Editor's note: Portions of this column were previously published at maxwellinstitute.byu.edu.
Some argue that since we lack the original plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, it should be read as a 19th-century English-language text rather than as an ancient one.
But scholars routinely test the claims to historicity of translated documents for which no early original-language manuscripts exist and then, if satisfied of their authenticity, regularly use them as valuable scholarly resources for understanding the ancient world. I offer a few illustrations:
“Slavonic Enoch” (2 Enoch) is probably the classic example. Coptic fragments of this work, commonly dated to the first century, have been found only recently. Although generally regarded as having been written in Greek, or perhaps even originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, the entire book survives only in Old Church Slavonic, in manuscripts dating from the 14th to 18th centuries.
Similarly, 1 Enoch — “Ethiopic Enoch” or simply “the Book of Enoch” — was probably written somewhere between 300 B.C. and the time of Jesus Christ, in Aramaic or Hebrew or some combination of the two. Fragments survive in Aramaic, Greek and Latin, but the entire text is preserved today only in the Geʿez language of Ethiopia, via manuscripts from the 15th to 18th centuries.
The pseudepigraphic “Apocalypse of Abraham” was likely composed in Hebrew, in roughly A.D. 70-150. It exists today, however, only in medieval Slavonic — perhaps translated directly from the original or, alternatively, from a Greek translation of the Hebrew. Some suggest that the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham and Book of Moses cannot legitimately be read as ancient documents because we have them only in purported 19th-century translations. But the Apocalypse of Abraham is crucial to understanding the earliest roots of Jewish mysticism; nobody argues that it’s only valid evidence for the Slavic Middle Ages.
The Gospel of Thomas exists in a corrupt fourth-century Coptic manuscript. Only a tiny fragment of it survives in its (likely) original Greek. Scholars debate whether it’s a first- or second-century text, but nobody claims that it illuminates only fourth-century Coptic Christianity.
The “Discourse of the Abbaton” exists solely in Coptic. While it claims to be a translation of an original kept in Jerusalem, nobody knows whether that’s true.
The kabbalistic “Book of Secrets” was found in Cairo but was pieced together and recognized at Oxford University in the mid-20th century. It exists in Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic fragments, as well as a 13th-century Latin translation. The original text almost certainly dates to the late third or early fourth century.
Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh and Atrahasis epics are known from Akkadian versions, but they derive from earlier lost Sumerian originals.
The biblical book of Daniel contains large portions in Aramaic that were probably composed in Hebrew.
The (still unpublished) “Book of the Temple” was first discovered in a Greek manuscript, but now there are copies in Demotic, hieratic and hieroglyphs, and it’s known to be genuinely Egyptian.
Several of the apocrypha (such as Ben Sirach) were once known only from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. Still, even before Hebrew manuscripts of them had been found, scholars argued that they were originally composed in Hebrew.
Origen’s “On First Principles” is known essentially only from the Latin translation of Rufinus, done roughly 150 years later.
Only one of Irenaeus’ works (“Against the Heresies”) survives in his original Latin.
Several works of the important early Greek-speaking Christian historian Eusebius are known only through Armenian translations.
Likewise, approximately a quarter of the writings from the prolific Greek-speaking Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria come to us only through Armenian versions from the late sixth century. Nobody imagines that they have nothing to tell us about Philo (d. A.D. 50).
The third-century-B.C. Egyptian historian Manetho is known only from later quotations, some in Armenian and Latin and only a few in his original Greek.
Many scholars believe that the gospel of Matthew was originally written not in the Greek form that we have today, but in either Hebrew or Aramaic. Statements to this effect go back as early as the second century. Yet nobody has seen the Semitic original, if it ever existed, for many centuries.
The position that the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham can legitimately be studied only in the context of 19th-century America because they claim to be translations of unavailable ancient texts is unreasonable. If a similar principle were applied to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Jewish and Christian history, scholarship in those fields would be crippled.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.