A New Nibley: An(Other) Approach to the Book of Mormon

In 1957 Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon appeared on the scene, the Melchizedek Priesthood manual for that year (cue the sighs of bittersweet longing for the manuals of yesteryear). In retrospect the book was an earthquake, shattering the intellectual and religious landscapes on which the Book of Mormon had been erected and creating new vistas and pinnacles from which to see and receive the book anew. It inarguably helped to shape the entire Mormon academic enterprise, a catalyst in spawning an industry of textual Mormon comparative/historical scholarship. The book signaled the beginning of a new era of academic inquiry and interest in Mormon scripture–one that is still largely with us–and scholarly investigations of Mormon texts will always be indebted to it.

Joseph Spencer’s An Other Testament: On Typology (reviewed here at BCC by Blair) is, after 55 years, the followup aftershock, a seismic event in and of itself, and one that should, if it is given its due, once again change the landscape of investigations into Mormon scripture. Blair’s review of the book is solid, and I’m not interested in breaking it down and textually reviewing it myself here. Instead, I’d like to discuss the potential location of the book in the Mormon scholarly constellation and suggest why I think it might be one of the most productive and important works on the Book of Mormon ever written (on par with Nibley’s An Approach). Lest the title of this essay lead one to suspect that I am comparing Spencer to Nibley, of course Spencer himself cannot be compared to Nibley and his vast intellectual and popular influence (as I’m sure Joe himself would insist on attesting!) What I am claiming here, though, is that his book has the potential to unlock an entirely new and productive way of reading the Book of Mormon, much as Nibley’s book launched an entire industry based on his methods. [1]

The burden of the book is to show how the Book of Mormon itself suggests it might be read. Where Nibley wanted to demonstrate the historical complexity of the book (a priority of exteriority), Spencer aims to reveal its internal theological complexity (a priority of interiority), and here is why the book is a watershed in studies of Mormonism. Spencer wagers (more implicitly than explicitly) that there is much we miss when we focus too intently on externally situating the book in an ancient setting. In fact, he simply assumes the book’s antiquity in order to treat it as an actual (hi)story, one that, in Baroque fashion, is untidy, non-linear, and complex. This makes theological ideas in the Book of Mormon anything but “doctrinally clear” and immaculate, and consequently their appearance in the history of ideas alone is trivial; we must uncover the stories, connections, and interpretations behind the ideas as they manifest and re-manifest themselves in various epochs. Spencer’s work, therefore, is to reveal the interwoven complexity of theological teachings in the book–prophets in the Book of Mormon were aware of each others’ teachings and therefore interpreted each other in specific ways. In other words, they read one another. The end result is to show how the Book of Mormon itself suggests that it be read typologically–the theologies of the prophets consist in elaborations of new ways of reading those who have come before: Alma read Nephi in particular ways, virtually everyone from Nephi to Abinadi to Christ himself (with varying interpretations) read Isaiah, etc. Typological reading is essentially a hermeneutics of reading/writing; unpredictable but highly influential events–experiences with the divine that in essence radically alter one’s worldview–can change how memory about the past is structured in order to allow for new and redemptive ways of seeing the past. In other words, the Book of Mormon makes two major, mutually reinforcing moves: 1) it suggests both how we might conceive of and reorder the past itself around a particular mechanism or event–in this case the Israelite covenant–and 2) it shows how this might be done by suggesting throughout the book how the Book of Mormon itself is an instance or “how-to” of this grand project of restructuring memory in such a way that new ways of seeing past events become possible.

So much for a brief specific elaboration of Spencer’s project. What makes this project potentially a Game-changer is the method that is deployed and out of which the book was generated in the first place. Spencer is a co-founder of and an active participant in the Mormon Theology Seminar. The Seminar is itself a revolutionary project in scriptural exploration/scholarship. Consisting of online “seminars” staffed by a small number of participants (each group will be a mix of the core founders of the MTS and various other participants–a group that in theory is meant to be as diverse as possible), a relatively short passage of scripture is chosen (often just one chapter) and smaller chunks of it are divided up among the participants for analysis and presentation, followed by extensive group discussion. A symposium consisting of many or all the participants expanding and refining their comments in the form of academic papers often concludes each seminar.

The seminar has been compared to a similar method employed by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan but I would suggest that its methodology (and the methodology of Spencer’s book) has more in common with Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Here, Ranciere tells the story of Joseph Jacotot,  a French professor in the early 19th century who discovered, quite by accident, that he could teach that which he did not have explicit, detailed knowledge of. Jacotot wagered that all people have equal intelligence; many of them simply do not have the will to exercise it, and in fact we are all teachers–there is much that we have taught ourselves, and perhaps our most important skills and truths were self-taught. Ranciere shows how anyone can be taught anything through an “emancipatory method” of teaching. All that is needed is an emancipated teacher, one who has recognized that he or she has stultified her students by demanding that they conform to her knowledge, to a received and uniform way of pursuing truth. Instead, the emancipated teacher ceases using her own intelligence as an obstacle to the student expressing and exercising her intelligence and how works only to ensure that the student does not become distracted from creatively imagining new possibilities, engaging and struggling with texts and concepts. There is no inherent, pre-given, solitary meaning within the life of an idea, within the world of a text. The emancipated master simply keeps the student on track in bringing the student’s intelligent gifts to bear on the task or text before her. The emancipated student learns that it is what she brings to a text with her own intelligence that decides the truth(s) of a text.

Spencer’s book–intimately similar in its methods though not simply identical to the work of the Mormon Theology Seminar–establishes a corresponding method to Ranciere’s–a hermeneutic methodology that anyone with a serious interest in the text can adopt in order to unveil untold theological and literary possibilities. As such, his book–not un-coincidentally like the Book of Mormon itself–is both a manual on how this might be done as well as a case example of the kind of work that can be produced when the manual is followed. The book has the potential to be a work as groundbreaking as Nibley’s because its methodology is radically egalitarian and therefore theoretically universally accessible–there’s no need to have a degree in a field in ancient studies, to be able to read Hebrew or Greek or see signs of Mesoamerica or the Middle East in the text in order to bring something to the text from the outside. Instead, careful, meticulous attention to the text can reveal internal theological possibilities that are not directly on the order of historical, linguistic, or even purely exegetical products. As Adam Miller said in a recent Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference, the truth of the Book of Mormon that is most relevant is a truth that is not a pre-packaged given. We must do the work of making the Book of Mormon true. As such, Spencer’s book is a book that is explicitly concerned with the question of truth, and how truth is actually produced (the real work of agents), instead of simply recognized. The meanings and intricate connections he pulls out of the Book of Mormon are decidedly there; but they are his, for he has, in crucial sense, made them and given birth to them.

This is a definitely different method from the one Nibley first advocated, and yet it doesn’t replace Nibley and his progeny. In fact, it stands on the shoulders of Nibley and those who have come before, those who first took the Book of Mormon seriously, and it would be unnecessary to conclude that the “historical approach” is now simply irrelevant. On the contrary, it is thanks to all the work on the Book of Mormon that has already been done that a book like this was allowed to think in precisely this fashion. In a very real sense there is only a Joseph Spencer and the Mormon Theology Seminar because there was a Hugh Nibley.

But make no mistake. My adventurous and maybe reckless prediction (only time will tell) is that this particular earthquake (whose initial effects may be only a distant rumbling for some time) is the future of Mormon scriptural scholarship. The traditional way of approaching the Book of Mormon through the path of exteriority has had a crucial place in Mormon textual studies, but Spencer’s book of interiority reveals a path with the potential for untold numbers of both Mormons and non-Mormons to access Mormon scripture in such a way that does not require them to haggle over its origins but to be able to find real truths in its pages, because anyone, through this method of radical equality, can derive meaning and uncover the heretofore unseen. In the Preface to An Approach to the Book of Mormon Nibley in fact remarked that the Book of Mormon, among other things, is unique because it is the only major world scripture that has come down to us entirely in English, with no original to compare it to. As Spencer has further shown, it is also likely the only sacred writing that suggests so exhaustively how its readers might read it, and therefore the only scripture that is so intensely and uncompromisingly reader-focused. The Book of Mormon was written and compiled more conscientiously with readers in mind than perhaps any other work of scripture.  It practically demands a radical egalitarian methodology such as Spencer’s in order to bring as many serious readers to the book as possible and therefore make it a work of untold truths and possibilities, as any sacred text should be.


[1] I should note that Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon is both a precursor to Spencer’s volume and an important companion to it. In fact, it should quite productively be read in conjunction with Spencer’s book.


  1. Awesome. A great review of a great book, and a great prediction from a great scholar.

    2012 has been a phenomenal year in Mormon philosophy and theology.

  2. This is a book that is on my list to read. I love the premise and interpretive approach.

  3. Thanks, I’m about to finish Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon and I’m looking forward to something that works well with it as a foundation.

  4. Perfect, opened up in ibooks cleanly. Huzzah!

  5. justapunkkid says:

    I haven’t finished Spencer’s book yet, but I love his commentary on Nephi and Abinadi’s of Isaiah. He is one of the few people I know who can just admit ‘yeah, you know when you read Mosiah 15? It really says what you think it says about God. You’re really not stupid, it is plain English.’ And that was enough to get me hooked.

    But I do think there needs to be some thanks to Grant Hardy’s work. Hardy was the first guy I saw that said ‘hey, let’s read the Book of Mormon like a book.’ Curious, was Hardy the first to try this? Or were there others as well?

    But yes, amen to the review, love Spencer and Hardy’s work because it gets me excited to explore the text of the actual Book of Mormon again.

  6. I think this is certainly a close reading with fresh theological insight. Whether the book and approach can do all the work that they apparently have cut out for them, I am not so certain.

    The argument seems to me to go like this. The Book of Mormon ought to be read the way Nephi reads Isaiah because Christ said so. Or at least the text says so. Or at least it seems to say so implicitly.

    But why should anyone besides a certain kind of believer in the Book of Mormon read it the way Spencer says Christ says Nephi [but not Joseph Smith] says we should (read Isaiah)?

    If the answer is, well, because that is the way the Book of Mormon itself teaches us to read it, then I think we are in trouble. A readerly approach that does not much take into account the presuppositions of the reader? Come now.

    Unless this is all an elaborate way of talking not about Isaiah and Nephi and Abinadi and Christ per se but of talking around how to do theology as a communal (covenant) approach to reading sacred texts. A higher approach supplemental to the individualistic project. I.e., solitary reading is insufficient, dangerous. The irony of this scenario, however, would be that it is not so much egalitarian as it is (self)privileging of those who, according to some, are the only ones who actually read, actually think. Because they do philosophy, and/or endorse those who do.

    I’m pretty sure that I have seen and done enough claim staking already in life to understand that it’s human nature. Let’s not pretend it’s something it ain’t. Theology is important. Philosophy is important. There are also so many other corners on the market that everybody has one.

    Such is my crotchety peace anyway.

  7. Jacob, great synopsis of both books and authors. Interestingly, we just began a book club at M* to discuss Nibley’s Approach to the BoM, and Joe Spencer has been gracious enough to offer some insights into it.

    I agree that Joe’s book is a seismic step forward for LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon. Many previous attempts seem so awkward, compared to this volume. While it stands on the shoulders of previous attempts to understand the BoM, it clearly draws a line in the sand on where we really need to go next on our understanding of the BoM.

    And if you haven’t read it, it needs to be the next book on your list to read.

  8. Great thoughts, Jacob.

    “if it is given its due, once again change the landscape of investigations into Mormon scripture…”

    Agreed. Joe’s book is great. Like you describe so well in this post, both books–like Nibley’s–are invitations into ways of reading the text. Hardy’s going to be more accessible to most readers, I think, but Spencer’s approach is similar in its attention to structure, authorial voices, etc. On the other hand, I like how Joe leverages the BoM itself as containing suggestions about how to read it (despite g.wesley’s skepticism!) and how to read scripture in general. Your point about exteriority/interiority is dead on, IMO, although Brant Gardner seems to reside somewhere between Nibley and Spencer in that regard, moving back and forth. (Everyone should read Gardner’s paper on Mormon as editor!)

    Jacob’s point about the methodology being radically egalitarian seems right in theory, but in practice I think it requires a pretty significant shift in some of the common (somewhat fundamentalist) assumptions we LDS bring to our canon. So I sympathize a bit with g. wesley’s comment.

    “both Mormons and non-Mormons to access Mormon scripture in such a way that does not require them to haggle over its origins”

    I agree that the method allows, even invites, this. But given some of the responses I saw to Hardy’s book (complaints that he assumed historicity even while demanding that it could be a fictional history) make me wonder how many people will get through that angel and gold plates story into the text itself. I think history-minded folks are going to be more interested in arguing that the BoM shows signs of anti-Masonry, or 19th-century revivalism, or American views on race, etc. than they will be in digging up theological suggestions from the text. But I’d love to be proven wrong. (I think Joe himself has mentioned this exact anxiety, though I don’t recall exactly where. His question is whether people in the academy could ever take the BoM seriously in the way that his and Hardy’s book request.)

  9. Thanks for the responses everyone. I want to get to g. Wesley’s and Blair’s comments in particular, but I’ve been swamped with end of semester grading and desiderata. I hope those that are still interested will bear with me (and feel free to chime in yourself Joe!) I will preliminarily say that Joe will likely be addressing similar concerns at the panel on his book at the upcoming SMPT conference in September at Utah State.

  10. The impression I get after reading this is that studies of the Book of Mormon as historical text have fundamentally collapsed. We’re left with a kind of magic book which reveals itself to readers through textual naval-gazing. This dovetails with the breathtaking demise of FARMS, and, previous, Elder Nelson’s assertion that “it [BoM] is not a novel or a history book. It is another testament of Jesus Christ” (Be Thou An Example Of The Believers, Gen Conf. Oct 2010). The elephant in the room is that Hugh Nibley himself convinced very few besides the already converted that BoM civilizations actually existed anywhere, New World or Old. Spencer will convince even fewer, but that seems oddly beside the point anymore. What am I missing here?

  11. Well, a couple responses from me, for what they’re worth:

    First, to Jacob’s original post: Many thanks. This gesture means a lot. I’ll say just that I entirely agree with your analysis of what I’m trying to accomplish, in particular the claim that (1) I’m trying to emphasize interiority over exteriority and that (2) that emphasis has implications about the universality or universalizability of the Book of Mormon. Had I begun this book a couple of years later (it was in a all-but-finally-edited form by 2010), I think I would have made these points explicitly. You can guess they’ll be central to my next project (or my next project after that, maybe).

    Just a word in response to justapunkkid: Yes, people have been saying that we should just read the Book of Mormon like a book for a good while, though I want to be clear that that’s not exactly what I’m doing—at least if “like a book” means what it sounds like it might mean. I don’t mean in any way to downplay the bindingness of the Book of Mormon as scripture. I affirm it, explicitly, in my book, and every one of my questions derives from that bindingness. But if “like a book” means that we take the care of actually reading it, then I’m with you all the way.

    Now, a bit more carefully to g. wesley: Thanks for your “crotchety peace” (I’ll take what I assume is a typo as a deliciously ironic gesture!). It means a lot to have my work taken so seriously! That said, I’m not entirely sure I’ve followed your critique. If I understand correctly, you’re arguing something like this: Spencer’s book either (1) fails to recognize the impossibility of providing an “interior” account of the Book of Mormon since everyone who might give an account of the book is always “exterior” to it—in which case it fails to accomplish what Jacob says here it aims to accomplish—or (2) serves as a thinly veiled apology for philosophical and/or theological approaches to the Book of Mormon that talks about more than actually models things universal—in which case it again fails to accomplish what Jacob says here it aims to accomplish. Is that right? If so, my responses are as follows. The first point seems to demand of the book either (a) an explicit recognition that the interior is a kind of Kantian regulative ideal—something ultimately impossible to achieve, but something nonetheless to be taken as a guiding regulation to keep us from never actually being interrupted by the text—or (b) a nice postmodern anamorphic twist that reveals the transformation of the Book of Mormon’s interiority by the book’s attempt to address it. But neither of these demands has much purchase for me. I work from rather different epistemological presuppositions than this—though I didn’t see it necessary to address them in a book that was meant to be as accessible as possible. The second point is more poignant, I think, but I wonder if it doesn’t miss Jacob’s point. I don’t think Jacob meant so much to say that my book perfectly models universalism than that it, despite the philosopher’s self-arrogating position of mastery that tempts me as an author to make every paragraph into a rallying cry to the theologically inclined, nonetheless is fruitfully read as modeling universalism. Such would be my too-quick responses, but I offer them mostly in order to goad you into saying more about your critique.

    Okay, more quickly in response to BHodges: I don’t contest the claim that my book is less accessible than Hardy’s, but I think my approach—namely, the theological—is more accessible than Hardy’s—namely, the literary. It’ll take me work to learn how to write more accessibly (how not to be obsessed with the questions that philosophers uniquely bother about, etc.), but I really do think theology speaks profoundly to people. There’s a reason that Bruce R. McConkie’s work has been so widely influential. It’s not easy stuff, but it shaped Mormon discourse for decades, and I think that’s because it’s theological. (And I may have said that people have a hard time getting past angels and plates, though I doubt. I tend to contest that claim….)

    Finally, a word or two to pd: I think this very much depends on what you mean when you say “as historical text.” My book presupposes the historicity of the text. I draw on historical sources and ancient studies where it helps me to make better sense of the text. I don’t at all regard the Book of Mormon as a “magic book which reveals itself to readers through textual naval-gazing.” My book is about the concrete and the down to earth, beginning from a close study of the phenomenon of conversion in the Book of Mormon and culminating in propositions about what it means actually to pick up scripture and grapple with it. Will my book convince anyone that “BoM civilizations actually existed anywhere, New World or Old”? I haven’t the slightest idea. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if it did do some such convincing (my book has been described as a kind of apologetics already). But I’m not bothered, either, if it doesn’t do any such convincing, since I’ve never understood the task of the Book of Mormon to be to convince people about ancient history. I myself am convinced about that ancient history, but I see the much more important purpose of the Book of Mormon to be one of engendering conversion, of restoring a clear understanding of the covenant and bringing people to Christ. I haven’t any idea whether my book will help to accomplish that sort of thing either, but that’s what it’s meant to do.

  12. pd, just to add a little personal input about what Joe just said:

    My biggest complaint for decades has been that I believe most members don’t really understand what the Book of Mormon actually says, particularly implicitly, about the civilizations it describes. I also choose to believe it is describing a real people, but I don’t take it as primarily a factual, unbiased, objective history – largely because I don’t believe it claims to be that type of record.

    As I read the Book of Mormon for the first time at a very early age, it struck me that what I was taking from quite a few places in the book was different (in some cases, radically different) than what I was hearing about it in Primary and from talks in church. That impression only grew stronger as I moved into Young Mens lessons and then Gospel Doctrine classes. I came to realize how badly I believed many members understood it – how much their reading of it was influenced by incorrect assumptions of our ancestors.

    There are lots of examples I could use to illustrate what I mean, but I will touch on only three for the purpose of this thread:

    1) I have believed in the limited geography model for a long time – before I ever heard that term used. It is the only explanation that made sense to me as I considered the actual geographic descriptions in the book. The common belief in a hemispheric model just didn’t make sense, even if Joseph believed and taught it.

    2) I have believed ever since I read it the first time that the Lamanites intermingled with and came to rule a different, indigenous people – just like the case of the Nephites and the people of Mulek. That is the only explanation that made sense to me, given the actual population claims in the book itself – and it explains perfectly the passages that talk of skin color differences, which are perfectly natural for that time in history and the background of the “learning of the Jews”. Iow, if those passages are interpreted in light of the culture and time in which they are set, they are totally understandable and don’t need to be taken as “eternal truth”. That change in reading alone would solve an otherwise thorny issue.

    3) The Book of Ether narrates the activities of ONLY those people who remained in and near the central seat of power – the capital of the central political power. It says nothing about those people who surely would have left that location and expanded the reach of the descendants of the original Jaredites. If, as I believe, there were potentially millions of those descendants scattered widely throughout the “Promised Land” over the course of the thousands of years summarized in the Book of Ether, and if the Lamanites intermingled with a large group of those descendants, many of the DNA issues created by the hemispheric model effectively disappear – especially if the Jaredites were of Asian origin, as Nibley believed. If this is the case, the original “primary ancestors” claim that was altered recently actually might have been correct – albeit with regard to a different people than previously assumed.

    Fundamentally, I want the Book of Mormon analyzed for what it actually says, and what it implies, not for what prior people assumed it says. I think studies that approach it in this manner are needed badly in the Church; thus, I want to read Joe’s work.

  13. Quickmere Graham says:

    pd asks “What am I missing here?”

    I’d say you’re missing the ability not to come across as a willfully ignorant stooge. Stay read-y, my friend!

  14. Sounds like a threat, Quickmere. Not cool.

  15. Quickmere Graham says:

    No threat intended, pd. (Not that a threat to an anonymous commenter would carry any weight.)

    Read-y is pronounced “reed-y”, as in, keep reading.

  16. Typing from an iPad so I doubt I’ll get everything in that I’d like to say.

    First, I maybe didn’t make a clear distinction between Spencer’s method and his actual conclusions. In theological readings the line between objectivity and subjectivity is blurry, though it needn’t (and shouldn’t) disappear all together. That is, we’re not looking for evidence; at least not a scientific or even literary kind of evidence. The goal of theological readings–which prioritize interiority–is to allow the reader to shape the meanings of the text, so in fact a presuppositionless reading is not possible or desirable. There is still accountability, rigorous questioning, demonstration of the merits of one’s reading–but we’re not directly looking for linguistic, historical, or literary evidence. These may lend support to a theological reading but theological readings make use of one’s own intelligence in order to create and structure the text in myriad ways. As Ranciere says, there are no words behind the text, no single meaning derived. Texts (and scriptural texts in particular) are meaning-making machines. They are always already dead; we give them life or consign them to the grave. The Book of Mormon, on Spencer’s reading, seems to be quite aware of this and asks the reader to bring herself fully to the text in order to see what might be done with it. Spencer sees a line that connects several Book of Mormon voices to one another through their readings of each other and their readings of Isaiah. This is what his theological reading produced. But others’ theological readings may disagree with him or not be concerned with how the Book of Mormon suggests itself be read at all (Witness Salt Press’s other projects, which engage this methodology but do not concern themselves with his conclusions in his book and decidedly bring many people to the text in their seminars that have no knowledge of formal theology or philosophy at all). But because his reading is one of theological interiority and not historical exteriority there is no external objective standard of measurement with which to measure whether his is “right” or not. There is only others’ willingness to read the text, read his book, see if they see the same connections, test them, decide whether they speak or not, and if they don’t, provide one’s own alternative theological reading. Thus theological readings are universal because they precisely do not wish only philosophers and theologians to engage them; theological readings are for any serious reader of a text, no matter her education or background, and this because they only ask for intelligent speaking beings to give them life. But this is also how so many people read the Bible. Even Christians ignorant of its origins, the evidence that supports its provenance, etc, read the Bible theologically in precisely this way. Yes, Joseph Smith’s authorship, angels, gold plates, etc are obstacles for people that don’t wish to treat the Book of Mormon as a scriptural text, but Spencer’s challenge is to simply read the book as he does anyway and see what you get out of it. Ranciere addressed similar concerns about his emancipatory method of teaching and learning, whereby anyone could be taught anything. He simply showed how Jacotot demonstrably did just that. In the end scripture is scripture only to believers, I suppose; non-Christian historians don’t see sacred texts as sacred, no matter how much archeological evidence for provenance is brought to bear. And non Mormons may not see the point of deriving any kind of meaning out of the Book of Mormon. But that does not mean that they couldn’t do it.

    Spencer derives actual conclusions out of his method but these conclusions are not, I think, stultifying.

  17. #5: “Hardy was the first guy I saw that said ‘hey, let’s read the Book of Mormon like a book.’”

    Arthur Henry King was the first person I heard say something like that (in the 70s), though he didn’t use American vernacular to say it.

  18. Hi Joseph,

    Typos and transpositions are my specialty, though ‘a’ and ‘i’ are pretty far apart on the keyboard.

    I guess if you, the thinking master, want to goad me, the subrational beast, into saying more, I’ll have to obey. At least until I choose a better life (i.e. of the philosopher) the next time around on the wheel of reincarnation. Then maybe I can be a master too!

    Since I don’t do philosophy in this incarnation anyway, I don’t really have anything to say about Kant or epistemology as a category.

    But let me try to rephrase and say more in terms of my critique.

    About the work that the book and approach have cut out for them: the invention/future of Mormon theology, Mormon studies, any and all serious reading of Mormon scripture (including the Bible it would seem), and maybe the future of the Maxwell Institute and apologetics (of the non-armchair variety) too. That would be a tall order for a first book from a young scholar, even a prodigy. Since the book has been compared to Nibley’s and Hardy’s, it ought to be mentioned that in the case of both these scholars, the PhD was twenty years behind them when they wrote their books. And speaking of the way the Hardy comparison is phrased in this post (relegated to a footnote), am I importing too much when I take “precursor” in the sense of forerunner leading to the actual event, the tremor heralding the BIG QUAKE? Hardy’s is just an alright book that can now “quite productively be read”? In sum, it’s not that I don’t think it possible for a young scholar to revolutionize. In my opinion, however, quieter revolutions are more becoming, especially of young scholars.

    About the argument of the book. It seems to me that there are a couple of larger things happening. First, there’s a re/construction of two historical systems within Book of Mormon history. These different systems led to historical dispute among historical Book of Mormon peoples, which Christ historically reconciled. I know that you don’t want to be doing history, dealing with the issue of historicity and such, which is so passé. But I have a hard time reading this part of the argument un/non-historically. Especially when you bring in historically grounded biblical scholarship by von Rad, Levenson, etc., to talk about historically situated texts like the Bible and historically situated material culture like the Jerusalem temple and historically situated belief and practice like that tied to the Jerusalem temple; when you talk about Lehi and company having 2 Isaiah not simply Isaiah; when you suggest Nephi was written in connection with the built Nephite temple; when you speculate that Nephi alludes to the Book of the Dead (what does speculate mean here? Not doing theology, I think. Theology is more than welcome to be different from history, but I don’t think it is a license to do fast and loose history and call it theology).

    Second, and based on this first part of the argument that I consider to be rather historical even though it involves re/constructing theological systems of the past, there’s a theological argument about how we ought to read the Book of Mormon (and scripture in general). It seems to me to go thus. We can read as Abinadi did, but more importantly we need to read as Nephi did. The rationale appears to be: Christ said so. Whereas the first part of the argument seems to me to deal in the main with the historical development of theological systems in the Book of Mormon, this part of the argument looks more properly theological to me. But the theological part of the argument depends on the rather historical part. And I don’t think either part is something that everybody, whether Mormon or not, could accept as their m.o.

    Enter the sandbox of skeptical criticism. What about the priority of Mosiah, which you mention in passing? For the first part of the argument to work (and the second part too, depending on how important you think history is to theology), it must be assumed that the portions of the Book of Mormon that were written/dictated last were in fact written/dictated first. Otherwise, Christ not issuing a return to Nephi; Nephi is continuing what Christ started. Again, I know that you had done with such misguided approaches of previous scholarship in your Prolegomena. But I find it a little too convenient when the new approach by definition excludes approaches and evidence that would challenge the argument, the first part of which reads as fairly historical. If modestly called a different explanation following a different approach among many, the argument about Christ resolving dispute over baptism, etc., approached as a dispute within the history of the development of various Book of Mormon theologies, would be an interesting alternative to an ‘exterior’ explanation that might approach Christ and other Book of Mormon figures as resolving 19th century dispute over baptism, etc. I don’t know that it is as compelling. Or again, something that that everybody, whether Mormon or not, could accept as their m.o. But it is definitely an interesting alternative.

    To discount skeptical criticism and the priority of Mosiah might not be as eye-catching, if the climax of the first part of the argument did not amount to what Christ implicitly says about Nephi and Abinadi, whom, as you state, he never mentions. (Is this why you put ‘return to Nephi’ in [scare]quotes?) This is perhaps the most crucial point where the assumptions of the reader come in, yours and the readers you want to convince. It is only when we bring several chapters of re/construction to what is implicit in 3 Nephi that the Book of Mormon teaches us how it wants to be read.
    Lastly, picking up ‘exterior’ versus ‘interior.’ On page 71:

    “One might object that 1 Nephi 10:7–8 seems more directly to draw from the New Testament, from a passage that in turn draws on Isaiah 40:3. But such an approach would have to take 1 Nephi 10 to be drawing on both the synoptic tradition (that is, on Matthew, Mark, and/or Luke) and the Johannine tradition (that is, on John).”

    If you are saying that the Book of Mormon cannot be drawing on all four gospels as a rule, I’d be interested to hear you explain why? If not please ignore.

    Further down:

    “This interweaving of distinct sources into a single ‘quotation’ is complex enough to problematize any direct tracing to the New Testament sources.”

    Because it’s problematic (using a cut and paste model) does not mean it should not be attempted, does it? Why is it acceptable to identify Isaiah as a source and look at how that source is used in the Book of Mormon but not New Testament sources? Could it be that Isaiah is less anachronistic to the setting of the Book of Mormon? Even if the Johannine material in Nephi’s quotation of Lehi here is not obviously referring to the existence of the Gospel of John, there is at least one overt reference to New Testament sources even in the small plates, namely Revelation. And there are lots of other clear allusions to New Testament material, concepts, doctrines throughout, such as why Jesus’ was baptized according to the Gospel of Matthew, also found in 2 Nephi 31. Clear allusions, I should say, to those foolish enough to engage in skeptical criticism.

    Then you conclude:

    “And even if the language of 1 Nephi 10:7–8 ultimately derives from New Testament texts, it cannot be doubted that the source behind Lehi’s words is ultimately Isaiah 40:3. However one approaches the problem of translation (or of anachronistic language), the fact that 1 Nephi 10:8 draws on Isaiah 40:3 cannot be controverted—even if the reference to Isaiah passes through the linguistic medium of the New Testament idiom.”

    To admit anachronistic language opens the door wide to the exterior, does it not? Where there is language, we cannot simply assume that thought, culture and so is far away. (No, I don’t care to get wrapped up in a discussion of who said what about the priority of language or thought, much less a definition of culture vis-à-vis language.) With anachronistic language comes, in my opinion, the whole nine yards, the anachronism of 2 Isaiah, the gospels and other New Testament sources, and of the 19th century in general. I’m not sure why you bring this up if you can’t be bothered about the question of historicity, not stopping to play in the self-congratulatory sandboxes of skeptical criticism or armchair apologetics.

    I’ll stop there, and if I can help it, for good, having said my peace/piece and more.

  19. Before the format alteration to add chapters and verses, the Book of Mormon literally had to be read “like a book” – and that’s how the early missionaries used it. (“Here is the Book of Mormon. Read it cover to cover. Remember the mercy of the Lord throughout time, and believe He will be merciful to you, as well.”) It wasn’t more complicated than that, at the heart of it all. It wasn’t the doctrinal proof-text it has become; it was a record containing a series of books that testified of Christ and spoke from the dust.

    Ime, that still is how it is the most powerful – as a book that speaks to people across time, not as a bunch of sound bites that prove doctrinal claims. As others have said, reading it “as a book” allows it to speak for itself with an overall narrative and lots of possible implicit lessons. Not reading it as a book, and not trying to understand the said and the implied, does damage to that narrative, imo.

    I don’t care much about universal agreement when it comes to “what the Book of Mormon teaches”. I care far more about what it says to each reader who reads it in its entirety – and that it has said different things to me at various points in my life as I have read it repeatedly. Focusing exclusively on specific verses and passages that are seen as significant and important, or reading it only to read it without the mindset of learning something new from each reading and trying to understand what it is saying as a narrative, destroys that on-going, evolving voice – and I am concerned that this has happened and is happening too frequently, especially for me when I fall into rote reading just to read or doctrinal proof-texting.

  20. g. wesley,

    First, let me apologize if I’ve seemed to imply anything either about myself being a “thinking master” or about you being a “subrational beast.” My aside about “the philosopher’s self-arrogating position of mastery that tempts me as an author to make every paragraph into a rallying cry to the theologically inclined” was meant to be a point of self-ridicule, about how overseriously philosophers take themselves.

    Second, let me apologize for how badly I misread you. I puzzled for a good while over what you might be trying to say with your criticism. I took it to be philosophical, when it was methodological. So I’m only now really responding to you. My apologies for that.

    Okay, now on to responses….

    I think you’ve misunderstood my relationship to history. I don’t at all mean to say that historical affairs are passé, nor have I suggested that all Book of Mormon scholarship before my own is misguided! I divide each “half” of my book between exegesis and hermeneutics precisely because I think the best theological work is done in light of historical work. I’m emphatic that I don’t care to defend the Book of Mormon’s historicity—I’d rather assume it—but I don’t for that reason desire at all to say that history is immaterial. Indeed, I desperately want to see more (and more!) good historical work done on the Book of Mormon—though I’ll confess that I’d like to see it done for its own sake, for the sake of understanding the book, and not for the sake of defending historicity.

    So, yes, my theological reflections are rooted in historical reconstructions. Explicitly, in fact. From the same page where I supposedly dismiss Nibley and Hardy (the first page of the preface): “What the Book of Mormon has to say may be missed if readers are not attentive to the fact that the ideas it presents are woven into a real—and therefore anything but tidy—history.” The best theological reflection on scripture is, in my view, enmeshed in the historical. (Thinking BIblically, by Paul Ricoeur and Andre LaCocque, models this relationship perfectly.)

    Jacob’s claim, I take it, is that my book nonetheless gestures in the direction of a historyless theological engagement with the book. I think it’s an intriguing claim, and I think there’s something very right about it—when it comes to the Book of Mormon (that sort of approach is probably out of the question when it comes to the Bible or the Doctrine and Covenants). How right? I don’t know, and I’ll be thinking about it for a while. In the meanwhile, I’m intrigued—and flattered—to be compared with Ranciere, and so I’m pretty quick to agree with Jacob’s argument, though I think there’s a good deal of nuance that needs to be introduced into it, given the historical rootedness of my own theological speculations.

    So do I then fail to note my presuppositions and my readers’ presuppositions—as, for instance, with the Mosian priority business? I don’t think so. Mosian priority says something only about the order in which the various parts of the book were written, not about the structure of the (hi)story the book in its final form presents. One could adopt the rival-theologies reading and Mosian priority by suggesting that Joseph began to feel a tension between the theology he had outlined in Mosiah and the theology he was working up for Third Nephi, and so he had Jesus talk about contentions concerning the doctrine—and then he went and added Jesus’ version in the subsequently-written small plates. In short, I don’t think what I’ve traced in the Book of Mormon proves anything about its historicity, so I don’t see why it rides on unacknowledged presuppositions shared by author and reader.

    And then a note on 1 Nephi 10:7-8: I lay such a heavy emphasis on the OT rather than the NT source simply because I’m trying to trace the role of Isaiah in Nephi’s records. The weaving together of several NT sources (rather than the direct quotation of a single, identifiable NT source) suggests to me that even if Joseph’s putting the story together out of his own brain, he’s pointing us to Isaiah rather than to the NT (though, clearly, Isaiah rerouted through the NT renderings). That’s what I’m after: what does this text mean for us to hear as its source. My conclusion is: Isaiah (though perhaps rerouted through the NT). So, do I think the Book of Mormon draws on the NT? Of course! It couldn’t be much more obvious that it does. What that implies about historicity is, of course, another story (and one can point to Brant Gardner’s recent book if one needs an apologetic explanation), a story that doesn’t much interest me.

  21. G. Wesley,


  22. g.wesley says:

    All a big misunderstanding then. Please excuse my lunacy. And sorry to disappoint that I wasn’t being philosophical.

    For the record, I was willfully conflating this post, the book, including foreword (whence the sandboxes, for any who may miss the reference), the Prolegomena, and assorted ads and promos all together. So what I say about the Nibley and Hardy comparisons refers to the post, not any dismissal of them in the book. Also, I was linking your ‘goad’ with the ‘master’ of the post, not your ‘mastery’ in the comment. Thanks.

  23. Did the full Bertrand Russell/Michael Coe soul cleanse after this – but WOW, what a fabulous food-fight! Save&Print.

  24. Quickmere Graham says:

    Save&Print? Was that a threat?

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