Alma the Younger on the Road to Damascus: How the Book of Mormon Reads and Re-reads the Bible #BOM2016

Mosiah 27/Alma 36

conversion-of-st-paulThe Bible is full of type scenes that give a sense of narrative unity to its very diverse collection of texts. Type scenes can connect two characters within a single book, as the two “woman at the well” betrothal scenes in Genesis do. But they work their connective magic when they work across texts–and especially when they occur between the Old and New Testaments–consider the “King-Orders-the-Deaths-of-All-Male-Babies” scenes that begin both Exodus and Matthew. Such parallel scenes give a powerful boost to the argument that the Old and New Testaments testify of the same things.

Given the role that the Book of Mormon claims for itself as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” we should not be surprised to find type scenes that connect its narrative to the other two Testaments. Indeed, we should be surprised, and a bit concerned, not to find them; fortunately, they are all over the place. We have already talked about the Tree of Life, Father’s Blessing, and Olive Tree type scenes that connect the parts of the BOM to parts of the Bible–but these actually take some work to understand.  We find a much more obvious example of the type scene in the conversion narratives of Saul (Acts 19 in the Bible) and Alma the Younger (Mosiah 27 in the Book of Mormon).

Both scenes are familiar enough that I don’t need to paraphrase them here. Instead, I will briefly gloss the narrative elements that establish their structural similarity.

Saul (Acts 9) Alma the Younger (Mosiah 27)
Saul is well known for “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” (9:1) Alma TY and his companions  “became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people.” (27: 9)
He and his companions were stopped on their way to persecute Christians, “and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven.” (9:3) While they were persecuting the members of the Church, Alma and his companions (the Sons of Mosiah) saw an angel, who “descended as it were in a cloud.” (27:11)
“He fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (9:4) The angel spoke to Alma and said, “arise and stand forth, for why persecutest thou the church of God?” (27: 13)
He is stricken with a physical disability and becomes unable to eat: “And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.” (9: 9) He is stricken with a physical disability and becomes physically weak:  “the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father..” (27: 19)
His blindness is healed, and he becomes able to eat, when he is converted to Christianity by Ananias. (9: 18-19) His muteness is healed, and his body is strengthened, when he repents and is converted. (27:23)
Years later, he retells the story as a first-person narrative that is also included in the text. (Acts 22) Years later, he retells the story as a first-person narrative that is also included in the text. (Alma 36)

These elements are not identical—there is certainly a difference between the angel that Alma sees and the resurrected Christ that Paul sees. But they are too structurally similar enough to be the result of mere coincidence. Whatever the intentions of Alma (in telling) or Mormon (in redacting) this story, its appearance in a text published in 1830, in a Bible-saturated culture, must be read as a connection that somebody intended.

As with most stories that are mainly similar, however, it is the differences that really matter. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need them both. And there are some key structural differences between Paul’s and Alma’s conversion that we need to explore further to understand how the Book of Mormon adds value to the Bible.

Major Difference Saul Alma the Younger
Saul and Alma the Younger occupy completely inverted positions within their cultures. Saul is an elite member of his culture’s established church persecuting an offshoot that he believes to be heretical. Alma the Younger, the son of the head of his culture’s established church, has become a leader in an offshoot that his father believes to be heretical.
The text defines “persecution” very differently Saul’s persecution is physical. He acknowledges beating men and women in the synagogue and even persecuting them “unto death” (22: 4). Alma’s persecution is rhetorical. He confesses to “murdering” people, but then defines that as “led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14). His form of persecution was convincing people not to believe in Christ.
The kind of conversion is different in both stories. Saul was a deeply religious person who (according to the text) believed in the wrong religion. He had to change his beliefs. Alma was a person raised in the true church who, out of wickedness, set about to destroy people’s faith. He had to change his behavior.
They are converted for different reasons. Saul is converted because the Lord needs him for a very specific purpose, as He tells Ananias: “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) Alma is converted because of the prayers of his father. The angel tells him specifically, “I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.” (Mosiah 27:14)

So, what do we get when we combine the stories together and ask the question, “how does the Book of Mormon narrative affect the way that we read the Bible?” I would argue that, in every case where the stories differ, the Book of Mormon deepens and expands our understanding of both the possibility of conversion and of the grace of God.

Taken together, the two narratives show us how God intervenes for very different reasons to change the lives of two different kinds of people who are guilty of different kinds of sins. Despite very different starting positions, however, Alma the Younger and Saul end up having almost exactly the same conversion experience with exactly the same results. The two narratives, in this case, encourage us to universalize the possibility of conversion–to remove the possibility of context-specific interpretations and understand that real, meaningful change is ALWAYS possible for us and for those we love.

Perhaps the most important similarity between Alma the Younger and Saul, though, is that neither of them deserve the blessings they get. They did nothing to merit the miraculous divine interventions that changed them in fundamental ways. They were surprised by grace for reasons that they could never have understood or expected. This, it turns out, is how it always works.

Comments

  1. Playing Moroni’s Advocate here: any commentary on the obvious concern the average rank-and-file Mormon will have when they’re presented with claims that the Book of Mormon authors weren’t just reporting history as they factually saw it?

  2. Start with . . . good stuff. This work in particular, and this kind of work in general, always brings me to a fresh read and new appreciation.
    However . . . I have thought the “surprised by grace” story to be one of the fundamental types of Christian thought, teaching, and scripture. And therefore, “the Book of Mormon adds value” and “the Book of Mormon deepens” reads (to me) as an unnecessary apologetic. Mostly I agree with the “adds” and “deepens”, but couldn’t I do the same thing if I started with the Book of Mormon and ask what does the story of Saul/Paul add to my understanding?
    For myself, I find it enough and plenty that the New Testament and the Book of Mormon both include these surprised by grace stories, as I expect of any Christ-oriented scripture.

  3. David: This is always a problem with typological readings. But Mormons (and lots of other Christians) have no problem believing that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was a type of God’s sacrifice of his only begotten son, or that Pharaoh’s ordering the death of male Hebrews was a type of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Anybody who believes that the “New Testament” is a continuation of the “Old Testament” has to acknowledge that, in some way, that real, historical events were also stage-managed by God to provide narrative connections in the scriptures. It should be no harder for anybody to accept this in comparing the BOM and the Bible than in comparing the Old Testament to the New Testament.

    Christian: I do agree that the “adding and deepening” only works in one direction (starting with the Bible and moving to the BOM), but that is the direction that I am primarily worried about here. The BOM also (I believe) adds to and deepens our appreciation of Isaiah, but Isaiah doesn’t really do much for our interpretation of 2 Nephi. This is not unusual, though. Typology almost always works best when comparing the later text to the earlier text, with the more recent text bearing the entire burden of the connection strategies. One is the text and one is the commentary on the text. And though this portion of the BOM is set earlier than the conversion of Saul, the English language, 1830 text is the only one that we have any access to, so it is the one I am considering the later text for the purposes of typological reading.

  4. I’m way out of my depth here, but it seems to me that a directional typology is likely predicated on a model of the later being written in response or reaction to or reflection on the earlier. But if the earlier and later are both independent examples of a common theme or ur-story or text (as I in fact picture the Paul/Saul and Alma the Younger stories) then directionality is not necessary or implied.

  5. That’s a good way to put it. I am assuming that the BOM specifically and intentionally comments on the Bible as it was understood in 1830. This is one of the unproven assumptions of my current project. This, of course, opens up the question of origins that I am trying to remain neutral on for the purposes of this analysis. So I will say that I believe that the Book of Mormon comments specifically on the Bible as it was understood in 1830 either because Joseph Smith was the author and was a reader of the Bible; or because God was the author of both books.

  6. Kevin Chambers says:

    current project? define, if it’s not secret.

  7. Villate says:

    Or maybe it’s just that there really aren’t that many different ways that things happen? If there’s a bad person (or person doing bad things) who is stopped by God and told to change his or her ways, then that person does actually stop and change his or her ways, there are only so many ways that can happen. Maybe the person is a religious leader or a rebel, maybe the messenger is an angel or God. But the plot is basically the same and so is the message the hearer/reader is supposed to get. The details may change, but you can’t get away from the basic outline. So you don’t have to say that Joseph just copied the story of Paul from the New Testament with a few extra details, though that is perfectly reasonable and even possible. However, I think it’s equally possible and reasonable to believe that both experiences actually occurred to two different, real people because really, there’s only so many ways this sort of thing could happen. Patterns tend to repeat in reality as well as in literature.

    Full disclosure: I think the Book of Mormon (especially) and New Testament both contain accounts of things that really happened or are based on things that happened, but that are carefully scripted and even manipulated to highlight certain lessons the narrators think God wants us to learn. I’m still wrestling with what’s the “eyewitness report” and what’s the scripting.

  8. Kevin: just the current set of #BOM2016 blog posts and whatever final form (article, book, words of the prophets written on the subway walls) the ideas take when I am all done.

    VIllate: Clearly it is a subjective judgment. You are certainly correct that similar things can happen to different people for non-related reasons.In this case, though, there are narrative and linguistic markers that don’t make sense to me unless we assume a connection, such as the fact that the divine visitor in each case begins with the exact same phrase, “why persecuteth thou _______.” Or the fact that both stories include similar incidents of physical punishment (muteness and blindness) in exactly the same part of the narrative. To me, at least, these elements show the influence of one text on the other in ways that are unlikely to be entirely random.

  9. Kevin Christensen says:

    Interesting analysis. I’ve found Robert Alter’s approach very productive and helpful myself. As a lens it does focus my attention in helpful ways. However, I also notice that many aspects of Alma’s experience that I find interesting and telling don’t show up here, which just means that every lens is also a filter. In particular, I’ve compared Alma’s account to NDE literature, a natural fit, I think, since Alma himself was “nigh unto death.” (See JBMS 2/1) I noted in passing language suggestive of the Egyptian Opening of the Mouth rite. Many years after I wrote my essay, I heard experience Howard Storm speak at the IANDS conference in Salt Lake City in 1999, and was struck not only by similarities in his report, but also the aftereffects, and the way he spoke in teaching his sons. And then Mark Wright, in Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 3 (2011) made comparisons to Mesoamerican accounts. “According to Their Language, unto Their Understanding”: The Cultural Context of Hierophanies and Theophanies in Latter-day Saint Canon.

  10. “either because Joseph Smith was the author and was a reader of the Bible; or because God was the author of both books” — If we can step aside from ‘what I believe’ and talk about reasonable or consistent possibilities (that work with this project?) I would add the loose or open translation possibility that an ancient text included a surprised by grace story and/but the form it takes rendered by JS in 19th century English is responsive to and derivative of the bible as understood in 1830.

  11. “I would add the loose or open translation possibility that an ancient text included a surprised by grace story and/but the form it takes rendered by JS in 19th century English is responsive to and derivative of the bible as understood in 1830.”

    Christian, I can buy this as a very reasonable possibility.

  12. FWIW, the reason I usually just elide the question of origins, or of pre-1829 BOM texts, is that there is simply no way for us to know anything about them. For both the Old and the New Testaments, we have some idea of the textual history, and some textual variants, that allow us to make at least informed guesses about what influenced what. With the BOM, however, the knowable textual history begins in 1829, with the manuscript that Joseph dictated to Oliver Cowdery. We have no gold plates, no text of Momon’s abridgment, none of the records that Mormon would have worked with–nada.

    So my approach is to take the text in its final, canonical form, noting the very few alterations that might have occurred between 1829 and 1830, and analyze that without trying to answer questions that are, from a scholarly perspective, unanswerable. The canonical version of the BOM was more or less set in 1830. It is in the English Language. And it shows unmistakable signs of being profoundly influenced by the King James Version of the Bible. All of this is provable, while none of the various theories about origins are even very supportable from anything that counts as evidence in the scholarly world.

  13. FWIW (:-)) your approach to the text is perfectly reasonable to me and (I think) opens the door to valuable useful work. I suspect that it will not be acceptable to some. But I’m more interested in the origin of the story in a theological (?right word?) sense, more than a textual historical sense. It is important to me, I want it to be important, that a surprised by grace story is in some sense a “true” story about God interacting with man. Not (or not just) a Joseph Smith commentary or wise man chronicle, not (or not just) a metaphor, but a story that tells me that I might also be so blessed *because it has really happened*, more than once, in more than one special circumstance.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    Hasn’t there been a fair bit of scholarly work on Paul’s conversion as a type scene? I know the typical scholarly view is that the narrative of Paul’s conversion has been embellished (hardly surprising – they think everything is embellished) Although they of course note that the account in Acts simply isn’t in any of the Pauline epistles. Various scholars have noted structural parallels between the Acts account and many other texts. And of course Luke makes use of extensive type scenes throughout his texts. (Some even note that there are two identical type scenes in Acts 9 – Paul’s conversion and Ananias’ conversion)

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Whoops, Ananias’ call not conversion. He was already a disciple and is called to administer to Paul.

  16. Christian’s comment about the story itself being there and then filtered through Joseph Smith’s pre-existing understanding says it better than I did. Assuming that there was an Alma the Younger (and I do assume/believe that), that’s what I think is likely.