Hey! I'm excited to see the discussion on this here!
I've been able to read the thread only very lightly to this point. And for a few reasons, I should try to keep my engagement here minimal. But I would like to say some general things in dialogue with what's come up so far.
1. It's important to note that my thesis is not my book on the lost 116 pages! Rather, my thesis and the book overlap, with the thesis providing a fraction of what will be in the book on the subject of what was in the lost pages. As such, my discussion in the thesis about the lost pages' contents is not meant to be very complete. The book manuscript should be complete by the end of this year, and, hopefully, in print September 2019.
2. Clark - great stuff on Masonry! I haven't been able to digest what you've posted in detail yet, but am saving it for that purpose. I think we are going similar directions, since I see Mormonism as in many ways very "Masonic" from the start.
3. I perceive ancient patterns in the Book of Mormon text, most clearly and powerfully in the narratives of Lehi, Nephi, and Mosiah I, and I see the Book of Mormon as, therefore, a vehicle for the restoration of elements of ancient Israelite faith that had since been lost.
4. A caveat: I'm an historian of 19th century American religion and necessarily approach early Mormon texts to a great extent from the vantage point of that specialization. And this necessarily shapes my work. In trying to piece together the context and content of the lost manuscript, I'm analyzing a variety of 19th century sources and weaving them together. I think this angle of approach has considerable strengths. But it also has its limitations. Someone with a specialization in ancient history, and with a broad scope of history across the past few thousand years, would doubtless be able to bring much greater clarity to many aspects of the Book of Mormon than I can. There are things in the Book of Mormon, including specifically in the knowable narrative of the Book of Lehi, that seem for all the world to me to come out of the world of ancient Israel. But, lacking the relevant specializations, I admit that I am not well positioned to make such scholarly judgments strongly, and I leave it to others to analyze the text in detail within an ancient context. I accept these limitations with humility, but also with alacrity. While I do not, and really cannot, have a perspective that brings out every aspect of the Book of Mormon text, I have a pretty powerful microscope for bringing out some things. And I love putting that microscope to use to see what pictures will emerge. One of the things I'm able to do pretty well--I think!--is line up the 19th century sources and see what they tell us about what was in the Book of Lehi manuscript. Hopefully others will then look at the Book of Lehi's narratives through the lens of the ancient world, and see what light that perspective brings to them. I welcome that. I'm not trying to say the last word on what was in the lost 116 pages, more like a first word--an invitation to greater scholarly discussion from various angles.
5. In my thesis, and in my book, I am trying to address multiple audiences--believer and nonbeliever alike. The more important of these audiences to me is believers, my fellow Latter-day Saints. In my book, I use our shared language of faith: e.g., that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. But in trying to address all my audiences, I overwhelmingly confine my presentation of evidence about what was in the lost pages to evidence that can be agreed upon by believer and nonbeliever alike. I think there's only place in the body of my book manuscript where I make an explicit assumption of historicity. In all other cases, I place any evidence that assumes historicity in the footnotes, so that the arguments in the body of the text will be equally accessible to all readers.
6. The perspective I offer in the conclusion to my thesis, that Joseph Smith may have seen the hand of Providence in how the events of his life lined up with the events of the narratives he revealed, is not just a theoretical possibility for me; it is a personal belief.
When I began my research into the lost pages, about 14 years ago, I saw how some elements of the Book of Mormon's narrative (including the Book of Lehi narrative) connected with things going on in Joseph Smith's life as he was translating. After puzzling over these connections for a while, I soon began interpreting them under a model that saw Joseph constructing a narrative to fit his context. With time, and considerably more analysis, I have arrived at a radically different perspective than I then held. While I then saw Joseph acting as a "fraud," the data of my last several years of research has convinced me, even quite apart from my spiritual convictions, that Joseph was perfectly sincere. I have no doubt, on historical grounds alone, that Joseph Smith sincerely acted as a prophet and translator to give the world an ancient work of scripture.
How, then, would Joseph have seen the connections between what was going on in the narratives he translated and what was going on in his own life at the time he translated them? My working conclusion is that he saw divine Providence lining these up, and possibly even as providing events in his life as grist for his translation mill as he "studied out in his mind" the words of translation. And this is a perspective that I not only think he held; it is one that I hold: I think God shaped Joseph Smith's life to lead him in the right direction.
I don't ultimately know to what extent God was involved in tailoring these events, and I don't know what admixture of ancient and modern influences he used to shape the Book of Mormon's content as we've received it. I'm open to a range of understandings on this. But as curious as I am about it--and it is a big question, I leave it, at least for the time being, to God. I'm content to let God be God and do things His way, without me to tell Him how He should have done it.
I don't feel a need to claim certainty about the details of how God brought all this together. If still quite curious, I am nonetheless content to know that God did bring it all together--that He brought forth the Book of Mormon as an instrument of restoration, and as a book that brings me closer to Him. That it has done just that, I am a witness.