New Approaches to the Book of Mormon
Brent Lee Metcalfe, editor
The Word of God is Enough: The Book of Mormon as Nineteenth-Century Scripture
Anthony A. Hutchinson
I obtained [the Book of Mormon] and translated [it] into the English language
by the gift and power of God. [I] have been preaching it ever since.
—JOSEPH SMITH (in Faulring 1987, 52)
My thesis is simple. I will state it as directly as possible for the sake of understanding and discussion. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should confess in faith that the Book of Mormon is the word of God but also abandon claims that it is a historical record of the ancient peoples of the Americas. We should accept that it is a work of scripture inspired by God in the same way that the Bible is inspired, but one that has as its human author Joseph Smith, Jr.
The Book of Mormon should be seen as authoritative scripture, part of a larger canon, reliable in conveying the truth of the restored gospel when read and used in faith and repentance and doctrinally construed in light of all scripture and revelation, past, present, and future. In terms of general interpretation of the book’s themes and stories, our overall approach should not be substantially changed by abandoning insistence on the book’s ancient origin. What would be changed though is our general use of the book as an apologetic argument or a sign of the uniqueness of Mormonism and warrant of its authority and truthfulness.
Another change would be the way we tend to approach detailed interpretation of the book’s text and the meanings its text attempts to convey, since these would be seen as literary and theological products [p.2] of nineteenth-century America. It should thus be seen as not containing the real history of the ancient Americas but an account of the origins of the American Indians and their relation to ancient biblical stories as conceived by its nineteenth-century author, Joseph Smith. He remains a prophet called by God to be an instrument in founding a uniquely vital form of Christianity which in crucial ways restores the experience of God enjoyed by the earliest Christians.
God remains author of the Book of Mormon viewed as the word of God, but Joseph Smith, in this construct, would be the book’s inspired human author rather than its inspired translator. The term “translator” in describing the prophet Joseph could be retained if it did not imply a language-to-language process of translation but were construed simply to mean “inspired human origin of the English text.” Such an understanding is closer to the actual usage of the term when Joseph Smith applied it to himself. It coheres better with the details of the book’s production than does the popular image of Joseph Smith as a divinely endowed linguist producing a slavish English text from an ancient text written on plates of gold. (The translation process is outlined in Van Wagoner and Walker 1982 and Lancaster 1962; see also Ashment, in this compilation.)
I have outlined elsewhere what Joseph Smith seemed to understand by the term “inspiration” (1982), and Bruce Lindgren (1986), a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has also addressed this topic. Stated simply, “inspiration” never seemed to refer to anything as mechanical as flipping a switch or booting up a computer.
There are compelling reasons for undertaking a retooling of LDS usage and understanding of such terms as translation and inspiration. Although a redefinition may appear problematic, I believe that in Sunday-to-Sunday “in the pews” terms, it consists merely in a change of emphasis and tone. Some of the reasons for changing emphasis are scholarly and stem from weaknesses in the current LDS understanding of the Book of Mormon. But the most fundamental and pressing reason is religious. I believe that the word of God or the gospel of Jesus Christ is ill-served if not undermined to the degree that current LDS approaches to the Book of Mormon focus on its claims about itself and its value as a sign authenticating LDS religious life rather than on its unique message as a nineteenth-century reworking of the biblical tradition.
I shall address briefly the question of why Latter-day Saints should accept the book as scripture and whether it is possible to hold such a belief without accepting the book’s claims to ancient history. I shall then go on to explain some of the reasons I think we should view it as nineteenth-century rather than ancient scripture, whether literally and [p.3] accurately translated or freely paraphrased and expanded upon by its modern translator. These reasons shall be grouped under two headings: (1) considerations of reasonableness, evidence, and methodology; and (2) considerations of religion and theology. The first of these will take the form of specific criticisms of some of the current scholarly proponents of Book of Mormon antiquity. The second will take the form of personal theological reflections on why we like to use the Book of Mormon as a sign rather than as normative scripture. Finally I shall summarize and discuss some of the broader implications of viewing the Book of Mormon as modern rather than as ancient scripture.
[W]herefore, condemn not the things of God,
that ye may be found spotless at the judgement-seat of Christ.
—BOOK OF MORMON
Why should Latter-day Saints accept the Book of Mormon as the word of God? Within the context of a Bible-literate and generally Bible-believing community, early Latter-day Saints were brought together as a people by publication of the Book of Mormon. Indeed they were called “Mormonites” or “Mormons” before they settled on calling themselves “Latter Day Saints” (Evening and Morning Star 2 [May 1834]: 158-59). As Marvin Hill (1989), Peter Crawley (1980), and Dan Vogel (1988) have documented, the early LDS movement drew together diverse Protestant “seekers” searching for a restoration of primitive Christianity, eschewing creeds, hierarchy, and sectarian divisions.
David Whitmer, one of three Book of Mormon witnesses, is one of the few who retained a strident primitivist commitment without the later theological innovations stemming from the introduction of ecclesiastical hierarchy and a system of specialized and peculiaristic beliefs. In Whitmer’s account, belief in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith was secondary and peripheral. Smith’s preeminence in the early LDS community stemmed from his role in bringing forth the Book of Mormon rather than his claim to prophetic gifts. It was the Book of Mormon which drew seekers together. It clarified problems of biblical faith and set a clear pattern for a restored New Testament Christianity (Whitmer 1887).
Thus belief in the Book of Mormon and Bible as the word of God has been an essential element of LDS faith from its beginning. To abandon a confession of either book’s scriptural status would constitute a profound disjunction or break in the continuity of LDS faith tradition.
[p.4] If we confess that the hand of God guided or encouraged the founding and subsequent development of the Jewish and Christian religions, then it follows that God’s hand was at work in the growth and preservation of the biblical textual tradition which was an organic part of these faiths. Current LDS recognition of the Protestant canon of the Bible as the “word of God, as far as it is translated correctly,” tacitly makes this confession, despite a supposed loss of authority in mainstream Christianity in the second century C.E. The canon of course was drawn up much later than that.
Similarly if we confess that LDS people were somehow brought together and preserved by God, then it follows that God’s hand somehow was at work in bringing forth the book which gave this group of Christians their separate identity. To abandon such a confession of God’s role in bringing forth the book would be to remove oneself from that separate identity.
To be sure, accepting a text as the word of God gives it a value as a guide and norm whereas simply confessing the hand of God in history and holy books—anyone’s history and holy books—does not. But confessing the hand of God in history is a precondition for accepting a sacred story or text as normative for oneself and one’s community. To the degree we disparage the holiness and value of the Book of Mormon, we alienate ourselves from the LDS tradition and define ourselves as outside of that tradition. On this point I agree with current LDS orthodox approaches to the book and am gratified to see the recent resurgence of emphasis on teaching the Book of Mormon within the church.
Can the Book of Mormon hold value as scripture if it is not an ancient book? Louis Midgley (1990) has critiqued the approach taken in an earlier version of this essay. His basic point—shared by other honest, intelligent, and well-informed LDS scholars—is that the Book of Mormon holds no interest, has no authority, and cannot be trusted to tell the truth about the gospel unless it is “simply true” in its claims about itself, the narrative it contains, and the way it was brought forth. As Midgley writes, “[T]o reduce the Book of Mormon to mere myth weakens, if not destroys, the possibility of it witnessing to the truth of divine things. A fictional Book of Mormon fabricated by Joseph Smith, even when his inventiveness, genius, or inspiration is celebrated, does not witness to Jesus Christ but to human folly” (525). This argument is mirrored by other scholars—both non-Mormons and disenchanted LDS—who agree that the Book of Mormon is nothing if it is not ancient but therefore reject the book entirely because they believe the evidence so thoroughly demonstrates the book’s modern origins.
I have problems with these views, which I believe miss the point about what scripture is and how it relates to faith. The Bible suffers [p.5] from similar dichotomies of fundamentalists and naturalist-rationalists who both conclude that either the Bible must be correct in all its major claims or must be rejected as a curious artifact of superstitious ancient Near-Eastern and Mediterranean peoples. But it is unclear to me how the Old Testament’s great expression of human fear and hope in God or its message of ethical monotheism and social concern or of human liberation are compromised in the least when we recognize that many of its narratives do not tell accurate history or that its view of the natural world is contrary to the facts. Similarly it is unclear to me how the New Testament’s expressions of faith in God made flesh in Jesus or hope in salvation through him are disproved when particulars in any of its narratives are questioned. Likewise I am not clear why currently self-styled orthodox defenders of the “simple truth” of the Book of Mormon seem to believe that the book’s message is made irrelevant or less than part of a normative canon of scripture when the book is understood as being written by an inspired prophet of the nineteenth century whose beliefs about anthropology, folk magic, and other matters are not only found in the book but inform the book’s very self-conception and presentation. The message remains of a God involved in history, of a God revealed to all nations and not simply one, of a Christ whose redeeming work is addressed to all times and places, of the need for humble obedience to God and for social justice.
Beyond the general question of how scripture in its gestalt transcends issues of mere historical curiosity, I must repeat what I have said elsewhere concerning the connection between the function of scripture as myth and its historical claims (Hutchinson 1988, 17n3). “Myth,” of course, means faith or religious belief, even theology, cast in story or narrative form rather than simply listed propositions. The term does not carry the meaning of “false story” or “superstition.” The religious power of myth in scriptural narrative in some ways depends on the historical reality of the events or persons it describes—but only when this historical reality is somehow directly related to the reality the myth seeks to mediate. Thus the “Fall of Man” myth does not appear to depend on a historical Adam for its validity, since we only have to look in a mirror for the best evidence of a fall. The power of a myth about redemption through Christ crucified and resurrected, however, seems to me directly dependent on whether Jesus in fact died and then bodily reappeared to his disciples.
Midgley (1990) criticizes me on this point, noting that a belief in the Book of Mormon as nineteenth-century scripture implies what he clearly views as foolishness—the idea that “the power of the restored gospel is not dependent upon whether angels visited Joseph Smith, or whether certain of Joseph Smith’s works have a genuine ancient origin.” He chalks up my acceptance of the Book of Mormon as scripture [p.6] and my desire to have a genuine religious experience within the LDS Christian community to mere “sentimentality” (544).
I can reply to such a complaint by appealing only to personal experience. I recognize that other people’s experience, including Midgley’s, may differ from mine. I happen to believe in angels and believe that Joseph Smith was visited by them. But my own experience—the same experience that tells me that such things are possible—tells me that such events are so out of the ordinary that they are easily understood by their recipients in a variety of ways over their lives. Such things as visions and the visitation of angels after all are not uncommon even among today’s Latter-day Saints.
Careful historical analysis of the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s early visions given by him over his life reveals in fact that he himself understood what happened to him in different ways at different times, depending on his theological belief at that time. Smith does not identify the angel who “revealed” the plates of the Book of Mormon to him with any character of the book’s narrative until later in his life, and even then it is unclear whether this was Nephi or Moroni. The identification seems to be part of his redefinition of how one understands “angel” as a term in theological discourse, going from a classic Christian view that an angel is a spiritual creature, a different order from humankind, to the view that an angel is either a pre-mortal or post-mortal spirit, or a resurrected human being. (See D&C 129 for an expression of the full idea from 1843.)
Note that in the 1832 account of his early visions, Smith does not say the angel was a character in the Book of Mormon and specifically says that the appearances of the angel and the nature of the first effort to obtain the gold plates were such that only after the fact was he able to distinguish “vision” from “dream.” Smith states simply that “behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven my sins and he revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them and he revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitants of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments & revelations and it was on the 22d day of Sept. AD 1822 and thus he appeared unto me three times in one night and once the next day and then I immediately went to the place and found where the plates was deposited as the angel of the Lord had commanded me and straightway made three attempts to get them and then being exceedingly frightened I supposed it had been a dreem of Vision but when I considred I knew [p.7] that it was not therefore I cried unto the Lord in the agony of my soul why can I not obtain them behold the angel appeared unto me again and said unto me you have not kept the commandments of the Lord which I gave unto you therefore you cannot obtain them for the time is not yet fulfilled. …” (Jessee 1984, 6-7; Faulring 1987, 6-7).
When Smith updated and developed this account in 1835, he similarly did not make the link between a character of the Book of Mormon’s narrative and its revealing angel (Joseph Smith Diary, 9 Nov. 1835, in Faulring 1987, 50-55). But that same year when what is now called Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) 27 was re-edited from the 1833 Book of Commandments (chap. XXVIIII) and published as chapter 50 in the 1835 D&C, Moroni was identified as the one who was sent to “reveal the Book of Mormon.” Such an identification was also made in 1842 in a letter from Joseph Smith, still extant, now printed as D&C 128:20. But when Smith updated and prepared for publication the early history of his life and visions in 1838, he identified the angel as Nephi (Jessee 1984, 203).
Similarly, descriptions of the “plates” given by Smith and his close associates vary enough to suggest that the plates themselves were objects seen in visions, by the eye of faith, having deep symbolic and religious meaning for Smith and his followers. They were in any case not merely archaeological artifacts. We often hear the story of Smith hiding tangible plates in the bean barrel when he went from Manchester, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, in December 1827 to escape the harassment of his former money-digging partners, but we rarely hear the story of how the plates were taken to the Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York, in early June 1829. They were said to have been transported by the angel (Deseret Evening News, 16 Nov. 1878). Again their visionary character does not necessarily make them less real or mere “hallucination.” But it does mean that experiences are subject to a greater deal of prior cultural and religious conditioning and subsequent reinterpretation than that enjoyed by viewers of “mere” archaeological artifacts.
So ultimately I must rely on what Midgley mocks as “sentimentality” but which I would describe as movements within my heart of the Holy Ghost. I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God because I am moved by its story and the story of its author, Joseph Smith the prophet, and the story of people brought together by its coming forth. To be sure, I consider it as only part of a canon in which the New Testament plays a central and controlling role. But I accept the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as the word of God because they too speak to me, and I hear God’s voice in their words. Even if that were not so, they are recognized as such by the community of faith of which I am part. [p.8]
Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars
of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient
for him to relate these things &c.
—”FAR WEST RECORD”(in Cannon and Cook 1983, 23)
The basic problem in approaching claims to ancient origin of the Book of Mormon is one of method. Let us step back from this question for a moment and look at a separate issue where our disinterest might help us make some conclusions about reasonable methodology. The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents a theology rooted in a racial ideology and mythos that exalts African blacks and their descendants and characterizes caucasians as “white devils.” The founder of the Black Muslims was the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. His “Yacub’s History” taught that originally all human beings were black but that the non-black races were the depraved results of an evil eugenics law started 6,600 years ago on the isle of Patmos by a devil incarnate, a “Mr. Yacub,” who sought to produce the race of white devils as revenge upon the world (165-66). Believers in this ideology were able to produce what was for them convincing “scientific” and “historical” evidence collaborating this myth. I remember as a high school senior talking with a believer in the myth, who was able to cite genetic, historical, and linguistic data at length to support her belief that I and my family were the products of Mr. Yacub’s machinations. I was struck at the time at how similar her arguments were to those made by supporters of an ancient Book of Mormon. Both she and they took evidence wherever they could find it to support their faith, often lifting it out of context that in itself contradicted the use made of it.
Three examples will demonstrate what I am talking about. I deliberately choose these three because the authors are more responsible than most, have used the most care and restraint in their arguments, and generally are the most respected and respectable of the current defenders of Book of Mormon antiquity. I have considerable personal regard for the intelligence, honesty, and erudition of all three. But they all manifest in lesser or greater degree the type of methodological fuzziness that I am talking about here.
The first is Hugh Nibley’s Since Cumorah (1988), probably the classic modern defense of Book of Mormon antiquity and one which has rarely been rivaled in breadth of scope and detail. But the book uses a comparative methodology that at best can prove nothing and at worst can be used by others to give crackpot ideas a semblance of credibility. A typical example of this is found in Nibley’s claims about proper names in the Book of Mormon (168-72). In the space of four pages, [p.9] Nibley gives a laundry list of Book of Mormon names that, for him at least, are clear examples of accurately preserved Egyptian, Hebrew, West Semitic, Hittite, and even proto-Indo-European. Typical of his philological zeal is his “just for fun” (172) explanation that the word “Irreantum” is in fact Egyptian proto-Indo-European “Iaru-invt-anjt” and/or Hittite “arunash.” Nibley’s explanation is a mishmash of Egyptian, proto-Indo-European, and Hittite that is as philologically unlikely as Joseph Smith’s explanation that the name “Mormon” was “More Good,” a combination of English “More” plus an otherwise unknown Egyptian “Mon ‘good'” (Times and Seasons 4 [15 May 1843]: 194).
Nibley’s method of taking any language in any dialect at any time and trying thereby to claim some kind of meaningful parallel is one with that used by early Dead Sea Scrolls researcher John Allegro in his The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East (1970). If you cannot immediately see what is wrong with Nibley’s method, you should read Allegro. He “proves” through complicated historical and philological parallels that the story of Jesus dying on the cross and being raised on the third day is merely a coded and disguised version of a fertility myth where a phallic hallucinatory mushroom, having sprouted from the earth and broadcast its spores and euphoria, “dies,” and after a short refractory period is able to “live again.”
A scholar friend told me that years ago he asked his wife, who has no knowledge of any Semitic language, to take a half an hour and make up for him a list of “biblical-sounding” names. After spending a day of Nibleyesque labor with dictionaries, concordances, and lexica, he was able to state that fully 85 percent of the made-up names could be identified as having the same types of parallels that Nibley claims as evidence to Joseph Smith’s insight into things ancient.
In the last few years, I have been a student of Chinese. I have been struck on occasion that using the type of methods and reasoning found in Since Cumorah, I could make a strong case that the ancient Chinese themselves were Israelites. In fact I have even encountered this argument, this specious methodology, over the pulpit. The traditional Chinese character for “spirit” (ling) is written in such a way, the argument goes, to reveal ancient Chinese knowledge of scripture. Like most Chinese characters, it is written by combining in a set order and arrangement several components that when standing alone are other characters. “Spirit” (ling) is made up of the components for “rain,” “work,” three “mouths,” and two “people.” Such a combination, the argument went, reflected knowledge of the spiritual and physical creation of two people (man and woman) by God (a trinity), who by working six days made rain fall onto the parched earth. As ingenious as this [p.10] argument is and as emotionally attractive as it is for some in the church in East Asia, it violates the basic history of the character at issue, the development of which is well attested by various forms of ancient Chinese writing. The three mouths and work component were originally themselves a single component meaning a witch and only relatively later “simplified” into the shape they assumed in the modern form.
I could go on with other examples. That there are perfectly reasonable explanations for so-called parallels that really have no meaning at all is what is important here. The parallel method is defective and should be recognized as such.
My second example is John Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (1985). It is the single best effort at developing an ancient American context in which to understand the Book of Mormon. Its scholarship is vigorous. But to my mind it is wholly wrong-headed because of a basic lack of methodological perspective. Sorenson tries to soften the fact that “a few statements in the Book of Mormon cannot yet be squared with what we know today about the Mesoamerican area” (31) by stating the bottom line of his argument: “the Book of Mormon account actually did take place somewhere. We who believe the book is authentically ancient are confident that there were indeed real places where real Nephis and Almas did the things the volume says they did” (31-32). Because he has taken this stance a priori, he fails to see the problems in his efforts at handling the incongruities between the Book of Mormon’s picture of ancient American life and the life of ancient Mesoamerica as known from its artifacts and texts.
He explains the basic problem of the Book of Mormon’s compass being turned forty-five (or more) degrees from that of Mesoamerica by saying that the Nephites inadvertently turned their sea-oriented cardinal points sideways because the Gulf of Tehuantepec coastline runs east to west whereas the Mediterranean coastline in Palestine runs north to south (36-38). He states that animals unknown in ancient America yet described in the Book of Mormon such as cows, asses, or swine perhaps are simply bad translations for animals such as deer, tapirs, or peccaries (299).
The question arises: when is a cow not a cow, when is north not north? The answer: when you believe in a book which makes claims that do not square with things as they are in the world but which you nevertheless feel forced to harmonize with reality. If it is only by ridding a text of its plain meaning that it can be found to cohere with reality and the only reason you want it to cohere is that you want to believe what it says, you have a problem. How can you believe what it says when the only way of doing that is changing its meaning—in other words, by not believing what it says? Of course if your [p.11] conception of scripture expands so as to allow error and even fiction, you can accept its religious value while keeping rational about its claims.
The difficulty goes to the heart of Sorenson’s portrayal of the Book of Mormon as a “lineage history” (49-56). The book describes Nephites and Lamanites as ethnicities, with race, religion, culture, language, and politics all playing a role in group identity. But Sorenson prefers to see them as small classes in a much larger sea of humanity. Nephites are basically a small ruling class. This apparently accounts for their not having left any clear trace in the area where they supposedly lived. Unfortunately the pictures of ancient America drawn by the Book of Mormon and Sorenson simply do not match (see Matheny in this compilation).
Sorenson’s “lineage history” theory notwithstanding, I cannot read the Book of Mormon without being impressed that early Mormons understood the plain meaning of the book fairly well. It seems to speak of hemispheric dispersion and the ancestors of what the early Mormons called American Indians. That Sorenson’s reading of the book is strained becomes evident when he tries to incorporate Book of Mormon prophecies about the descendants of Lehi (94). He is forced to rely on adoptionist theology nowhere present in order to explain why the book appears to be speaking of the whole group of Amerinds rather than a limited number of people descended from a small ruling class that once held sway in about 250 square miles of Central American jungle.
Further examples of how far his reading is removed from the Book of Mormon itself are these. Since ancient Mesoamericans raised dogs for food, Sorenson suggests that references in the Book of Mormon to flocks should be cross-referenced to dogs—Nephite respect for the Law of Moses notwithstanding (293). Similarly Sorenson draws a parallel between the priests of the Mesoamerican ruling elites, who attempt to maintain their power through divination of the future, and the Book of Mormon figure Korihor, who ridicules efforts at foreseeing the future and the power of priests (102). Such a parallel, if taken seriously, would suggest that Nephite prophecies about the coming of Christ (which Korihor is portrayed as specifically ridiculing) were part and parcel of the astrology and human sacrificial cult of ancient Mesoamerica. It seems that the characterization given Book of Mormon stories of anti-Christs by earliest Mormon indices are nearer the mark. Nehor and Amlici both appear as Universalists (Underwood 1984, 65; Vogel, in this compilation), and Korihor’s theology seems closer to that of nineteenth-century free thinkers than to that of ancient Mesoamericans attacking religious institutions.
My third example of how to not understand the Book of Mormon is Blake Ostler’s “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an [p.12] Ancient Source” (1987). Sorenson handles Book of Mormon difficulties by booking them as mistranslations; Ostler gets around them by classifying them as modern inspired expansions upon an ancient Nephite source. Although sophisticated and specifically aimed at understanding the text as a whole, Ostler fails to see that the sole authority undergirding any claim he might make that some part of the book, however small, is of ancient origin is rooted in the book’s claims about itself. This authority evaporates as soon as the book’s absolute ancientness is compromised in the least degree. For if the book is not an absolutely trustworthy witness to things ancient—for example, if the book’s descriptions of things ancient are contaminated by difficult-if-not-impossible-to-identify expansion—then its claims about its own origins in the ancient world are suspect. Indeed they themselves must be considered in light of the theology of the person making the text expansions: Joseph Smith.
But when this is done, a curious fact emerges and undercuts the expansion hypothesis: the theology of the book, while naive and at times inconsistent, is seen to be of a whole cloth. The claims to ancientness must be swallowed whole or not at all. Why should the book have been miraculously preserved because of its religious message, as it claims that it will be, only to be translated in such a way that its religious message is no longer recognizable because of nineteenth-century theological adaptations? Its predictions about its preservation include assurances that its translation would be “by the gift of God” (Title Page).
Furthermore, when Smith’s active role in producing the English text of the Book of Mormon is examined, the relationship of the text to that of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) becomes apparent. KJV words are used, as would be expected when any translator uses a “crutch.” But in addition developed textual matters and also theology only existing in the KJV are taken into parallel passages of the Book of Mormon. This is troubling enough, but often the very point of a cited biblical scripture borrowed from an erroneous KJV translation becomes the turning point of a “Nephite” interpretation. In the chronicle-type books such as Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman, many intervening stories of Nephite “history” dovetail nicely with these sermons depending on such obvious KJV mistranslations and nineteenth-century theology. Often these stories turn out to exemplify the very theological points arising in the sermons from the KJV interference. When this is noticed, the Ostler thesis becomes highly questionable, since even the narratives themselves, not merely the rhetorical flourishes for retelling the stories, seem artificially generated from nineteenth-century concerns.
Let me provide two examples that exemplify the fact that when [p.13] the Book of Mormon textually parallels the KJV, it relies on its blunders and develops these further. The first example is pointed out by both Sydney Sperry (1952) and John Tvedtnes (1984) as a supposed example of how the Book of Mormon “restores” an ancient form of the biblical text when it diverges from a parallel text in the KJV.
1. Isaiah 9:3//2 Nephi 19:3
|New American Bible||King James Version||Book of Mormon|
|You have brought||Thou hast multiplied||Thou hast multiplied|
|them abundant||the nation and not||the nation and|
|joy and great rejoicing.||increased the joy.||increased the joy.|
The KJV is a very literal rendering of the traditional Hebrew text, as it was pronounced and punctuated with vowels in the ninth century C.E. It does not make a lot of sense, either in Hebrew or English. Many ancient versions remedied the problem of the unhappy tone of the last part of the verse by understanding the word “not” (Hebrew, lo’) as the prepositional phrase “to him” (Hebrew, lo), though this required changing the written text consonants rather than merely pronouncing them differently. Many ancient versions read, “Thou has multiplied the nation and increased its joy.” The Book of Mormon similarly drops the negative, and this parallel to some of the ancient versions elated LDS biblical scholars, who wrote that the variant in the Book of Mormon was evidence of the book’s ancient origins and a sign that its other variant readings were perhaps ancient as well. But it should be noted that the Book of Mormon merely drops the negative and does not add a prepositional phrase or its equivalent. This is puzzling, but not for long.
The first reference, from the New American Bible, is based on a reading of the Hebrew verse that has become accepted among biblical scholars during the last twenty-five years, a time marked by an enormous increase in knowledge of ancient Hebrew poetry as a result of the discovery of Ugaritic texts in Ras Shamra. We have now developed lengthy lists of words that are used as pairs in opposite sides of a repetitive parallel line of Northwest Semitic (including Hebrew and Ugaritic) verse. One of these pairs is gilah/simkhah or “gladness/joy,” just as rbb/gdl is “increase/make large.” The problem in the verse is early scribal confusion between the words goy lo’, “nation not,” and gilah, “gladness.” At an early stage of Hebrew writing, they would have been written on the page in identical or nearly identical fashion; the only difference would have been in pronunciation and could later have been solidified into the consonantal text when it became scribal style to insert certain consonants to indicate the vowel sound needed. [p.14] Thus the original verse read literally, “Thou hast increased the gladness, thou hast made large the joy,” which fits perfectly into Hebrew poetic style, the meter of the oracle, and Isaiah’s high level of poetic mastery. The traditional text was an error, and the ancient versions merely tried to make sense of the error. In light of this, the Book of Mormon variant simply represents an effort on Joseph Smith’s part to make sense of the verse in the KJV, since his solution works solely on the level of the English of the verse and bears only superficial similarity to the ancient versions’ efforts at solving the same problem on the level of erroneously transcribed Hebrew.
2. Matthew 5:6//3 Nephi 12:6
|Revised Standard Version||King James Version||Book of Mormon|
|Blessed are those who||Blessed are they||Blessed are all they|
|hunger and thirst for||which do hunger and||who do hunger and|
|righteousness, for||thirst after||thirst after|
|they shall be satisfied.||righteousness, for
they shall be filled.
they shall be filled
with the Holy Ghost.
Krister Stendahl (1978) has pointed out an interesting fact in the clarification “with the Holy Ghost,” which also occurs in Smith’s revision of the Bible (JSR). The Greek word used in Matthew, chortadzo, means to fill one’s stomach or satisfy hunger. Thus the RSV translation above. It does not mean generically “to be filled” as a passive of the verb “to fill.” But the ambiguous KJV translation here has apparently triggered midrash-like expansion and reflection in the Book of Mormon and JSR. Smith’s reflection here is based entirely on the English tradition of the KJV and has nothing to do with, indeed cannot even occur in, the original Greek of the New Testament.
I turn now to religious and theological considerations which tend to contradict Book of Mormon antiquity. It is important to first think of the religious purposes served by maintaining Book of Mormon antiquity. There are several. (1) Since the book presents a God revealed clearly, unambiguously to chosen prophets who not only know God’s will but also know the past, the future, and unknown languages as well, accepting the literal historical character of its stories tends to support absolute religious certainty when it comes to revealed religion. (2) Such beliefs also tend to support the authority of those who claim similar status in a believing community. (3) In that the book presents revelation as clear, uncertain, and unmixed, accepting the historicity of [p.15] such religion tends to support generally fundamentalist approaches to scripture—inerrancy, literalism, harmonizing apparent differences since God “speak[s] the same words unto one nation like unto another” (2 Ne. 29:8). (4) In that the religion of the book fosters a sense of having special knowledge, it encourages a sense of sectarian advantage. (5) To the extent the book fosters fundamentalist harmonization, it draws a specific picture of the resurrected Jesus and fosters disparagement of conflicting images of Jesus, though these come from the Bible. The fact that the book criticizes the Bible’s textual authority simply aggravates this process.
I should point out that all of these religious effects of supporting Book of Mormon antiquity tend against basic Christian values of humility, walking by faith and not by sight, and brotherly kindness. In addition they all detract from the essential message of the gospel—in faith heed the call of Jesus to follow him. Certitude is not faithful; supporting authoritarianism relieves oneself of responsibility for decisions and for heeding the voice of Jesus. Fundamentalism is legalistic in its literalism, and Jesus despised legalism. Fundamentalism encourages harmonization, and this is dishonest when done consciously. All of the basic religious effects of supporting Book of Mormon antiquity are contrary to the gospel. This does not mean that believing in Book of Mormon antiquity is anti-gospel per se.
There are two reasons for this. First, God speaks to us in our weakness, in our own language, so that we can understand. On the horizon of nineteenth-century Protestantism, the book and its claims made sense and worked. Quite simply it did not fill the same religious usages then as now. Nor does it when a person of simple faith and unreflective mentality approaches the book as history because he or she has been told it is. At that point the voice of God can indeed be heard through the medium of such belief. But when the mind begins to distinguish and when the basic anti-gospel effects begin to be the main psychological reasons for supporting Book of Mormon antiquity, then such support becomes more and more idolatrous.
Second, idolatry itself means something specific. Let me explain. God at different times and places has allowed or even encouraged some images to be used to represent or symbolize him or Jesus in order to help people focus their thoughts on something beyond, but making (at least metaphorically) graven images has been considered a sin. Originally the idea was that God could not be pictured and to do so would only be misleading. But gradually idolatry came to mean setting up the symbol of the image in the place of God which it represented. It is in this sense that persistent and evidence-despising stubborn support of Book of Mormon antiquity can be idolatrous. False certitude, self-satisfaction in one’s own sectarian advantage, and [p.16] harmonized peaceful scriptures are set up in the stead of working out our salvation before God in real fear and trembling. An accommodated and doctored biblical text is set up in the stead of (rather than beside) the Bible itself. An image of God, an image of Jesus, is set up in the stead of Jesus.
To the degree this happens, and it happens more often than we recognize, the Book of Mormon becomes a stumbling block, a real barrier in our spiritual paths. But it need not be so. By simplifying one’s faith, by pulling out the fallen dead limbs and tumbled down rocks, the Book of Mormon can once again become with the Holy Bible a spring of water welling up into eternal life.
And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in no wise inherit the kingdom of God. Verily, verily, I say unto you that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them. —3 NEPHI 11:38-40
Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment points out that for faith stories or myths to have their full play with children’s minds and emotions, they should just be told. No adult should raise that question children all too soon raise themselves, “But did it really happen?” Although Bettelheim points out that it is cruel to lie to a child and actively tell him or her that the story really happened, he also points out that these stories serve an important role in helping children understand and cope with the world. To rob the child of the opportunity to hear the story in innocence would be cruel.
I think herein lies the best hope for a graceful shifting of doctrinal gear regarding the Book of Mormon. I am not calling for the church to come out next year with a confession that they were wrong on Book of Mormon antiquity, that Smith got it wrong, and that we need to all become enlightened, post-critical Latter-day Saints. First of all it would never happen. Furthermore it never should happen. For the church’s role is to preach the gospel. If there is anything in what I am saying, it is the notion that ultimately whether the Book of Mormon is ancient really does not matter. The threat of idolatry I mention only exists when one consciously decides that antiquity does matter. The religious effects I mentioned often lie behind such a decision. But even the liberal, neo-orthodox, or radical theologies I prefer over [p.17] fundamentalism have their own threats of idolatry. Secular thought is probably most fraught with idolatry of self. What is important are the stories that we share and our ability to help each other heed the call of Jesus Christ by retelling those stories.
Understanding the Book of Mormon as a fictional work of nineteenth-century scripture has real advantages. The book opens up for interpretation when read this way. The stories take on an added dimension far beyond, I find, any that was lost when I stopped believing in historical Nephites. The same kind of exegetical methods and theological frameworks that obtain in biblical study begins to obtain here.
Of course such understanding gives us a scripture that is not perfect and not harmonious. And this means that a kind of canon within the canon develops, ideally a canon centered on the centrality of Jesus in our religious lives and our need to follow him. The interaction between church, scripture, and believer becomes all the more important as legalist approaches to scripture, authoritarian approaches to church governance, and pride-flattering sectarian tenets lose their power for us.
Briefly put we should stop talking about the Book of Mormon’s antiquity and begin reading its stories, considering how early Mormons would have understood them and relating their context to our own. To do this we need not only read the Book of Mormon but also to become authentically biblically aware, historically more sophisticated, and much more spiritually literate.
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