after Jesus’ death, which in ancient times is a very long time to have traditions passed along orally and maintain their initial content without major alterations.
Because of this, in the Gospels the authors were able to put in to Jesus’ mouth prophecies that would come true before Jesus was crucified because they already knew the ending. That is not to say that these were made up and backdated prophecies, but this is the pattern you would look for when trying to understand how authors could backdate a prophecy into a text that they already know has been fulfilled.
The most concrete example of this is the Book of Daniel, which scholars can pinpoint as being written to a very small window because of the text itself. In chapter 11, which is more widely known as Daniel’s Final Vision, Daniel gives very specific prophecies that all are fulfilled. From RFM’s podcast:
“Chapter 11, which is the centerpiece of this revelation - the final vision, gives a broad sweep of history from the sixth century BCE to the second century. So, in other words, this is prophesying, at least according to the terms of the Book of Daniel, of things from the sixth century all the way down to the second century BCE. That's 400 years after Daniel is supposed to have written this and it goes all the way down to the time of Alexander the Great who died when he was 35 years old…
But in Chapter 11:40-45 which finished the chapter, it continues with the prophecy. But now it starts getting things wrong. In other words, it starts prophesying of things that did not actually happen. Historically, verses 40 through 45 finish the chapter with the prophecy that Antiochus Epiphanes would make war once again against Egypt and would die in Judea. This did not actually happen. There was no second war against Egypt, and Antiochus ends up dying not in Judea, but he died in Persia or in Babylon. That's what the historical record tells us.
So when scholars look at this, what they look at in Daniel is a backdated prophecy. It's put in the mouth of Daniel, who lived about 530 BCE when he's supposed to be making this prophecy, according to the Book of Daniel and the way it presents things, but actually it was written in the second century BCE after the things that Daniel prophesies accurately actually had transpired in. The prophecy is backdated and put into Daniel's mouth to show what a great prophet he was. But not only that, at the point where the prophecies of Daniel stop being accurate and start being inaccurate, in other words, stopped reflecting history as it really happened and start not reflecting history as it really happened, that is the point at which scholars believe the author of these additional prophecies lived because he knew what had happened historically because he had already lived through it.
So then he [the author] puts it back in Daniel's mouth. He did not know what would happen in the future, but he continues to make prophecies of things that were really in the future for this anonymous writer. But that's where he starts getting things wrong, and so scholars are generally agreed that the anonymous author of this backdated prophecy of Daniel lived right around 168 or 167 BCE.” (Backdating Prophecy, Radio Free Mormon)
I realize that might seem like a long-winded example to understand how backdated prophecy works, but it is incredibly relevant to the topic of revelation and prophecy in the church. The Book of Mormon also uses the technique of backdating prophecies, and I want to highlight two key examples of that to illustrate why scholars can date the Book of Mormon to the 19th century.
There will be some overlap from our previous overviews on the Book of Mormon, but these are incredibly important to understanding revelation from the church and, most importantly, Joseph Smith. I’ve been upfront through these overviews that I believe the evidence is clear that Joseph Smith authored the Book of Mormon, and I think these examples will continue to make that case.
The Martin Harris Visit to Charles Anthon
I have detailed multiple times how Joseph Smith used Martin Harris’ visit to Charles Anthon to backdate and retrofit a prophecy from Isaiah. This meeting happened in 1828, a year before the Book of Mormon was written. That is important because Joseph Smith is going to write this account that would happen over 2,000 years after Isaiah was written directly into the Book of Mormon, almost exactly as he claimed it to happen.
We do not have any contemporary accounts of this event, with the first documentation being in Joseph Smith’s 1832 history. Keep in mind that this is given exclusively through Joseph Smith – there is no indication that he is dictating Martin Harris’ words, meaning that this is already being framed in Joseph’s mind four years after the fact:
“He [Martin Harris] immediately came to Susquehanna and said the Lord had shown him that he must go to New York City with some of the characters, so we proceeded to copy some of them.
And he took his journey to the Eastern Cities and to the learned, saying, “Read this, I pray thee.” And the learned said, “I cannot, but if he would bring the plates they would read it.” But the Lord had forbid it, and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate.
And I said “I cannot, for I am not learned.” But the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book; therefore I commenced translating the characters, and thus the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled which is written in the 29 chapter concerning the book." (Joseph Smith 1832 Account)
This is important because we can see the evolution of this story and how Joseph Smith will write it directly into the Book of Mormon as a backdated prophecy to further convince those around him that it was true. First let’s look at the part of Isaiah 29 from the King James Bible:
10 For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.
11 And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:
12 And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned. (Isaiah 29:10-12, KJV)
Now compare this to the Book of Mormon’s version of Isaiah 29 which is from 2 Nephi 27:
5 For behold, the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep. For behold, ye have closed your eyes, and ye have rejected the prophets; and your rulers, and the seers hath he covered because of your iniquity.
6 And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.
7 And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.
8 Wherefore, because of the things which are sealed up, the things which are sealed shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people. Wherefore the book shall be kept from them.
9 But the book shall be delivered unto a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book, which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust, and he shall deliver these words unto another;
10 But the words which are sealed he shall not deliver, neither shall he deliver the book. For the book shall be sealed by the power of God, and the revelation which was sealed shall be kept in the book until the own due time of the Lord, that they may come forth; for behold, they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof. (2 Nephi 27:5-10)
Here Joseph Smith is already misinterpreting Isaiah 29 in order to backdate the prophecy of the Book of Mormon directly into the Book of Mormon. This is because Joseph Smith, the author, knows that the Book of Mormon is being written and wants to find a prophecy in the Bible to connect it to in order to create biblical authenticity for it.
The problem is that scholars do not believe that Isaiah is speaking about a literal book. In fact, books did not exist in this time – the idea of a codex is anachronistic to the Book of Mormon which I covered in the overview on anachronisms. BYU professor and author of the book This Is My Doctrine makes that quite clear:
"Isaiah isn’t talking about a literal book, much less one that would come forth in the future."
Harrell continues: "Non-LDS Bible commentators make two observations that preclude the “one that hath a familiar spirit” from having direct reference to Joseph Smith. First, they point out that Isaiah 29 is specifically addressing the current situation of wickedness in Jerusalem or “the city where David dwelt” (Isa. 29:1). There is no mention of any other people or place. Second, it doesn’t say that this nation will speak through some actual person, such as Joseph Smith. Rather, the voice of the nation would be “as” (v. 4) a person who has a familiar spirit. This is, the voice of Jerusalem’s inhabitants will be no more than a peep and mutter.” (This is My Doctrine, 92)
Just as I’ve tried to point out throughout these overviews, Joseph Smith knew the Bible incredibly well, but he didn’t always understand the history behind it as scholars do almost 200 years later. Because of this, Joseph Smith constantly leaves his fingerprints on his scriptures and revelations, which is why scholars can date the book directly to his lifetime.
But Joseph Smith doesn’t stop here and continues in 2 Nephi to backdate the Martin Harris visit to Charles Anthon. This is of course a complete addition to Isaiah since there is no mention of this visit whatsoever in the Bible, which is another clue that shows us that the prophecy is being backdated. From 2 Nephi:
15 But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them.
16 And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God.
17 And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed.
18 Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it.
19 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned.
20 Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee. (2 Nephi 27: 15-20)
In these verses Joseph Smith is now circling back to Isaiah 29, adding the Martin Harris visit to Charles Anthon to then fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy in 29:12 that “the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.”
As I covered above, this is a misinterpretation by Joseph Smith that he is using to backdate the Anthon visit as a fulfillment of prophecy. This also writes Joseph Smith directly into the Book of Mormon as the “unlearned” person who will read the words.
This is a problem that allows us to date the Book of Mormon as being written after 1828, because the visit was specifically written directly into the text. Look at how detailed the Anthon visit is written directly into what is supposed to be an ancient text – there is no subtlety here.
What makes this even more amazing is that Joseph Smith will rewrite the account of the visit in 1838, after Martin Harris has been excommunicated from the church. This allows Joseph Smith again to write the account without any feedback from Martin Harris. From Joseph Smith’s 1838 account:
"I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him. He then said to me, 'Let me see that certificate.' I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, 'I cannot read a sealed book.' I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation." (Joseph Smith History 1:64–65)
Remember that this is being written in Martin Harris’ voice, but there is no account that comes directly from Harris regarding this visit. Joseph Smith is dictating this to a scribe who is writing down Joseph Smith’s perspective of the visit ten years after it visited and through the lens of fulfilling prophecy.
Again, look at the 1832 account above and you can see how much grander this visit has become in the six years since Joseph Smith wrote the first account (which was already four years after it happened). In the 1832 visit there is no mention of “I cannot read a sealed book,” nor is there any mention about Anthon being told that he can’t see the book because it is sealed.
And why would there be a mention of a sealed book? If Anthon wanted to take a shot at translating the language, Martin Harris could’ve shown him the unsealed portion. Keep in mind that no one could translate Egyptian at this point, which is a likely reason that Joseph Smith chose Egyptian for the Book of Mormon. Had the text been written in Hebrew, which would’ve made the most sense historically, there would be no reason for Joseph to be the only one who could translate it because Hebrew was a known language. Furthermore, mentioning the sealed portion is Joseph Smith trying to fulfill Isaiah 29, even though biblical scholars are clear that Joseph Smith is misinterpreting it in the first place.
What also makes this interesting is that the phrase “I cannot read a sealed book” was added to the history after the initial 1838 draft, which further shows how Joseph Smith was changing the historical accounts to both fulfill prophecies and bolster his authority in the church.
The actual account of the visit has a lot of problems as well, and I cover those in more detail on or post about the Martin Harris and Charles Anthon visit, but the larger point is that you can see exactly how Joseph Smith here is molding the visit to backdate what he believes is a prophecy from Isaiah that every scholar outside of Mormonism will tell you was misinterpreted by Joseph Smith in the first place. Just like the First Vision, the account changes greatly from 1832 to 1838, and the direction of the changes are all designed to bolster the credibility of the Book of Mormon and, more directly, Joseph Smith’s claim to being a prophet of God.
The Specific Prophecies in 1 Nephi
As I mentioned above with Daniel, the reason that scholars can date the Book of Daniel so specifically is that he provides a series of specific revelations that span multiple centuries, but then the author of the book starts getting the predictions wrong. This tells us that the book was written after the specific prophecies that were correct, but before the ones that ended up failing.
In the Book of Mormon we can see this same pattern in 1 Nephi, which is written as part of the replacement text of the ‘Lost 116 Pages.’ This is important to note because this was written after Joseph Smith had already finished the ending of the Book of Mormon, meaning at this point the author of the text could write in prophecies that he knew would be fulfilled at the end because it had already been written.
Again I want to quote from the amazing podcast put together by Radio Free Mormon:
“The reason I bring this up [the Book of Daniel] is because as I was learning about this 15 years ago, I started getting an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach because I recognized that there was something very similar that was going on in the book of Mormon itself and, specifically, in The vision of Nephi, which is recorded in the Book of Mormon 1 Nephi chapters 11 through 14. Now the text of the Book of Mormon puts this prophecy approximately 600 years before Christ. And yet, as we know, the Book of Mormon did not appear in any kind of published form until 1829 when it was dictated by Joseph Smith and then published for the first time the following year in 1830. So we have a book, The Book of Mormon, that first appears in 1830, but it is quoting prophecies from Nephi, who lived 600 years before Christ or before the common era.
Now for chapters 11, 12 and 13, I'm just going to look at the head notes of each chapter. I'm not going to go into detail, but we will see that all of these things that are seen by Nephi 600 years before Jesus Christ came are things that Nephi could not have known except by divine revelation and the gift of prophecy, but it would have been an easy matter for Joseph Smith or whoever wrote the Book of Mormon when it came off the press in 1830. All of these things would have been known by a person living at that time period.” (Radio Free Mormon, Backdating Prophecy)
This is something I highlighted in the Book of Mormon overviews, which is to say that Nephi is writing about events that not even the people in the Old Testament had any awareness of. Knowing of Jesus Christ’s name and coming 600 years before the people in the Bible did is problematic from the perspective of scholars because the author of the Book of Mormon is familiar with a 19th century Christology and writes it into an ancient text.
The apologetic response is to say that God revealed this to Nephi perhaps because they would not be there for Jesus’ life, but again it has all of the fingerprints of someone writing a 19th century view of Christianity directly into ancient times. This is another area where Occam’s Razor tells us that the most logical answer is that the author is writing this in the 19th century and trying to retrofit the Bible to craft the story.
Back to RFM’s podcast:
“Chapter 11, the heading, says Nephi sees the spirit of the Lord and has shown, in vision, the tree of Life. He sees the mother of the Son of God and learns of the condescension of God. That's Jesus coming down to Earth or actually, in the original Book of Mormon, that was God coming down to Earth. It was later modified to be the Son of God, but going on with the heading, he sees the baptism, ministry, and crucifixion of the Lamb of God. He sees also the call in ministry of the twelve apostles of the lamb. So this is a detailed prophecy that Nephi is getting 600 years before Christ but it’s first being published 1830 years after Christ. Once again, details not knowable by Nephi, but definitely knowable and known to Joseph Smith and everybody in his community.” (Radio Free Mormon, Backdating Prophecy)
This is similar to my previous comment, but again we are told all of this information was given to Nephi via revelations/visions, but it is given in such specificity that a scholar would look at this and say it was written, at the absolute earliest, after the Gospels were written. What dates this to the 1820s, however, is the inclusion of the ‘Tree of Life’ vision, which is Joseph Smith incorporating the vision of his father, Joseph Smith Sr.
I covered the ‘Tree of Life’ in the surrounding influences overview, but it cannot be overlooked that Joseph Smith is directly writing into the Book of Mormon events that are happening around him including the Charles Anthon visit and the Tree of Life into the replacement text for the ‘Lost 116 Pages.’
And now we’re going to get to the specific prophecies that really date this to Joseph’s time. From the podcast:
“Chapter 12: The heading says [that] Nephi sees, in vision, the land of promise, the righteousness, iniquity, and downfall of its inhabitants, the coming of the lamb of God among them, how the twelve disciples and the twelve apostles shall judge Israel, the loathsome and filthy state of those who dwindle in unbelief.” (Radio Free Mormon, Backdating Prophecy)
In this part of the vision, Nephi is being shown the unfolding of the events of the Book of Mormon, which as I mentioned previously has already been written by Joseph Smith. After Martin Harris lost the ‘116 pages,’ Joseph Smith continued translating from where they left off in Mosiah, finished the Book of Mormon, and then started back at the beginning.
What that means is that in this part of the vision Nephi can effectively state the Book of Mormon narrative and then use the remainder of the book to fulfill the backdated prophecies given in this vision because the author of the Book of Mormon has already written the ending. It’s like writing the Star Wars prequels, foreshadowing what happened in (the previously released) episodes IV, V, and VI, and then calling it prophecy.
From here Nephi’s vision gets not just incredibly specific, but begins to relate the history of America as well.
Chapter 13 speaks of the formation of the “great and abominable church,” which had been understood to be the Catholic church. Ironically enough, one of the complaints about the great and abominable church is that they sought great wealth, which is odd as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sits on an investment fund worth over $130 *billion* dollars.
While this is not taught today as the Catholic church, it was absolutely spoken of this way during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, which is why it is written in the Book of Mormon as such. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie stated the following in the first edition of his book, Mormon Doctrine:
“It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church.” (McConkie, Mormon Doctrine)
This was removed for the second edition of the book because this idea was becoming too controversial in the 1960s to come from any official church leader, and the church today discourages this connection being made.
A few verses later, Nephi then reveals one of the revelations that the author would be incredibly familiar with – the arrival of Columbus. From 1 Nephi 13:
10 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
Here Joseph Smith is writing into the Book of Mormon the arrival of Columbus to America, making clear that the “seed of my brethren” are the Native Americans who maintained the curse of dark skin and would be here when Columbus arrived.
But again the specificity is again present as Joseph Smith describes “the man” who went forth “upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.”
This is exactly what you would expect from someone who knows the events that had already taken place – the details get more specific as we go, to the point that we know that Columbus will find America and the Native Americans – even though Joseph Smith (and the Book of Mormon) incorrectly identifies them as Lamanites.
The Book of Mormon continues to tell the history of America in 1 Nephi 13:
14 And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.
15 And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.
Joseph Smith continues to reveal specific information, here talking about how the settlers take the land from the Native Americans, which is justified by the Book of Mormon because it is blamed on the “wrath of God.
Furthermore, Joseph Smith backdates a prophecy that the settlers would prosper in America and that they would be white just as the righteous Nephites were before they died. Again, remember that Joseph Smith knows how the Book of Mormon ends because he already finished it and is now able to reference the end of the book in these prophecies.
This is also a very clear reference to not just the end of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith has already completed, but the Moundbuilder myth. As I covered in the surrounding influences section, the Moundbuilder myth was one of the predominant views of the 19th century, which is that an ancient civilization of white and delightsome people (the Book of Mormon writes this as the Nephites) were killed off the savage, dark skinned Indians (Lamanites). The Moundbuilder myth was not an obscure idea – it was talked about by multiple US presidents and it shaped the worldview of people who were trying to explain both the mounds around the Americas and why the Americas were populated with dark skinned people.
Now Nephi prophecies of the Revolutionary War:
17 And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.
18 And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.
19 And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.
Keep in mind that the Revolutionary War took place from 1775-1783, which is just 46 years before the Book of Mormon is written. This is information that would be fresh in the minds of those in Joseph Smith’s time, and it is written into the Book of Mormon as a prophecy over 2,000 years earlier.
The Book of Mormon specifically details the Revolutionary War that happened 46 years prior to the writing of the book, but will not mention the Civil War which will happen just 33 years after. That is another area where scholars can date the Book of Mormon, and it again falls right into Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
The rest of the chapter switches to the Americans getting the Bible and, of course, the Book of Mormon. In these verses there are prophecies of the gospels coming forth including specifics such as the twelve apostles and the formation of the “great and abominable church” that I mentioned above.
What is interesting about this chapter is how much the author of the Book of Mormon cites American exceptionalism:
30 Nevertheless, thou beholdest that the Gentiles who have gone forth out of captivity, and have been lifted up by the power of God above all other nations, upon the face of the land which is choice above all other lands, which is the land that the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father that his seed should have for the land of their inheritance; wherefore, thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which are among thy brethren.
This is another way that scholars can pinpoint the author of a text, and in this case it is because the person who wrote it had specific details that lead up until 1828 and also comes from a mindset that views America above all other parts of the world.
As Radio Free Mormon points out, after the Revolutionary War is cited, the prophecies get extremely vague. Following the prophecy that the Bible could come forth after losing some of the plain and precious truth, chapter 14 continues with more vagueness that mentions nothing that was unknown to the author in 1829.
In fact, chapter 14 continues to speak out about the “great and abominable church” and reads as a polemic against the Catholic church, which at this point had “sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.”
Chapter 14 then tries to backdate one final prophecy which is the coming forth of the Book of Revelations. From 1 Nephi 14:
18 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
19 And I looked and beheld a man, and he was dressed in a white robe.
20 And the angel said unto me: Behold one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
21 Behold, he shall see and write the remainder of these things; yea, and also many things which have been.
22 And he shall also write concerning the end of the world.
27 And I, Nephi, heard and bear record, that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel.
The author of the Book of Mormon, following the American Revolution which was just 46 years prior to the writing of the Book of Mormon, then moves almost directly to the Book of Revelation to get from the American Revolution to the end of the world. This again is a clear fingerprint that the Book of Mormon was written after the Charles Anthon visit in 1828, but not much later as it contains nothing specific following the Anthon visit and writing of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith would know was happening.
What most members might not realize is that Joseph Smith and the early church believed we were merely years away from the return of Christ. This was not a church that believed that in 200 years we would still be here on Earth in an age of prosperity, but believed that the end was near.
I will cover in the next section on revelation that the earliest patriarchal blessings were clear that the early members would live to see the return of Christ. Those revelations were, of course, flat out wrong, but it again underscores that the author of the Book of Mormon clearly believed that the recent history of the Americas was also the final years of the Americas. Again, these fingerprints are not in isolation, but continue to paint the same picture about when the Book of Mormon was written and who wrote it.
Furthermore, this is yet another instance where Joseph Smith’s lack of biblical scholarship came back to haunt him. While the Book of Revelations is written by someone who identifies himself as John, scholars today now are in almost complete consensus that it was not written by the Apostle John. New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehram writes the following about the authorship of the Book of Revelation:
“Whoever wrote Revelation did not also write the Gospel of John. The writings styles really are massively different; whoever wrote Revelation (unlike the author of the Gospel) did not have Greek as his first language.
And there is another reason, something that Dionysius does *not* emphasize: the eschatological views are radically different. John is against the apocalyptic views of Jesus found in Matthew and Mark, for example; whereas Revelation promotes such apocalyptic ideas – even more than the earlier Gospels. The apocalypse is entirely what the book is about.
So two different authors. Was one of them John the son of Zebedee? Almost certainly not. Virtually the one thing the traditions agree on about John is that he was a fisherman in rural Galilee. That means he was almost certainly a lower-class day laborer (working in a rural part of a remote area of the empire). Such people did not receive an education. Learning to read and write – i.e. to *compose* — took many years of education. Day laborers couldn’t afford the time and money. Only the urban elites educated their young. John was not among that class. Very few people were – fewer than 95% of the entire population (and again, only ones living in cities).
Conclusion: John did not write the book of Revelation. But, well, a different John did!” (Ehrman, Who Wrote the Book of Revelations)
This might seem like a tangent to the idea of backdating prophecy, but it is important again to see these problems in totality. Here Joseph Smith leaves another fingerprint as he mistakenly attributes the Book of Revelation to John the Apostle, when modern scholarship is quite clear that this is not the case.
The Book of Mormon dates itself in so many ways, but the way it backdates prophecy up until Joseph Smith’s time but then immediately becomes vague is a very obvious sign that it is not an ancient text. I want to recap the prophecies in Nephi’s vision that I outlined above:
The Tree of Life (1 Nephi 11): This is taken from Joseph Smith Sr.’s “Tree of Life” vision that was experienced in 1811 and told within the Smith family. However in this case Joseph Smith is writing it back into the Book of Mormon in a time that would be over 2,000 years earlier.
Columbus arriving in America (1 Nephi 13:10-12): 1492 CE
White settlers obtaining the ‘land of their inheritance’ from the Native Americans (1 Nephi 13:14-15): After 1492 BCE as more settlers came to America, leading to the creation of colonies.
The Revolutionary War (1 Nephi 13:17-19): 1775-1783 CE
The coming forth of the Bible and Book of Mormon in America (1 Nephi 13:20-42): This is hard to date specifically, but the Geneva Bible was the first Bible to be brought to America and that was released in 1611 and brought over around 1620 with the Pilgrims. The King James Bible would be brought over shortly after in the mid-1600s. Of course the Book of Mormon was released in 1830 after being produced in 1829.
The “Great and Abominable Church” and the “church of the Lamb of God:” This is again hard to date as it is very vague, but this prophecy has no anchor in historicity. Following a specific history of America from 1492-1783, the author of the Book of Mormon falls back to very vague prophecies that are no longer about historical events, but religious movements.
The Apostle John will write the Book of Revelation: Scholars date the Book of Revelation to about 96 CE, although as I discussed above this prophecy confuses the John identified in the Book of Revelation with the Apostle John, which is a mistake by the author in not understanding biblical scholarship.
While not included in this particular vision, 2 Nephi 27 makes the very specific prophecy of the Martin Harris visit to Charles Anthon. That visit took place in 1828 and was written into the Book of Mormon in 1829.
This chapter (2 Nephi 27) also references that three witnesses will testify of the Book of Mormon, but remember that at this point Joseph Smith has already promised that there would be three witnesses to the Book of Mormon in March of 1829. While 2 Nephi is near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, it is actually near the end of Joseph Smith’s translation timeline, as he rewrote the material that was in the ‘lost 116 pages’ after writing the end. In other words, Joseph Smith here is writing a prophecy into the Book of Mormon that he had developed months earlier, which is another small way to backdate a prophecy.
One small bonus note here that I covered in the surrounding influences section is that Joseph Smith creates a prophecy about himself in the Book of Mormon. From the words of Joseph in 2 Nephi 3:
14 And thus prophesied Joseph, saying: Behold, that seer will the Lord bless; and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise, which I have obtained of the Lord, of the fruit of my loins, shall be fulfilled. Behold, I am sure of the fulfilling of this promise;
15 And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father. And he shall be like unto me; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation.
In other words, here the Book of Mormon is making a prophecy that Joseph, son of Joseph will be a “seer” that will translate the Book of Mormon. This is a great way to retrofit a prophecy into the Book of Mormon that Joseph has already fulfilled in the year 1829.
Remember that Joseph Smith was considered a seer while he was a treasure digger, so this term was not unique to his time working on the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, these verses state that “they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded,” which just happens to match Joseph Smith’s revelation that he should not re-translate the ‘lost 116 pages’ of the Book of Mormon. From D&C 10:
42 And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words.
43 I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.
D&C 10 also mentions that others seek to destroy Joseph Smith over ten times, which fits directly into 2 Nephi which was written immediately after D&C 10 was written.
Again, 2 Nephi was written after D&C 10 was received because this is the text that replaces what was lost in the original 116 pages manuscript, so Joseph Smith referring back to elements of D&C 10 gives a very clear indicator that the author of the Book of Mormon was also the one responsible for D&C 10. While an apologetic response is that God was the author of both, that goes against the idea that Joseph Smith is translating an ancient record written thousands of years earlier.
What this shows is that Joseph Smith was writing specific events into the Book of Mormon that occurred all the way up to 1829, but from that point forward goes completely vague. As Radio Free Mormon points out in his podcast, this is exactly why scholars can date the Book of Daniel to a two year window. Not only do the dates tell us when the Book of Mormon’s text was written, but the perspective gives us clues as to who wrote the book as well as it comes from an American who believes in American exceptionalism.
Don’t get me wrong here – I love living in America, but that’s not the reason I point out the theme of American exceptionalism in the Book of Mormon. This is a massive fingerprint of the author because it helps to show the perspective of the person who wrote the text along with the worldview that they were a product of. These are the clues we can use to see when an author is backdating prophecy.
Backdated Prophecies Since the Book of Mormon
As I sat down to write an overview on revelation in the church’s history, I did not intend to spend so much time on looking at how revelations and prophecies could be backdated, but then I remembered the podcast by Radio Free Mormon and how well it explained exactly why the same scholarship can be applied to the Book of Mormon’s prophecies that scholars have done with the Book of Daniel as well as New Testament material such as Matthew.
The most obvious apologetic response is to say that with God all things are possible, and that of course Nephi would have received revelations from God that those in Jerusalem would not know about. As I’ve mentioned before, the problem here is that it still doesn’t add up because the revelations that Nephi receives from God have very significant errors and, most telling, end at the exact moment that Joseph Smith is translating the Book of Mormon.
Think about it this way: In the vision in 1 Nephi, there are specific events covered from Columbus arriving in America in 1492 and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in 1830. That is a window of 338 years where we have specific events being detailed such as Columbus’ arrival, the white settlers taking the land from the Native Americans, the Revolutionary War, and the Book of Mormon.
Yet we receive nothing that occurs in the years after Joseph Smith’s lifetime. I’m not even saying that the Book of Mormon should speak about how in the future that you people will use the Internet to fact check the Book of Mormon’s claims, but that there’s no mention of the Civil War, the fight over slavery in the United States, or any of the unique elements of Mormonism such as temple work, the coming forth of the Book of Abraham, or that God and Jesus are separate beings.
There is a point where you can no longer ignore all of the problems that just keep piling up every time you dig into another area of church history, and this is one that again not only dates the Book of Mormon very specifically to Joseph Smith’s time, but again exposes more errors made by Joseph Smith while trying to tie the story directly into the Bible. That he identifies the author of Revelation as John the Apostle is a huge problem now that scholars are certain that it was not written by the Apostle John, but another author entirely.
In a lot of ways this feels more like another Book of Mormon overview than an overview on revelation in the church, but there was a reason to cover it now. Not only does this happen in the Book of Mormon, but it has been happening in our time as well. A great example of this is how members reinterpreted Russell M. Nelson’s declaration that the April 2020 General Conference would be “different from any previous conference.”
When COVID was really ramping up in March 2020, I saw many posts by faithful members and publications faithful to the church. I wrote two articles about them, looking at how we often look for signs everywhere we can when we’re trying to prove that our beliefs are correct, and that we often fall back on parallels when we’re trying to make sense of problems in our lives – especially when it comes to the church’s truth claims.
Because COVID completely upended the world, this of course forced the church to turn General Conference into an entirely ‘virtual’ conference, with no live audience as before. This led members to go back to Nelson’s statement and then create the new meaning the Nelson was actually giving a revelation about it being a virtual conference.
The problem, of course, is that Nelson never referred to a pandemic or any medical emergency, but made clear that the reason that the April 2020 General Conference would be different was because it was the 200th anniversary of when Joseph Smith claimed to have his first vision:
“The year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year. General conference next April will be different from any previous conference... In the next six months, I hope that every member and every family will prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.” (Nelson, October 2019 General Conference)
Nelson could not have been clearer that he was referring to the foundation of the church, but again we as people are wired to take later events and to ascribe them to a meaning that was never envisioned or intended.
This also led members to go back and declare that the shortening of church from three hours to two was Nelson using revelation to make the church a more “home centered” church to weather the pandemic much easier than it would’ve been without the Come Follow Me program.
In other words, members of the church are now going back to Nelson’s comments and reinterpreting them in order to fulfill a prophecy that was never actually said, which then increases Nelson’s credibility as a prophet to these members. However, when you look at the actual text you can see that Nelson never once warned members of a pandemic, mentioned food storage, or gave any indication that the April 2020 General Conference would be unlike any other beyond the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s claimed First Vision.
Even Russell M. Nelson had to admit at the April 2020 General Conference that he never saw COVID coming:
"Little did I know, when I promised you at the October 2019 general conference that this April conference would be ‘memorable and unforgettable,’ that speaking to a visible congregation of fewer than 10 people would make this conference so memorable and unforgettable for me!" (April 2020 General Conference)
These examples reminded me a lot of my time as an investigator, when I was told that Joseph Smith revealed the Word of Wisdom through revelation because he knew that smoking and drinking was bad for you. While you can get more details in my overview on the Word of Wisdom, the simple fact is that the revelation is merely restating the temperance movement of Joseph Smith’s time and has been grossly redefined and reinterpreted since it was written in order to seem more prophetic.
With the Book of Mormon there is no source material to compare to, and I have to wonder if the original Word of Wisdom revelation was not extant if we would have an edited edition today much like Joseph Smith rewrote key parts of the priesthood restoration revelations to bolster his authority as a prophet or the Charles Anthon visit to fulfill a prophecy written into the Book of Mormon.
This is also true with the “Civil War prophecy” where Joseph Smith is widely claimed to have accurately predicted the Civil War. As an investigator this was a pretty powerful example of Joseph Smith being a true prophet of God, but again as I dove into church history the real story is much less impressive. From the church’s website:
“One of Joseph Smith’s most well-known millennial prophecies related to the American Civil War. On December 25, 1832, Joseph Smith received a revelation prophesying that a war between the northern and southern U.S. states would begin in South Carolina and that wars and uprisings throughout the earth would finally result in the “end of all Nations” at the time of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. At the time the revelation was received, South Carolina and the federal government of the United States were involved in a dispute, but it was peacefully resolved the next March. Years later, Joseph reiterated his prophecy that war would break out in South Carolina over slavery debates, as it did nearly 20 years after Joseph Smith’s death.” (Prophecies of Joseph Smith)
What the church doesn’t tell you is that just four days earlier a newspaper article appeared in the Painesville Telegraph, just outside of Kirtland, Ohio, entitled “The Crisis.” This article discussed the ongoing tensions that were leading to fears that the “possibilities of dismemberment” have increased. From the article:
“We have just terminated an election which it is feared may be the last that will be ever held under the present form of government, and many, we might say most, of the ablest men in our nation, have uttered their misgivings. In the brief interval, since that election commenced, the possibilities of dismemberment have increased, and our dangers thickened.” (The Crisis, Painesville Telegraph, December 21, 1832)
Today we see the church touts this revelation from Joseph Smith as a prediction that the Civil War would happen 30 years before it actually began, which no one but a prophet could have known. I bought into this as an investigator and member because I did not know that this idea was not just floating around in Joseph Smith’s time, but that it was reported by a local newspaper just four days prior to the revelation. Much like the Word of Wisdom, Joseph Smith was always able to produce revelations upon any subject when an idea was brought to his attention.
These post-Book of Mormon examples are incredibly important to understanding how revelation and prophecy is often backdated in order to give contemporary meaning to an ancient revelation or idea, and that sometimes we are even guilty of backdating revelations ourselves in order to bolster our own testimonies that these men are prophets of God.
As I’ve tried to highlight throughout all of these overviews, Joseph Smith left his fingerprints all over his productions whether it was the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, or the revelations. In addition to working to backdate prophecies in the Book of Mormon, his errors in biblical scholarship can let us know with absolute certainty that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient record, but a 19th century text produced by Joseph Smith.
The simple truth is this: If you gave the Book of Mormon to a scholar without any information about when it was written, who it was produced by, or the story of the gold plates, a scholar could identify the Book of Mormon the 19th century without using any outside sources for the reasons outlined above.
This is the exact method that scholars have used to date authors in the Bible such as the Book of Daniel, and there is simply no getting around it for the Book of Mormon without invoking special pleading to say that the Book of Mormon can’t be viewed with the same literary tools that would be applied to any other religious or literary text.
At this point I feel like saying this is overkill, but we have to view the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith as we would any other religious leader, church, or organization. The truth is that the moment we stop privileging Joseph Smith because we have believed him to be a prophet of God, it becomes much easier to see all of the fingerprints and common threads in the works of Joseph Smith, and this is exactly why non-LDS scholars can state with absolute certainty that these are not ancient scriptures, but 19th century productions.
In the next overview I will continue with a ‘part two’ of the history of revelation in the church, looking at how Joseph Smith utilized revelations compared to how prophets since him have claimed the power. While we won’t focus on the idea of backdating prophecy in the next section, I think this serves as a good foundation to understanding how Joseph Smith was able to use his knowledge of Bible to write in the voice of God, but how his errors in biblical scholarship also reveal that the revelations are not from God, but from Joseph Smith himself.
Next Overview Topic: Revelation, Part 2: Joseph Smith's Revelations