Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas
Methodology and the Art of Nephite Narrative
[p.1]To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself. … We may not be able to fully comprehend specific thought patterns of another culture, but we have relatively less difficulty understanding a story coming from another culture, however exotic that culture may appear to us … . This suggests that far from being one code among many that a culture may utilize for endowing experience with meaning, narrative is a metacode, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted.
Nearly all research on the Book of Mormon is not about the Book of Mormon at all, but about its claims to religious authority. This battle of authority centers on one question: “Is the Book of Mormon ancient or modern-history or fiction?” The assumption behind all of this research is that, if it is ancient history, it is the word of God and authoritative for all people. The quest that research has defined for itself is an important one, given the narratives of the book’s divine origins, and the debate over whether the Book of Mormon is ancient or modern needs to continue.
But we have fought for so long over the age of the book that its messages have become accidental casualties. In the end, a book’s authority lies less in its origin than in its messages. I believe that the origin of the Book [p.2]of Mormon is not the most important question that it compels us to ask. The real question is: “Is the Book of Mormon worth reading?” The focus of this present work is on meaning, not authority. This study hopefully transcends the history/fiction debate to address a wide audience of serious students. As an author, I am trying to offer a new way of viewing this old book and fresh, important reasons for reading it. This visionary book speaks to us—children of the Enlightenment—of the nonrational, spiritual world. It evokes a world accessible through dreams, visions, and seerstones. While it accepts and uses rationality, it is a book in which people travel from the mundane to the spiritual world to find answers to fundamental problems of existence, and it answers those questions not so much with logic as with the authority of spiritual power.
In order to begin interpreting this unusual text, we must agree on a fruitful and flexible methodology. In this chapter I propose an approach for interpreting narratives in the Book of Mormon. It can generally be classified as a rhetorical approach because it focuses on the internal literary features of the text and how these forms address its original nineteenth-century audience, while setting aside the issue of authorship.
There are good reasons for bracketing the issues of authorship of the Book of Mormon. Authorial intent plays a part in most current theories of interpretation; yet interpretations that focus extensively on the life and times of a book’s author are often not satisfactory in elucidating the meaning of the text. Life-and-times interpretive approaches may distort and overinterpret texts to prove some apologetic or biographical point.1 As John Barton, the Oxford biblical scholar, stated: “There is a consensus nowadays, extending well beyond the ranks of doctrinaire critical theorists, that criticism should concentrate on the text rather than the author. … We can concede that, in strict theory, meanings must be traced back to an author’s intentions and yet, for the purposes of practical criticism, hardly ever find it necessary to invoke them . … Indeed, … genre-recognition and intelligent reading are usually simultaneous.”2
As Barton points out, we cannot ignore the author or the historical context of a work. But what we can conclude from Barton’s statement is that Book of Mormon meanings extend beyond what we can glean from examining the life of its author(s). We will never find out the book’s real value or messages until we set aside the apologetic issues of authorship, at least temporarily, so that we can actually recognize the genres in which [p.3]the book is written. It is a complex cluster of literary forms under the heading of countercultural prophecy. It closely resembles and has been greatly influenced by the Christian Bible. It can best be described as an American Bible.
Biblical scholarship has faced similar interpretive problems with apologetic interests interfering with interpretation. Two analogies from critical New Testament scholarship will clarify the interpretive intentions of this present work. The rationale of my approach may be explained with an analogy inspired by John Meier, a prominent New Testament scholar at Catholic University.3 Meier proposes a method for reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus acceptable to a wide variety of scholars, despite their differing religious convictions. I modify his approach slightly to apply to an interpretation of the Book of Mormon.
Suppose that we take a Protestant, a Catholic, an atheist, and a Mormon, all of whom are committed to critical scholarship. We lock them in the University of Chicago library on a spartan diet. They will not be allowed to leave until they have created a consensus method for interpreting Book of Mormon narratives. Naturally, due to their differing backgrounds, they all hold different opinions about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. But for the purposes of their assignment, they must concentrate on the stories in the book itself without appealing to Joseph’s biography, the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, or archaeology. Instead, they must find a way of talking about what the book actually says. The methodology I use in this examination would be a way for these scholars to reach conclusions about the book without discussing their private convictions concerning authority. This chapter describes the set of interpretive tools that could provide such a consensus.
Since the Enlightenment, critical biblical scholars have maintained that the Bible must be interpreted with the same general methodologies used for any book. That means that interpretative work on any text, including the Bible, can best be accomplished with an eclectic approach combining various methods of textual, historical, and literary criticisms.4 The same approach can be applied to the Book of Mormon. Below I summarize the various textual, literary, and historical elements of my interpretive methodology.
The Book of Mormon Text
In this work I will not discuss the history of the Book of Mormon [p.4]text in any detail; but I will raise textual-historical issues as needed. Every text with a long history also has a long history of textual changes which in turn raise interpretive issues. The Book of Mormon is no exception. Coming to grips with the interpretive issues raised by textual modifications is necessary if our interpretation is to be accurate and complete. Textual issues become particularly important for ascertaining the original meaning of the Book of Mormon, which is the outcome I hope to achieve with this approach.
The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon was written by various scribes as Joseph Smith dictated the book. For reasons of security, the original manuscript was later copied and this duplicate is often called the “printer’s copy.” Section by section, either the copy or the original went to the printer who prepared batches of type from which he printed the first edition in 1829-30. Each of these three versions (the original manuscript, the printer’s copy, and the 1830 edition) differs from each other, sometimes in important ways. Since 1830, there have been numerous editions of the Book of Mormon and, consequently, a regular history of many textual changes, both accidental and purposeful. Among the latter, perhaps the most numerous changes have been grammatical corrections. Others have been made for theological reasons.
For example, 1 Nephi 20:1, itself a quotation of Isaiah 48:1, now reads: “Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come out of the waters of Judah (or out of the waters of baptism) … “The portion in parentheses was not in Isaiah or in the 1830 edition. It was added to the 1840 edition published in Nauvoo, Illinois. However, subsequent editions printed in Utah omitted the parenthetical material until Apostle James E. Talmage re-added it in the 1920 edition. It has been in every edition since then, including our current (1981) edition.5 One interpretive position is that the addition simply elucidates the original, though hidden, meaning. Another is that the addition constitutes a later commentary that is not part of the original meaning. I hold the second position; but in either case a reader must have some knowledge about the textual history before addressing this question adequately. Presumably both readers are equally interested in original meaning, and their conclusions about this change have an important effect on interpretation.
In this study I quote the 1830 edition, with occasional references to [p.5]the printer’s copy and the original manuscript. The 1830 edition is readily available in reprinted and facsimile form. These texts help us uncover the original meaning of the book. Later editions are equally legitimate texts for study. However, they have later audiences in mind and represent editorial reworkings that have, at times, obscured the original wording and its meaning. Because I am interested in original meaning, I pay careful attention to the earliest possible texts.
Another value of the earlier texts is that they preserve the language of Joseph Smith, with its errors and weaknesses. The Book of Mormon was dictated quickly and is thus more like an artist’s rough sketch than a carefully crafted painting. For these reasons, I have chosen to quote the 1830 edition, although for the reader’s convenience I have cited the versification of the current 1981 LDS edition.
Another analogy using New Testament scholarship may help illustrate the role of textual criticism as a part of my approach to the Book of Mormon. Research has indicated that the sayings of Jesus were originally in Aramaic, but the earliest surviving texts are in Greek. In examining a particular text, some scholars argue that translating the quotations attributed to Jesus back into Aramaic would produce something close to the words he actually spoke. Others argue that a particular phrase may have been created by early Christians and added to the authentic sayings. Regardless of the origin of the passage, all scholars must begin at the same place—the Greek text. Likewise, the earliest available text of the Book of Mormon is in the language of Joseph Smith. All serious scholarship must begin with that text, with that language, and with the peculiarities of that vocabulary.
In this work I seek to understand the text as though it were a semi-independent entity addressing a nineteenth-century audience in the language of Joseph Smith. Any reference to “Joseph’s language” in this work simply means the language used in the Book of Mormon. It is not a comment about authorship.
Literary Features for a Historical Audience
Like any text, the Book of Mormon was produced in a particular historical setting for a particular audience. An understanding of how the internal forms of the text address their nineteenth-century audience can greatly aid us as readers today. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon contains such literary features as metaphors and other conventional forms. [p.6]And it should be clear that we cannot ignore nineteenth-century vocabulary without risking misinterpreting the Book of Mormon. In fact, it is not surprising to find, as we proceed, that the book also contains nineteenth-century literary forms and vocabulary. The Book of Mormon itself tells us that it was translated into the vocabulary of Joseph Smith and explicitly addresses his contemporaries.
Book of Mormon narratives have five distinctive characteristics: narrator commentary, spiritualizing the text, typology, conventional narrative forms, and biblical parallels. This chapter examines each of these five features in greater detail.
The narrator often interrupts or breaks the frame of the narration to address the reader directly. Understanding the relationship of the commentary to the narrative passage is important for understanding the text. Narrator commentary changes the reader’s focus from the events of the narrative to a dialogue with the narrator about the narrative and to the reader’s relationship to the narrative.6
Narrator commentary often goes beyond technical explanations to interpret, apply, explain, or emphasize some portion of the story. These breaks in the narrative frame, which often universalize the narrative or explain how the reader should understand or apply the story personally, are important interpretive guides. A good starting point for interpretation is to study any important narrator commentary in light of its accompanying narratives to see how they fit together. Naturally, not every instance of narrator commentary is significant. Many address such minor issues as why a particular message has been shortened or give technical explanations about the structure of the gold plates.
The significant narrator commentaries, however, clarify and emphasize the text in ways that are indispensable to interpretation. But this commentary is not the narrative’s whole meaning. For example, the story of Lehi’s journey to the promised land (see chap. 2) contains the first narrator commentary (1 Ne. 1:4-15). Here Nephi explains that the wilderness journey is evidence that God delivers his prophets from danger (see pp. 41-43). But if we saw this interpretation as the whole meaning of the wilderness narrative, we would be mistaken. Two chapters later, soon after the departure from Jerusalem, Nephi expands the [p.7]theme of deliverance to include all those who obey God’s commandments, not just the prophet (1 Ne. 3:1-5:22). Thus even the narrator expands previous meanings, and even the hastiest reader knows that the wilderness journey of Lehi’s and Ishmael’s families contains more themes than deliverance.
Thus the reader must resist the temptation of thinking that narrator commentary provides the sole or even the main point of a story. In addition to narrator commentary, the Book of Mormon contains more subtle ways of addressing the reader. Narrator commentary is simply the most obvious-a part of the message that the narrators highlight for the reader. But if we cannot reduce the text to the meaning expressed in narrator commentary, neither can we exclude narrator commentary if we wish to grasp the intent of the text.
The Book of Mormon constantly testifies to the reader that God governs not only the history of nations and individuals but also the writing of the Book of Mormon itself. Thus God is both an implicit character and the implicit voice behind the narrator. The narrator, in a limited but literal sense, represents God and speaks with authoritative reliability. In fact, one of the roles of narrators and narrator commentary in the Book of Mormon is to verify the truthfulness and doctrinal authority of the narration. God does not dictate all of the book’s detail and grammar; the book apologizes for its own weakness and inadequacies (title page; 1 Ne. 19:6; Ether 12:23-28; Morm. 8:16-17). Yet the Book of Mormon clearly portrays itself as containing God’s fundamental truths which are “plain and precious” (1 Ne. 13). Since God is the main character in the story and the hidden director of the narrator, the narrator commentary and other rhetorical tools are intended to speak with the voice of ultimate authority in the reader’s life.
Spiritualizing the Narratives
A number of authors, commenting on the Mormon view of the Bible, have asserted, without presenting detailed evidence or arguments, that the Book of Mormon and early Mormonism in general contain only literal understandings of scripture.7 But the Book of Mormon itself provides evidence that some of its narratives, as well as the prophecies of Isaiah, are to be understood on both literal and symbolic levels. The Book of Mormon clearly states that many of its stories contain [p.8]both literal history and a secondary symbolic level of meaning. The book uses the word temporal to refer to the literal historical level and spiritual to refer to the symbolic meaning. The distinction between temporal and spiritual is sometimes a simple ontological distinction between profane and sacred; but in the context of the narratives and prophecies, the distinction represents a dual interpretation of a particular narrative.
Here are three examples of this dual method. Alma 37 portrays the journey of Lehi in the desert as literal or “temporal” history as well as a “spiritual” inner journey of the soul to heaven. In 1 Nephi 15:31-32, Nephi’s brothers ask him if they should interpret their father’s dream on a “temporal” level. Nephi replies that the dream is “a representation of things both temporal and spiritual.” So on a literal or temporal level, the dream represents history from the time of Lehi to the end of the world. On a spiritual level, the narrative represents a spiritual map to salvation.
In another example, in 1 Nephi 22:1-3, Nephi’s brothers ask him if Isaiah should be interpreted “according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?” Nephi answers that the prophecies of Isaiah are “both temporal and spiritual.” In other words, they are both literal historical events and spiritual representations.
Symbolic understandings of narratives date back thousands of years and have generated a massive literature. Rather than discuss the general symbolism of Book of Mormon narratives in the context of this long history, I would like simply to understand Joseph Smith’s symbolic vocabulary as found in the Book of Mormon. This distinction between spiritual and temporal was ubiquitous in early nineteenth-century American religious literature. Some biblical passages were understood to be strictly temporal; others were solely spiritual. Many were both.
For example, almost all of the biblical commentaries published in America in the first two decades of the nineteenth century were European. Thus, despite the religious creativity in early nineteenth-century America, biblical commentaries both significantly influenced a common
religious vocabulary about this spiritual/temporal dichotomy and reflected the common understanding of the time about this dualism.8 Adam Clarke, one of the most influential Methodist biblical commentators in early nineteenth-century America, introduces Isaiah by saying that “the same prophecies have frequently a double meaning …. the one [p.9]near, the other remote:-the one temporal, the other spiritual, or perhaps eternal.”9
Clarke criticized other influential commentators of the Bible, such as the British Baptist John Gill, who constantly spiritualized the text. He referred to them as “the immense herd of spiritualizers, metaphormen, and allegorists” who “turn conscience out of its province, and throw the reins on the neck of his fancy, and he may write-reflections without end.” Yet even staunch literalists like Clarke appeal to the spiritual level of meaning, though less often and with caution. There were at least two reasons for spiritual interpretations. They were preferred where the literal meaning was untenable; they made the text relevant to the reader’s spiritual concerns.
John Gill, a target of Clarke’s criticism, liked spiritual interpretations and multiple combinations of literal and spiritual meanings. In interpreting Isaiah 49:25, he finds several literal interpretations and one spiritual one. According to Gill, the literal interpretations include the Jewish deliverance from Babylon, the deliverance of the church from the papal antichrist, and the deliverance of nations ruled by Rome, while the spiritual meaning is the sinner’s deliverance from Satan.l0 These influential British commentaries are typical of American writings about the Bible that were current when the Book of Mormon appeared.
There are instances in which the spiritualized nature of a passage in the Book of Mormon, while not explicit, is still integral to the narrative. For example, in the Ammonihah narrative Alma and Amulek preach the reality of hell to city leaders who deny its existence, warning that the “torments” of the unrepentant “shall be as a lake of fire and brimstone” (Alma 12: 17, emphasis added). Although the fires of hell are a metaphor to the prophets, the leaders of the city create them literally, burning Alma’s and Amulek’s converts and their records. Slapping the imprisoned prophets, they sneer, “After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?” (Alma 14:13) The city leaders have thus created the fires of the hell they deny by killing the followers of the two prophets by fire. One of the points of this narrative is that those who deny evil are its greatest perpetuators. The narrative links the literal and spiritual fire to make its point.
In a work used at American universities and seminaries after 1818, [p.10]Thomas Hartwell Horne classified typology as a subset of the temporal/spiritual dichotomy. In his words, the “spiritual senses of Scripture has [sic] frequently been divided into allegorical, typical, and parabolical. …[This mode of classification] has obtained a place in almost every treatise on the interpretation of Scripture.”11 Thus typology is a well-recognized kind of spiritual interpretation of a narrative or prophecy. Type and shadow are translations of words in the Greek New Testament that refer to the Law of Moses as a symbol or foreshadowing of Christ. (See Rom. 5:14; Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5, 10:1.) The combination of the terms “type and shadow” is a common nineteenth-century phrase not found in the Bible; however, the Book of Mormon uses the combination to describe typology.12
Definitions of typology were not uniform or always consistent in the early nineteenth century. A conservative typology might restrict types to events, people, and laws in the Old Testament as a prefiguring of Christ. A broader typology might see various historical events, not just those related to Christ’s ministry, as representing later historical events. In unusual cases, an author might see all of nature as containing spiritual meanings. For example, the red light at sunrise may represent the blood of Jesus. Here the concept of type starts to blend with broader notions of symbolism.13
A representative example of typological understandings contemporary with Joseph Smith may be found in Thomas Scott’s 1823 biblical commentary on Isaiah 42:
When spiritual blessings are predicted under the veil of temporal deliverances: some passages will accord best to the type, and others to the antitype: thus Cyrus, and the redemption of the Jews from captivity, are in this place lost sight of, that the Messiah and his salvation may be brought into full view. —“The natural import of the words, as well as the authority of the New Testament, do plainly determine this and many other texts, here and in the following chapters, to an evangelical sense: the Holy Spirit taking occasion, from the deliverance of the Jews out of their captivity, to give the prophet a view of a more glorious redemption, which should be accomplished by the Messias.”14
So the deliverance of the Jews through Cyrus is a type of the deliverance from sin through Christ, the antitype.
At several key points, the Book of Mormon explicitly presents ele-[p.11]ments in a narrative as typological. Mormon scholars Richard Dilworth Rust, Bruce Jorgensen, George Tate, Jeffrey Holland, and Robert Clark have produced some of the best literary examinations of this dynamic in the Book of Mormon.15 Jorgensen, Tate, Holland, and Clark all use a twentieth-century understanding of typology as figure and metaphor, while Rust returns to the eighteenth-century typology of Puritan Samuel Mather, who saw typology as Old Testament persons and events pointing to Christ. Mather’s view of typology is more conservative than that used in the Book of Mormon, while the views of Tate, Clark, Holland, and Jorgensen are broader. Book of Mormon typology actually lies between these two approaches. There is nothing wrong with either; in fact, the use of both ought to be encouraged. They do, however, present a potential difficulty by using the term type differently from its use in the Book of Mormon.
I argue that typology in Book of Mormon narratives contains one of two basic elements: (1) One historical event prefigures and predicts a second; for example, Abinadi’s death becomes a predictive type of future deaths (Mosiah 13:10, 17:13-19, 19:20; Alma 25:1-11); in other words, events may point to each other typologically (Ether 13:6-9). (2) Old Testament people, events, and religious ceremonies prefigure and predict Jesus Christ (2 Ne. 11:4); in other words, a number of elements point typologically to Christ—beginning with a temporal meaning but moving to an inner, spiritual meaning, as Thomas Scott’s commentary points out.
Nephite typology is more than a literary feature; it acts as a revelation of the divine scheme of history. The Book of Mormon is christocentric in its understanding of scripture, its theology, and its typology. Alma and Amulek are examples of types of Christ in the Book of Mormon. Like the enemies of Jesus, the enemies of Alma and Amulek ascribe their power to the devil. (See Alma 10:28, 14:7, 15:15/ / Matt. 12:24, John 7:20; Acts 13:10// Alma 10:28.) Like Jesus, Alma and Amulek “answered him nothing” when questioned (Alma 14:17-19/ /Luke 23:9; John 19:9). Like Pilate, those who sit in judgment on them are upset when they refuse to speak, reminding them that they, the judges, have power to execute them (Alma l4:19/ /John 19:10). Like Jesus, Alma and Amulek are spat upon, smitten, and taunted: “If ye have such great power, why do ye not deliver yourselves? Then we will believe you” (Alma 14:24/ /Matt. 27:39-43, Mark 15: 29-32). Both Alma and Amulek cry out in words reminis-[p.12]cent of Jesus: “O ye wicked and perverse generation” (Alma 9:8,10:17, 25/ /Matt. 17:17, Luke 9:41). Like the enemies of Christ, the enemies of Alma and Amulek try to catch them in their words (Alma 10:13/ /Mark 12:13; see also Alma 11:23/ /Matt. 22:18, 23:15). An earthquake “ren[ds] in twain” the prison walls, just as the temple veil is “rent in twain” at the crucifixion (Alma 14:27/ /Matt. 27:51). These and other verbal echoes evoke the life and death of Christ in the lives of Alma and Amulek. I need not enter into a detailed discussion of this typology, but it is important to note that the pattern it establishes hints that Alma and Amulek also have a divine mission of saving souls.
We cannot completely merge the concept of typology with a generalized concept of symbol in the Book of Mormon. Rather, the best place to find a more general use of symbolism lies in examples of spiritualized narratives. Two examples of spiritualized narratives that are not typological are the allegories of the olive trees in Jacob 5 and Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 8-15. In short, while typology is one kind of spiritualized interpretation, that category is broader than typology and includes examples of non-typological symbolism. There are also many narratives in the Book of Mormon that are neither typological nor spiritualized. But all of the narratives participate, in some way, in conventional narrative forms.
Conventional Narrative Forms
Book of Mormon narratives, like all literature, are cast in repeated patterns. Language patterns are a social medium requiring some degree of common convention. Italian author and scholar Umberto Eco argues that a text is produced “not for a single addressee but for a community of readers-the author knows that he or she will be interpreted not according to his or her intentions but according to a complex strategy of interactions which also involves the readers, along with their competence in language as a social treasury.”16
In other words, texts usually have a social life of their own based on conventions of the language in which they are written. Autobiography, history, and various forms of fictional narratives all contain repeated narrative patterns or conventions. These literary forms are a natural part of all speech. We would have difficulty understanding any book that bore no resemblance whatever to anything we had already read, but new forms are constantly being born and modified from existing ones. Liter-[p.13]ary critic Frank Kermode has argued that we need “to take our bearings from the known, which will provide us not so much with an exact pattern as with a norm enabling us to understand both what is familiar and what is original in the new work.”17
The Book of Mormon contains literary forms characteristic of nineteenth-century literature and of the Bible. For example, Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions are in the form of an apocalypse with many of the literary features typical of an early Jewish and Christian apocalypse. I have argued elsewhere that the eucharistic prayers in the Book of Mormon follow the liturgical form of an epiclesis and that the letter in Moroni 8 follows the Hellenistic letter form used by Paul in the New Testament.18 The Book of Mormon also contains literary forms that are apparently unique to it, modified versions of existing forms. Each of the following chapters examines the narrative form of a large semi-independent section of the Book of Mormon to discover its form.
My approach is to identify two distinguishing characteristics of narrative form in the Book of Mormon-first, a set sequence of events in the plot, second, the presence of formulaic phrases. An example of a pair of formulaic phrases in a narrative outside of the Book of Mormon is “once upon a time … and they lived happily ever after.” These phrases serve as markers for the beginning and ending of the form we call fairy tales. We refer to these conventional phrases as “narrative formulas” or simply “formulas.” Their use is the repeating of nondescriptive phrases that constitute an important part of, and also help define, the narrative form under examination.19 By using these formulas in a fairy tale, a narrator can immediately communicate that the tale is set in the distant past, that he or she is communicating a fiction characterized by fantasy, and that the audience’s task includes suspending disbelief. We have grown up with this form; therefore, when we hear these phrases, we are prepared to enter a strange world that, in certain ways, is connected with our mundane world.
An example of a historical narrative formula outside of the Book of Mormon is “From our correspondent … “or “From sources close to the President . … “This type of formula denotes a news report and reflects the expectation that the contents ought to be believed as fact, even while the narrator is not responsible for the truth of the report, since it is second-hand. This formula again defines and is contained within a narrative form but functions very differently from the fairy tale.
[p.14]Analyzing the part played by these formulas can give us clues to the function of the form. In the Book of Mormon, we will examine formulas that define and structure a particular type of narrative, as in the examples above. We will also examine narrative formulas which may not constitute the actual structural framework of the plot but that still help us grasp the intention of the form and the meanings of the text.
In addition to formulas, a second distinguishing characteristic of Book of Mormon forms is the presence of what I designate as “narrative scenes.” Narrative scenes are a motif or set of events that are repeated in each successive repetition of the same plot. Robert Alter has provided a splendid analysis in his examination of the Hebrew Bible.20 Two examples Alter discusses are the annunciation to the hero’s mother about the birth of her son and the encounter of the future betrothed at a well. He argues that there are a number of such formulaic stories in the Hebrew Bible and that each type of story repeats the same set of motifs and is apparently related to other similar stories. Alter surmises that these stories represent now-lost literary forms typical of ancient Israel and that the authors of the narratives and their audiences brought to these tales an awareness of the standard scenes and motifs for each kind. Alter argues that such conventional tales were rarely static. If the fixed order of the events in the plot was altered or suppressed, the alteration communicated something to the audience. Thus, what is interesting in all original art is not only the convention itself but also the author’s individual use of the convention, giving it a sudden “tilt of innovation” for the purpose at hand.21
As a result, we see how the literary form can become an integral part of a creative process. Because both historical and fictional ‘narratives are written with conventional forms that use a creative element, we may expect to see how the Book of Mormon adopts and modifies both set formulas and set narrative scenes. A narrative scene differs from a narrative formula in that a narrative scene tends to be based on conventional visual motifs—describing events and occurrences—while a formula is a repeated phrase.
Some Book of Mormon narrative forms are defined by a simple scene or motif. Others have formulaic plots based on verbal formulas or a set of narrative scenes. Some combine both formulas and narrative scenes. Examples of such formulaic plots are found in the stories of dy-[p.15]ing heretics Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor (see chap. 8), and in certain conversion stories in which the converts fall as if dead (see chap. 6).
In some instances, the plots are formulaic and repetitive because the Book of Mormon presents history following universal patterns. Thus, by presenting a repetitive history and familiar types of characters, the Book of Mormon makes statements about the universal nature of human experience and social history.22 In other instances, the plots are formulaic, not because of historical repetitions, but because literary convention or theological understanding shapes the narrative. For example, in Chapter 10’s discussions of secret combinations, the ruler is killed while sitting upon the judgment seat or throne. This common feature in the plot is not making a statement about the necessary repetitions of history but rather emphasizing the fundamental social destruction caused by secret combinations. In either case, understanding the verbal convention increases our ability to listen to the voice of the text.
In summary, I have adopted a conceptual vocabulary for a critical historical/literary approach to Book of Mormon literary forms, which includes: “formula,” “formulaic plot,” and “narrative scene.” Other methods of defining and understanding narrative forms exist, but I have selected these as the most useful for my purposes. Although I approach the narratives with a single methodology, the results will not be uniform with each kind of narrative in the Book of Mormon because each kind of narrative form functions differently. I examine a particular form in each chapter. Some narrative forms, such as wilderness narratives and Lehi’s dream (chaps. 2, 5), are presented as literal history containing a secondary spiritual meaning. Others universalize a Nephite narrative so that the reader’s history participates in universal history. Examples are conversion stories, piety/prosperity cycles, evil kings, secret combinations, and final national destruction (see chaps. 6, 10). Still other narrative forms (for example, dying heretics) serve principally to defend or condemn a particular doctrine.
Still other forms, such as narratives about evil kings and Lehi’s dream, are variants of biblical models (chaps. 5, 9). Others are derived from nineteenth-century forms. Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon using forms that would make it comprehensible to its nineteenth-century readers. Nephi, the book’s first narrator, states: “For my soul de-[p.16]lighteth in plainness: for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding: for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Ne. 31:3). Even forms that seem to be original with the Book of Mormon contain both nineteenth-century phrases and biblical allusions, an understanding of which will enrich our ability to hear and enter into a dialogue with the text.
Although examples of the nineteenth-century narrative conventions discussed in this book come from various areas in the United States, I give slightly more emphasis to sources from western New York and from Methodism because of their importance in helping us understand Joseph Smith’s language. I have provided enough examples in the region and religion to demonstrate that the narrative forms under examination here were in use in physical proximity to Joseph Smith. It is important to understand, however, that I am not attempting to explain his language as much as to grasp the conventional social forms of speech in which he presented the Book of Mormon to its audience. Joseph Smith’s language is actually another matter. The Book of Mormon’s language combines the English of the King James Bible with the English of nineteenth-century America.
I also use examples outside of western New York to illuminate the nature of the formula or form itself. It is the conventional language itself that concerns us, a language made common through the constant interchange of publications and people from various regions of the United States. A narrow geographical proximity may help determine but is never a guarantee of representative conventional forms of speech. The slight regional and denominational differences in some of the language examined do not change the basic arguments or conclusions of this work.
The last major feature of Book of Mormon narratives included in my interpretive approach is an examination of the book’s use of biblical parallels. The book is modeled after the Bible, and the Bible’s influence is visible on every page of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon tells us clearly what its relationship is to the Bible. First, it states that it intends to establish the truth of the Bible. It in fact states that every nation receives revelations that are written, and when one nation blends into [p.17]another, their revelations blend and act as multiple witnesses of the truth (2 Ne. 29:1-14). The Book of Mormon portrays itself as one of those books from another nation that substantiate the Bible.
Second, the Book of Mormon tells us that “plain and most precious” truths were deleted from the biblical text by the “great and abominable church.” This corruption has caused a general “state of awful woundedness” in the world (1 Ne. 13:1942).23 Thus a second role of the Book of Mormon is to restore those lost truths to the world.
Third, the two books are intended to act as joint messengers “unto the confounding of false doctrines, and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy [the biblical Joseph’s] loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the last days; and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord” (2 Ne. 3: 11-12). These three explicitly stated roles of the book’s relationship to the Bible can be summarized as supporting witness, textual corrector, and rhetorical companion. But these three relationships are not the whole story. The real relationship is actually more complex and interesting.
No study to date has adequately grasped the diverse and intricate ways that the Bible is used in the Book of Mormon.24 The Book of Mormon uses the Bible as proof text, as a springboard to new revelation and creativity, and as a mosaic in creating a new spiritual world for its latter-day readers. The Book of Mormon contains numerous biblical literary forms and literally hundreds of biblical quotations, expansions, paraphrases, allusions, and verbal echoes. (An allusion assumes that the author and reader share a cognitive understanding of the place of a biblical parallel. An echo is a metaphor that does not rely on conscious intention and is much more subtle. I contend that the echoes are no less important than the explicit quotations.) Each type of biblical parallel performs a different function. The quotations are from the brass plates (which the Book of Mormon tells us contain an independent source of the Hebrew Bible) or an inspired recitation of a biblical text. Many quotations make textual corrections. Others solve a problem in the biblical text, act as a midrashic expansion, or become a proof text for the reader. Biblical commentaries both interpret and apply the text.
The allusions perform a variety of functions. They may provide hints at applications or interpretations of the text, or use the text with a [p.18]kind of aesthetic playfulness. They may also universalize a biblical passage, interpret history in light of the text, or recreate biblical figures in new contexts. These categories of biblical parallels range from the most explicit (quotation) to the most subtle (echo). The more subtle the reference, the less discursive the parallel.
In the Book of Mormon, we often find clusters of related biblical images or phrases that are combined in new relationships with each other. An example is the combination of numerous agricultural images and phrases from the Bible in Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree (Jac. 5). These clusters of biblical parallels may combine biblical images and/or biblical passages with the same catchword or theological theme. In some cases, each piece of the cluster of biblical passages is an event in a series of prophesied events. This clustering parallels provides both a literary and a theological reworking of the Bible, resulting in one of the most artful features of Book of Mormon narratives; the Book of Mormon is a mosaic for a religious counterculture, yet it draws the pieces of that mosaic from the Bible.25 Excursus 1 at the end of this chapter provides a detailed analysis of the parallels between John the Beloved and the three Nephite disciples.
The understanding of biblical texts in the Book of Mormon ranges from fairly standard Protestant interpretations to completely novel understandings of biblical texts. There is enormous variety and, at times, great subtlety in how the Book of Mormon uses the Bible. In this book, I will be able to touch only lightly on a few of these fascinating and extensive biblical parallels.
To begin to appreciate the biblical parallels, we must view them in the ahistorical light of the Nephite view of revelation. The pre-Christian Nephites often cite New Testament texts, sometimes quite explicitly. For example, in 2 Nephi 31:15, God explicitly quotes the words of Jesus to be delivered hundreds of years later: “And I heard a voice from the Father, saying, Yea, the words of my beloved are true and faithful. He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved” (/ /Matt. 10:22, 24:13; Mark 13:13).26 Conservative Mormons have speculated that such anachronistic quotations are evidence of lost texts that were available to both Book of Mormon and New Testament authors. But this explanation ignores the Book of Mormon’s own explanations of such explicitly anachronistic passages: “Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto [p.19]another” (2 Ne. 29:8). I take this explanation literally. For the Book of Mormon, the Spirit speaks the same words to all ages. For the Book of Mormon, the Spirit overcomes history and text. For this reason, it shows little concern for such anachronisms in its biblical parallels.
In the chapters that follow, I group the narratives according to literary form in order to analyze them in the context of the five narrative features summarized above. Not all features are equally prominent in each narrative; thus each chapter focuses on those central to discovering the intention of the text. At the end of several chapters is an excursus or detailed digression usually covering technical historical issues relating to the literary form discussed in the preceding chapter.
My primary rhetorical thrust is to identify the manner in which the text addresses its original audience. Even this preliminary discussion has uncovered a symbolic or spiritualized set of meanings inherent in the text. Chapter 5 will discuss the symbolic understandings inherent in some of the narratives in Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions. For the moment, I simply state that the text itself presents symbolism as an integral part of the Book of Mormon’s own set of meanings. Symbolic understandings of the narratives are apparent both from the book’s nineteenth-century “spiritualizing” vocabulary and from the book’s own explicit symbolic interpretations.
Symbolism transcends historical setting. Thus, while symbolism is inherent in the original rhetoric of the text, it also provides a means by which the current reader can enter into dialogue with the text. Then we will be able to see Lamanite bones bleaching in the sun and ancient altars erected in our own wilderness. Even for those who entertain no hope of hearing the voice of a buried God, these Nephite narratives may sound like a faint whisper from the ground of Being.
An Example of a Cluster of Biblical Parallels
John 21:20-23, King James Version
Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following, which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? … Jesus saith unto him [Peter], If I will that he [John] tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me. Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not [p.20]die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?
John 21:20-23, in 3 Nephi 28:4-12 (my emphasis)
And when he had spake unto them, he turned himself unto the three, and said unto them, What will ye that I should do unto you, when I am gone unto the Father? And they sorrowed in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired. And he said unto them, Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, which was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me [/ /John 21:22-23]; therefore more blessed are ye [/ /? Matt. 5:11, 16:17] for ye shall never taste of death [/ /John 8:52; Matt 16:28; Luke 9:27], but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father, unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled [/ /Matt. 24:34], according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory, with the powers of heaven [/ /Mark 9:1]; and ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory, ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye [/ /11 Cor. 15:51-52], from mortality to immortality [/ /1 Cor. 15:53-54]; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father [/ /? Matt. 25:34]. —And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow, save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me: for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand; and for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father [Matt. 8:11-12; Luke 13:28-29]; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am; and I am as the Father. … And it came to pass that when Jesus had spake these words, he touched every one of them with his finger, save it were the three which were to tarry [/ /John 21:22-23], and then he departed.
Other parallels to John 21:22-23 in the Book of Mormon are 4 Nephi 1:14, 30-33, 37 and the echoes in Mormon 8:10, 24-25, 9:22.
In these passages the three Nephites are referred to as the “three who should tarry” which echoes the passage in John 21. These hidden messengers serve as bridges between the past ages of miracles and the reader’s own experience, and become the unseen bearers of the sacred past.
The biblical connection is made stronger than in 3 Nephi 28 by the use of a cluster of phrases which echo the biblical deliverances from the [p.21]pit, wild animals, poisonous serpents, and prison. For example, Mormon 8 refers to a “fiery furnace” —a phrase. that echoes the “fiery furnace” mentioned in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Third Nephi 28 also mentions a furnace. Thus the three Nephites are categorized as biblical miracle workers who physically bring the wonders of the righteous ancestors to the world of the readers.
Third Nephi 28 contains a cluster of biblical allusions and echoes all relating to and interpreting John 21:22-23. In addition, these biblical allusions center around and explain a single phenomenon-the translation of human beings into a perfect, sanctified state in which they do not die. This Book of Mormon term translation is derived from the biblical descriptions of Moses and Enoch: “And Enoch walked with God, and he was not: for God took him” (Gen. 5:23-24). Here we have the idea that God takes up these righteous persons. The book of Alma suggests that both Moses and Alma were taken up to heaven without tasting death (Alma 45:19). Being lifted to heaven is associated with the “translation” or the change to an immortal state. But Moses and Alma did not remain on earth as the three Nephites did.
Joseph Smith used the term translate to describe this state from Hebrews 11:5: “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had translated him.” The Greek term (metetheken) which the King James scholars rendered as translated means literally to transfer location (/ /Gen. 5:24), or, figuratively, to alter. The King James scholars chose the second, figurative meaning. Hebrews, in turn, echoed Genesis 5:24: “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” On the face of it, this scripture seems to refer simply to Enoch’s death after a long and righteous life close to God. Yet instead of following the Genesis implication and stating that Enoch was transferred up to heaven, the translators of Hebrews 11 chose to describe him as having entered a changed and deathless state-that he was “translated.” This KJV translation is probably incorrect. The translated Enoch became an increasingly significant figure in Mormonism as the changed, holy person who established the ideal society.
The Book of Mormon explains a number of the biblical passages alluded to in 3 Nephi with the concept of translation. This concept involves both changing a human being to an immortal or heavenly state [p.22]and also the ascension or lifting up of that person to the heavens. We have cited in the passage above the section where Jesus grants the translated state to the three Nephites. The verses following this quotation (3 Ne. 28:15-40) describe the ascension of the three into heaven as their transfiguration into some sort of quasi-immortal state beyond pain and the temptations of the devil but not quite equal to the final state of the righteous after the final judgment. In this quasi-immortal state, the three Nephites were able to see the things of God, perform great miracles to save themselves from dangers, and live to preach the gospel until the Second Coming. The three Nephites, like Mormon prophets, become a link between heaven and earth.
The Book of Mormon uses translation and transfiguration interchangeably (Ether 15:34; 3 Ne. 28: 15-17). Joseph Smith used transfiguration from the New Testament to describe the state of translation (3 Ne. 28: 15-17/ /Mark 9:2-8; Matt. 17:1-7; Luke 9:28-36). This equation of the terms indicates that the New Testament transfiguration is understood in the Book of Mormon as the same, temporary manifestation as translation; one of the purposes of translation is to prepare the recipient to see and hear the things of God in vision.
The state of translation in this passage explains a number of other biblical passages. For this reason, I have cited them in the section above. For example, in the four Gospels Jesus states that those who believe will never die (John 8:52) and that some of his disciples will remain alive until his second coming (Matt. 16:28; Luke 9:27). These statements are alluded to in the passage that I have quoted and should therefore be understood in terms of translation. The Book of Mormon uses the wording from Paul’s description of the rapidity of the change to immortality in the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 to describe the process of translation. The text of the Book of Mormon should be understood in the context of Paul’s discussion of being taken into heaven and Jesus’ discussion that the dead are in this same sort of perfected state (3 Ne. 28:13-14//2 Cor. 12:2-4; 3 Ne. 28:30/ /Matt. 22:30).
The three Nephites are granted extraordinary power to escape death. In fact, 3 Nephi 28 mentions a series of persecutions that they escape. Each of these figures of deliverance parallels a biblical figure of deliverance. The three Nephites escaped death and captivity in: a furnace (/ /the three Hebrews in Babylon), a den of wild animals (/ /Daniel), a [p.23]pit (/ / Joseph), and prison (/ / apostles). The three Nephites are portrayed as types of the persecuted righteous. In summary, all of these biblical passages are united, interpreted, and classified by the concept of translation. The Book of Mormon is anything but a spontaneous recitation. Its biblical allusions reveal a narrative with a complex web of biblical connections united as a whole-a kind of spiritual mosaic or the creation of a spiritual world.
The whole that it creates is a rather creative and radical mosaic. The higher secret doctrines of Christ that are withheld from the reader, the unutterable truths, and the three Nephites who are raised to heaven and transformed to a higher state of being all display Gnostic/ apocalyptic influence. The Gnostics are believed to be an early heretical Christian offshoot.27 The ascent of the apostle Paul to heaven was repeated by Gnostics numerous times. Gnostics believed that it is here that secret teachings of Jesus were given and the righteous were transformed. Some of these early Christians also believed that the transformation could continue until the righteous become gods. Human deification is not part of Book of Mormon theology. But, in the living prophetic tradition, the reception of the hidden mysteries of Christ and heavenly transformation are beginning Book of Mormon threads of what would later become a Mormon fabric of Gnostic beliefs.
This allusion in 3 Nephi to John 21, and its accompanying biblical parallels, address an interpretive controversy being contested when the Book of Mormon appeared. The Methodist biblical commentator Adam Clarke tells us that the meaning of John 21:22-23 was hotly debated both in ancient and modern times. Clarke tells us that people currently believed, parallel with the Book of Mormon, that John would be changed and not die until the second coming of Christ.28 John Gill cites an example of a man in the time of Beza who claimed to be John the Beloved. Yet
none of the commentaries cited in this work claimed, in interpreting John 21, that John would stay alive until the Second Coming, even though some of them indicate that it was close. Commentaries that discuss it at all interpreted this passage either as a promise that John would stay alive until Christ came in vengeance upon the Jewish nation when Jerusalem was destroyed (Gill, Ostervald, Scott, Wesley, Pliestly, Bradford) or as a simple request from Jesus for John to stay where he was while Jesus spoke with Peter (Clarke).
[p.24]We have seen how this passage interprets the Bible with a cluster of biblical allusions. It also provides a fascinating insight into the processes of Joseph Smith’s creative prophetic experience. It is typical in Smith’s revelations to find clusters or meaningfully arranged biblical phrases arranged around theological or figurative themes. Sometimes a catchword in one biblical text evokes an allusion to another biblical text with the same word. So what appears to be happening is that the prophetic mind is saturated with the Bible and pulls out patterns-what at first appears to be random phrases turns out to be arranged in significant patterns. In this case, it explains a whole cluster of difficult passages as the single spiritual phenomenon of “translation” and also resolves a nineteenth-century interpretive dispute. In short, the prophet’s mind is filled with difficult biblical passages and a theological problem current in his time. These biblical phrases and the theological problem serve as a kind of jigsaw puzzle that is pieced together into a new narrative that has a life all of its own.
This mosaic is an example of how the Book of Mormon testifies of the Bible and restores its lost doctrines (1 Ne. 13:40). It tells us further that its goal is to do this in such a manner that it will confound false doctrine and doctrinal contention among its readers (2 Ne. 3:12). This is all part of the puzzle being solved. The 3 Nephi passage cited above is one of many instances in which the Book of Mormon creates new perspectives—new verbal worlds from biblical phrases. It makes verbal theological mosaics with these biblical phrases.
The Book of Mormon as Myth
We can better appreciate the impact of scriptural narratives in the Book of Mormon in the light of John Dominic Crossan’s classification of narrative types. Crossan is a New Testament scholar with an interest in literary approaches to the gospels. In The Dark Interval: Toward a Theology of Story, he identifies five types of narrative.29 The first type, myth, establishes a world. The second type, apologue, defends a world. Action stories discuss and describe a world. (He classifies most modern novels as action stories.) Satire attacks and ridicules a world by attacking objects exterior to the narrative. (The cartoon series Doonesbury is an example.) Parable subverts a world. (Among modern writers of parable, Crossan includes Borges and Kafka.)
Parable and myth are the outer extremes of narrative; apologue and [p.25] satire are mirror images of each other by either ridiculing or defending a world. Crossan makes it clear that no one of these narrative types should be considered superior. They just perform different functions. As a New Testament scholar, Crossan spends most of his time discussing parable. He follows Jeremias in stating that early Christianity misunderstood the parables of Jesus as historical allegories when in actuality they were subversions of the Jewish world view. For example, the Good Samaritan represents the juxtaposition of elements that Jesus’ listeners would have considered antithetical: “good” and “Samaritan.” In like fashion, this and the other parables of Jesus subvert the world of his time and place. Parables are the agents of change.
In contrast to parables, myths are agents of stability. For Crossan, a “myth” is a narrative that creates a world. Here, the term myth is not a reference to an untrue story. Historical events can serve a mythic function. Crossan’s definition is derived principally from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. All myths, according to Crossan’s typology, are constructive; they represent a coherent whole. Myths can exist alone, but parables assume a myth, which they seek to subvert. Crossan concludes that mythical religion seeks final answers about reality and thereby excludes the genuine experience of mystery. Parabolic religion continually and deliberately subverts final words about reality and thereby introduces the possibility of transcendence. Myth performs the task of mediating and reconciling irreducible opposites. Parable seeks to show us the edges of myth. It is a story which has become self-critical. This, in a shortened version, is the narrative typology developed by Crossan.
Let us examine the Book of Mormon narratives in light of Crossan’s taxonomy. Three recent authors have summarized the general function of the book’s narratives. Jan Shipps, a Methodist scholar with a specialty in Mormon studies, sees Mormonism as a new religious tradition and views the Book of Mormon as one of the elements in the early church that “formed the basis of a new mythos.”30 Thus she would see the book as serving the function of myth, as Crossan defines that term. But Shipps also sees it as apologue when she calls it a second witness of Christ, a book which makes the Bible “meaningful and accessible to a doubting generation.”31 In short, for Shipps the Book of Mormon is both myth and apologue.
Like Shipps, Mormon historian Marvin Hill also interprets the Book [p.26]of Mormon in a larger context but from a very different point of view. For Hill, the Book of Mormon is part of Mormonism’s larger rebellion against American pluralism. In his view, early Mormonism saw society as disintegrating into social classes and being corrupted by evil religious establishment.
In the face of these ills, the Book of Mormon’s “primary purpose was to warn Americans in the 1830s.”32 To a society split by social class, this book raised a warning voice-warning of contention, warning of the evils of the religious establishment among them, and warning that their fate could be the same as that of the Nephites and Jaredites. By Crossan’s taxonomy, Hill characterizes the Book of Mormon certainly as parable and perhaps as satire; it both subverts and ridicules the existing world. In addition to its subversive role, Hill also sees the Book of Mormon as defending the belief that Jesus is the Messiah to the unchurched and disbelieving. Hence, it also performs an apologetic role.
Lutheran pastor Robert Hullinger interprets the function of the Book of Mormon narratives in light of the text itself as an apologue against the attacks of skepticism: “The Book of Mormon was an apologetic for Jesus Christ.”33 The title page of the Book of Mormon explicitly supports Hullinger’s thesis. This apologetic understanding of scripture is not unique to the Book of Mormon. Many Protestants, following Luther, have insisted that the primary function of determining the biblical canon was to bear witness of Christ. Hullinger specifically states that the Book of Mormon defends Christ and Christianity against Enlightenment-like skepticism, which constitutes one of the great evils in Book of Mormon societies. In a personal conversation, Mormon scholar Karl Sandberg recently echoed his conviction to me that the book is an apologue against Enlightenment principles, with Laman and Lemuel serving as “Tom Paine in the desert.”
In summary, under Crossan’s system, all three of these recent interpreters of the Book of Mormon classify it as apologue. Shipps also claims that the Book of Mormon contains the richness of myth, while Hill sees it as embodying the subversiveness of parable. All three authors provide legitimate insights into the function of Book of Mormon narratives.
But all three of these authors simply summarize their views without detailed analysis of its narratives. When examining individual Book of Mormon stories in light of Crossan’s classification, I encountered more variety than the three authors present on the subject. For example, as we [p.27]have seen earlier in this chapter, the narrative of Ammonihah satirizes universalism, or the belief that God will ultimately save all human beings irrespective of their works. The leaders in the city can be described as universalists because they profess a robust disbelief in hell. The prophets Alma and Amulek preach of the reality of hell, though they characterize its fires and brimstone as metaphors for the pangs of remorse and guilt. Thus, they present a world opposed to the model of the city’s leadership. The leaders of the city condemn the prophets’ converts to death by fire, which they force Alma and Amulek to watch, then mock: “After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?” They create the hell that they deny. They continue the satire by “gnashing” their teeth upon Alma and Amulek, like the occupants of hell. It implies that those who most loudly deny the existence of evil create it; in the places where we expect to find the highest human achievement, we find the lowest. The Ammonihah narrative, by ridiculing universalism, is an example of what Crossan calls “satire,” or a nalTative that ridicules a world.
Since the Book of Mormon represents itself as literal history, it uses narrative techniques to convince the reader that it consists of action narratives—that it describes a real world. These narratives describe when and why the ancestors of Native Americans received a dark skin (2 Ne. 5:21-24). It describes the behavior of those ancestors in terms that, for white readers in the nineteenth century, were realistic portrayals of the lifestyles and the world view of Native Americans. This verisimilitude defends the historicity of the book. Thus, at least some Book of Mormon narratives must be read as apologetic and action narratives describing and explaining a world.
The following chapters focus on a particular kind of narrative, each serving a different function. Chapter 5 shows that Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions serve as myths by evoking and establishing a spiritual world. The dying heretic narratives (chap. 8) present a duel between the world of a victorious spiritual leader and the world of a vanquished heretic. The destruction of the heretic’s world is parable, while the defense of the spiritual leader’s world is apologue. In Chapter 9, I analyze a series of subplots containing prophetic signs and wonders that defend Christ and his prophets (apologue), while the final destruction form described in Chapter 10 is another parable. These are just a few examples of narrative [p.28]functions in the Book of Mormon, a variety that comprises all of the functions described in Crossan’s classification.
Despite this wide variety, the Book of Mormon, as a single narrative made up of these smaller narratives, is best classified as myth—the myth of a better world. In the language of Moroni, when we believe in God, we can with surety “hope for a better world” (Ether 12:4). Despite the strong apologetic and parable elements in the narratives, they defend and undermine worlds to present the book’s own alternative world, not merely to deny or denounce unsatisfactory substitutes. The Book of Mormon seeks final authoritative answers to the problems of human existence.
In the Book of Mormon, the myth presents an answer both for the conquest of individual sin, death, and guilt, and for the conquest of the powers of social destruction. This world building, in no small part, has contributed to the success of the Book of Mormon and Mormonism in general, providing stability that attracts converts in a rapidly changing and confusing world. The Book of Mormon is an ideal text for those who experience religious alienation—a symbolic “apostasy,” in which one’s spiritual world is dead or dying. The Mormon answer is the restoration of the pure gospel of Christ. The Book of Mormon and Mormonism offer a world of hope built on sorrow, disillusionment, and nostalgia. This myth creates both individual and social salvation in a new world, which is offered as the restoration of the true, lost world of God. The Mormon theological concepts of apostasy and restoration appeal to the sorrow of the dispossessed and provide the hope of a return to a lost spiritual paradise.
But oddly, the world presented in the Book of Mormon is always incomplete. The book tells us in both 3 Nephi 26-30 and Ether 34 that it is withholding higher truths from the reader. In effect, the Book of Mormon implies, hints at, and promises new, broader elements in its spiritual world for its readers. There is always one more higher revelation that disrupts or completes the whole, one more missing insight that revelation must deliver to redirect our behavior. Yet the Book of Mormon also describes itself as the complete and whole gospel (1 Ne. 13). Because of this combined portrayal of fullness and incompletion, both the Book of Mormon and Mormonism have the potential to be either conservative or radical—or both at the same time. It is this mythic tension be-[p.29]tween completed and emerging worlds that is one of the major shaping forces in Book of Mormon narratives, in the Mormon view of revelation, and in the theological outlook of Mormons.
To this point, I have been discussing the multiple functions of narrative in the Book of Mormon. I have asserted that the most fundamental narrative function is myth. But we need to explore a more fundamental issue: Why do we use narratives to fulfill the functions outlined by Crossan?
Why build or destroy or describe a world with a narrative? In the Book of Mormon, narrative serves as a ritual for individual and social salvation. It gives the reader ways of avoiding existential and social danger and of finding the path to salvation. In this chapter I have briefly touched on such forms of symbolism in the Book of Mormon as spiritualizing a text, parables, and so forth. The symbolism of salvation itself is insufficient without narrative that functions as myth. Salvation is a dramatic experience. Through the drama of the narrative, the reader experiences the drama of salvation on the most fundamental scale—in the battle of worlds. Hence narration provides an irreplaceable religious experience dealing with the symbolism of salvation: “The myth performs its symbolic function by the specific means of narration because what it wants to express is already a drama,” notes Ricoeur. “It is this primordial drama that opens up and discloses the hidden meaning of human experience; and so the myth that recounts it assumes the irreplaceable function of narration.”34
1. It is true that the Book of Mormon begins with a literary form, an autobiography of Nephi, which some have interpreted as a hidden autobiography of Joseph Smith. Such discussions, however, are more often concerned with proving a historical or apologetic point than with interpreting the text.
2. John Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study, rev. and enl. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1996), 191-93.
3. The analogy is a modified form of what Meier has proposed in his work on the historical Jesus: A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991).
4. Beyond these three broad disciplines, many other interpretive traditions (such as cultural anthropology) have greatly enriched the interpretation of sacred texts.
5. For a discussion of this textual issue, see Stanley R. Larson, “A Study in Some Textual Variations in the Book of Mormon Comparing the Original and [p.30]Printer’s Manuscripts and the 1830, the 1837, and the 1840 Editions,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1974, 69-70, 281-83.
6. For an analysis of similar kinds of narrator commentary in Deuteronomy, see Robert Polzin, “Deuteronomy,” in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 92-10l. Polzin’s “frame break” is equivalent to my “narrator commentary.”
7. Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible; The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1991), 32-38, rejects as simplistic the view that early Mormons understood the Bible in solely literal terms.
8. For a more detailed discussion, see my “The Mosaic for a Religious Counterculture: The Bible in the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 25 (Winter 1996): 47-68.
9. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments: The Text … including the Marginal Readings and Parallel Texts. With a Commentary and Critical Notes … (New York: N. Bangs and J. Emory for the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1827), l:vii; italics omitted.
10. John, Gill, An Exposition of the Old Testament … in Six Volumes (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1817-19).
11. Thomas Hartwell Home, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, 2d ed. (New York: James Eastburn, 1821), Vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 52l. Home also records that chiasmas, which he called “inverted parallelism,” was first discovered as a distinctive feature of Hebrew poetry by John Jebb in 1820. Jebb added it to the three types of parallelisms cited by his famous predecessor, Bishop Lowth. lbid., vol. 2, pt. 1,464-98. Parallelisms, and chiasmas in particular, are important features of Book of Mormon poetry. However, there is no convincing evidence that chiasmas is an important part of the narrative forms. Hence, I will not discuss it in this work.
12. George S. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University Press, 1981),261, suggests that the phrase may derive from Puritan thought, since it is found in Samuel Mather’s work. However, the phrase was broadly used in Protestant biblical commentaries and other literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the United States and Great Britain.
13. This broader concept of typology as symbolism appears in 1832 in Doctrine and Covenants 76:70, but there is no evidence in the Book of Mormon that it uses typology in a similarly inclusive way.
14. Thomas Scott, Holy Bible. Containing the Old and New Testaments, with Original Notes and Practical Observations (Boston: Samuel Armstrong, 1818), Isa. [p.31]42. This edition is one of dozens of Scott’s commentary in the early nineteenth century; they easily outnumbered all other biblical commentaries combined. Almost certainly, it was the most widely read biblical commentary in early nineteenth-century America.
15. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus,” 245-62; Jorgensen, “Dark Way to the Tree: Typological Unity in the Book of Mormon,” 217-31; both in Lambert, Literature of Belief; Rust, Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997); Clark, “The Type at the Border,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2 (Fall 1993): 63-77; Holland, Christ and the New Covenant (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997).
16. Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 67. The Book of Mormon text contains clues for reconstructing an implied author(s) and an implied reader; we can identify the book’s own assumptions about who will be reading it and how it presents its author(s). Narrative theory uses these concepts to keep interpretation centered on the text. See Mark Allan Powell, What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 27-29. Although this approach would be richly rewarding, my study relies on a rhetorical approach that attempts to understand the Book of Mormon in the context of its original 1830 audience. The two approaches are similar, since the Book of Mormon explicitly and frequently addresses that audience.
17. Frank Kermode, “Introduction to the New Testament,” in Literary Guide to the Bible, 376.
I8. Epiclesis is a Greek term that has come to refer to a liturgical form. This form is a eucharistic prayer requesting the descent of the Spirit on either the elements in the sacrament or on the congregation. The Hellenistic letter form normally followed a set pattern: a greeting, a thanksgiving and prayer for the well-being of the addressee, the central message, a conclusion, and a final greeting. See my “Listening to the Voice from the Dust: Moroni 8 as Rhetoric,” Sunstone 4 (Jan.-Feb. 1979): 22-24; and “A Rhetorical Approach to the Book of Mormon: Rediscovering Nephite Sacramental Language,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 53-80.
19. Mieke Bal, Essays on Narratology (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991), 242-43.
20. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981), 47-62. Alter uses the term “type scene,” but I prefer “narrative scene”: it is slightly broader in scope and avoids possible confusion with “typology” in the Book of Mormon.
21. Ibid., 52.
22. Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book [p.32]of Mormon Historicity,” Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Fall 1993): 153-86.
23. In 1837 Joseph Smith changed “woundedness” to “blindness” in this passage. This is one of several textual changes in this chapter of the Book of Mormon that have interpretive and theological significance.
24. For preliminary summaries of the use of the Bible in the Book of Mormon, see Mark D. Thomas, “Scholarship and the Book of Mormon,” The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 63-82; Melodie Moench Charles, “The Mormon Christianizing of the Old Testament,” ibid., 131-42; George D. Smith, “Isaiah Updated,” ibid., 113-30; Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 251; and the essays in Metcalfe, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon.
25. For a recent analysis of this process of clustering biblical passages, see my “A Mosaic for a Religious Counterculture.”
26. I mark a parallel between the Book of Mormon and the Bible with a double solidus: for example, 1 Ne. 21:1/ Isa. 49:l. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are from the King James Version.
27. Margaret Barker, “The Secret Tradition,” The Journal of Higher Criticism 2 (Spring 1995): 31-67.
28. Clarke, The Holy Bible, … , 4:63l.
29. John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Toward a Theology of Story (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1988).
30. Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 35-38.
3l. Ibid., 37-38.
32. Marvin Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), xii; see also xiii, 22-23.
33. Robert N. Hullinger, Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), xv.
34. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 170.