Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars

“By taking seriously the canon, one confesses along with the church to the unique function that these writings have had in its life and faith as Sacred Scriptures. Then each new generation of interpreters seeks to be faithful in searching these Scriptures for renewed illumination. . . . Ultimately, to stand within the tradition of the church is a stance not made in the spirit of dogmatic restriction of the revelation of God, but in joyful wonder and even surprise as the Scripture becomes the bread of life for another generation.”–Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis

51r6ikgpiwl-_sx319_bo1204203200_Brevard Childs is not exactly a household name—not in most households at least. But in households that do a lot of biblical criticism, he stands a good chance of being considered the 20th century’s indispensable figure. His 1970 book Biblical Theology in Crisis was (and remains) a genuine paradigm-shifter. In the years since its publication, it has been agreed with and disagreed with, but it cannot be ignored. It changed the way that professional academics study the Bible.

Well, that’s not quite true. But he did change the way that professional academics frame one of the most important questions that they use when they study the Bible—the question of context. What kind of thing is the Bible? Where does it come from? Why is it here? What narrative assumptions should we use to study it?

The biblical context was the central question of the heated debates in seminaries of religion that raged during the first half of the 20th century. It was an all-out culture war between (and I use Childs’ terms here) “fundamentalists,” who believed that the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and historically unimpeachable; and the “liberals,” who saw the Bible as a series of allegories and examples to be used in confronting racism, poverty, and other social ills.

The uncertainty over context produced the “crisis” of the book’s title. He uses the word “crisis” in the non-hyperbolistic sense of “a situation where something has to change.” Childs saw the churches and the seminaries drifting further and further apart and the normal churchgoer not even recognizing the Bible of the biblical scholar. This was the situation that had to change. So he changed it.

Specifically, he made a revolutionary argument about context that very quickly became a critical commonplace: that the “final form” that the Bible has taken in the Christian canon is itself the context that should be used for interpreting it. However the Bible was pieced together, and whatever events during the Babylonian captivity its authors may have been responding to, the fact is that, for thousands of years, a version of the Bible has been a sacred and meaningful text for billions of people in Christian communities. This is the form of text that matters most because it is the one that the community responded to.

This view of the Bible—often called “canonical criticism,” though Childs himself did not use this term—  makes certain questions irrelevant (or at least unimportant) for as long as we employ it. It is not important, for example, that we tease out and mark the actual words of Jesus and distinguish them from things we think came from other sources. Or that we determine which of the letters of Paul were actually written by Paul. These are important composition questions for other critical lenses, but they are irrelevant to the final form in the canon.

The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.

And something like the set of critical assumptions that Childs defined, I think, is a very strong contender for the “How to Get Book of Mormon Scholars to Stop Bickering About Historicity and Study the Damn Text” award for the 21st century.

The Book of Mormon is a much stronger candidate for a final-form approach than the Bible ever was, since its primary historical context is unknowable from anything other than the text (which is not primarily about explaining a historical context). We can’t go back and study the shipping records of Zarahemla or look at the way that diacritic marks were used in Reformed Egyptian. We don’t have maps. We do not have access to any reliable information about the language, culture, geography, or history of the people portrayed in our sacred text.

We do have the context of its initial translation: 19th century, Jacksonian America. But it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community. No matter how hard we try, we cannot make an argument that the “secret combinations” of the BOM were part of the 19th century anti-Masonic movement without turning it into something other than the thing that made it an important religious text.

So, what does a final-form interpretation of the Book of Mormon look like? I’m still working on that, but, minimally, it seems to me that it would make, at least provisionally, the following interpretative assumptions at the outset. Let me be very clear here that I do not present these as the end of an interpretive process (i.e., “I have thoroughly and rigorously examined all of the evidence about the Book of Mormon and here are the conclusions I have come to”), but as the beginning of an interpretive process (i.e. “All interpretations start with certain assumptions that obscure some parts of the text and illuminate others–let’s start with these assumptions and see where they lead us). Here are a few such starting places:

  1. Interpretation of the Book of Mormon can never be completely divorced from its position as a devotional text for a community of believers, since it is that devotional context that makes it the sort of text that people want to interpret. However, interpretation can respond to or incorporate this devotional context in many different ways, some of which will support and others of which will not support its devotional use. But the fact that the text actively structures the spiritual life of millions of believers (in a way that, say, Ovid’s Metamorphosis no longer does) is not entirely irrelevant to its interpretation, as it is part of the social and political context of any interpreter.
  2. The understanding that the Book of Mormon describes actual historical events is fundamental to its canonical context. This historicity has to be at least provisionally accepted in order to interpret the text on its own terms. Interpretations that do not do this remove the text from the canonical context that gives it its meaning, much as interpretations of the New Testament that reject the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection remove it from the Christian worldview that gives it meaning. This does not make such interpretations inferior, but it does make them different in ways that are worth noticing.
  3. Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point. Everything that can ever be known about Nephites, Lamanites, or Zarahemla comes from the Book of Mormon. The question, “is the Book of Mormon an accurate guide to the history of Messoamerica?” is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is an important religious book that has structured the spiritual lives of millions of people. Though the text presents itself to us as a representation of actual historical events (see above), it does not claim to be part of any context that we know enough about to study with the tools of scholarly inquiry.
  4. The 19th century context of the Book of Mormon matters, but so do the 20th and 21st century contexts. It is the reception of the text by a religious community that makes the 19th century context important, not the assumption that it was created in the 19th century. In other words, while the anti-Masonic movement cannot be presented as the reason that the BOM talks about secret combinations, it can legitimately be seen as one of the reasons that its initial audience responded to it the way that it did.
  5. The Book of Mormon is part of a canon that includes both Testaments of the Bible along with other unique LDS scriptures (The Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price). It is best interpreted as part of this canon.
  6. The canonical language of the Book of Mormon is English. It is the English version that launched the Latter-day Saint movement and became the basis for subsequent translations. “Reformed Egyptian” is not available to us. The original plates are not available to us. The extent to which the Nephite culture of, say 49 BC would have retained Hebrew influence is completely unknowable. It is simply not possible to study the Book of Mormon from a scholarly perspective except as a work originally created in English.

Looking at the Book of Mormon in this way requires some line walking. It requires, for example, that scholars affirm (or at least do not actively deny) that the Book of Mormon is a historical record while, at the same time, resisting attempts to study it in its (unavailable) historical context. But most of these assumptions already inform the best work being done on the Book of Mormon by Mormon and non-Mormon scholars alike. And that is the real advantage that I see to Childs’ model of critical inquiry. It does not require scholars to believe, but it does require that they take belief seriously—and that is a game that everybody can play.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, I think you’ve really hit on something here. A canonical criticism approach to the Book of Mormon is an excellent idea, as it would study the book as it was received and as we have it and bracket the kinds of questions that are not really answerable. Both Mormons and non-Mormons could as you say play in the same sandbox under such an approach.

    I briefly mentioned this type of critical approach in Kevin L. Barney, “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33/1 (Spring 2000): 87:

    Canonical Criticism. In some quarters patience with the excavative techniques of the literary critics has worn thin. Some scholars, therefore, simply bracket the issue of historical origins and study the biblical text as it exists in its final form, sometimes taking a rather agnostic view of what can be known concerning the historical origins of the text. Illustrations of such an approach would include the work of Brevard Childs, Northrop Frye, and Robert Alter. I often do something similar. In my personal study and in preparing to teach in church classrooms, I often just take the Pentateuch as it comes. Nevertheless, I do think it is helpful to be aware of the Documentary Hypothesis and the issues surrounding it and, in appropriate circumstances, to engage it. My personal ideal in relation to the Documentary Hypothesis is to be “conservative but critically informed.”[105]

    [105] I have adopted here David Noel Freedman’s description of his teacher, William Foxwell Albright. See Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 60.

  2. Thanks Kevin. I think you are exactly right. If anything, this kind of criticism makes more sense for the BOM than for the Bible. Biblical scholars actually do have access to tools to place the Bible in historical contexts. Egypt is a place that still exists; Ancient Hebrew is a knowable language; Rome kept records. For Childs, this was a choice to emphasize certain knowable things over other knowable things. For BOM scholars it is the choice between what can be known and what can only be guessed at.

  3. This is great, Mike. You’ve articulated really well the frustration that I have with many apologetic works, even though I share such authors’ ultimate conviction that the Book is historical: those discussions veer off into finding speculative parallels with other ancient stuff (whether hebrew or mesoamerican) and don’t actually “Study the Damn Text.” I especially like how you’ve laid out a model for taking historicity seriously, but recognizing that it’s not the point. The Book of Mormon presents itself as historical, but it exists not to convince us that it is historical, but to convince us that we need to repent.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    JKC,I know I have been guilty of the kind of thing you mention. Sometimes I’ll elide the text in some way, perhaps even subconsciously, because I’m aware of an historical issue with a particular text and so I tend to kind of edit things on the fly to put the text in the best possible position vis-à-vis some historicity argument. But it would be really freeing, not to mention just way better criticism, to just not worry so much about those issues, but to, as you so well put it, “Study the Damn Text.”

  5. I think this is very useful, but I quibble with “The understanding that the Book of Mormon describes actual historical events is fundamental to its canonical context.” because it will mean too much to some people (tending toward “everything happened exactly the way it says and Nephi was just as great as he says he was”).
    I would have stated as fundamental to its canonical context an understanding or recognition (however bracketed) that there were historical events about which a story is being told. In that way, allow for all the known problems of after-the-fact written history, including point-of-view, tales told by victors, re-sequencing (both in error, and to tell a good story), selective emphasis, inclusion, and omission, and a variety of understandings about what makes good history and the purpose for telling the stories.

  6. Michael, would you go so far as to suggest that it is unfruitful to explore context AROUND the BOM? Such as, a reading Jacob 7 that admits the probability of pre-Lehites in Mesoamerica? Some of that context is knowable by archaeological and DNA evidence that is outside the text itself. Or are you saying it’s unfruitful to explore context IN the BOM and then try to fit it to cultures outside the time of the BOM? And do you discount attempts to apply some higher criticism to the BOM by authors like David Bokovoy?

  7. The problem with canonical criticism of the Bible is that one has to put a lot of faith in the people who constructed the canon–essentially, that a group of 4th century clergymen were divinely inspired.

    This isn’t a problem with canonical criticism of the Book of Mormon, since there was really only one person involved, and faith in Joseph Smith is a prerequisite for studying the BOM from a faithful perspective anyway.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Nepos, as Michael says CC actually works (much) better for the BoM than the Bible. Great observation.

  9. That’s a good point, Christian. Michael can answer for himself, but from my perspective, I think taking historicity seriously means taking it as a historical text, which necessarily means being aware of all the narrative unreliability that any historical text has, the politics and biases that go into shaping the text, etc.

    Nepos, I think I agree that it works even better for the BofM than for the bible, but on the other hand, there were lots of people involved, with potentially untold generations of chroniclers and scribes and redactors between the initial writers and Mormon and Moroni themselves. If we take his story seriously, Joseph Smith didn’t really have much at all to do with the final form, other than translation. He didn’t choose, for example, what to include and what to leave out. But even after translation, we have the typesetters who handled the punctuation and paragraphing, and then of course the later edits. And really, that raises the question, what is the “final form” here anyway? Is it the printer’s manuscript? the current edition? Royal Skousen’s reconstruction?

  10. JKC: I think there’s still space to incorporate 19th century influences on the final text without descending into (what I consider to be) the desperate act of “inspired fiction.”

    The only account of the translation process clearly shows that Joseph was wrestling with these things in his mind somehow, opening up a space for his cognitive predispositions (and the environment that shaped them) to shape the text. Add that to the later edits after the first manuscript, plus Brigham Young’s statement that if the Book of Mormon were re-translated later it would “materially differ” because God would want to reveal different things, to me opens up a space for some faithful “19th-century influence” speculation.

    Of course, as you note, such points are speculation, along with Joseph Smith’s psychology and such, which makes impossible to address these avenues with the rigor we usually require of academic scholarship. The approach you outline precludes the more speculative aspects of both the apologetic and critical approaches, which I applaud.

  11. Christian, I would say that calling the Book of Mormon a “historical document” absolutely requires that one attribute to it all of the problems, biases, perspectives, inaccuracies, and blind spots that are always present when human beings write history. To say otherwise–to say that God somehow transferred the exact events as they happened from history into the mind of Moroni or Joseph Smith–is to say that the book is unlike any other historical document that has ever been created. That isn’t history. It is magic.

    A belief that the BOM is historical, in my opinion, is not compatible with considering it to have sprung magically out of the mind of God.

  12. “And really, that raises the question, what is the “final form” here anyway? Is it the printer’s manuscript? the current edition? Royal Skousen’s reconstruction?”

    Jared, this is a good question. “Final form” is never a complete slam dunk. There are always healthy debates at the margin. In Christianity, Childs notes, the “final form” of the Bible is not quite the same for Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions. There are different texts and orderings in each canon. But this variation occurs within a a specific range. We don’t have absolute agreement on whether or not the story of Judith, say, or Susanna, are part of the canon. But we can say with some authority that Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew are. And whether Isaiah was one author, two authors, or 75 authors is not particularly relevant to the final form critic.

    All that an interpretive framework can do is set the ground rules for interpretation. The initial assumptions set up a range of possible ways to see the text. It certainly doesn’t settle everything.

  13. “That isn’t history. It is magic.” Michael, I agree. Except only that there’s enough magical thinking among Mormons that it needs to be said.

  14. Well, to be honest, I had more in mind taking seriously the claims that the text makes about being an ancient record, and recognizing the biases and politics between Nephites and Lamanites, etc. that the text itself talks about, than 19-century influences. But I agree that there is space for recognizing the possibility of 19th century influence without giving up on historicity.

  15. Insofar as Joseph Smith wasn’t translating in the traditional sense, but rather transcribing visions, I think 19c influence is inevitable. The BoM as it exists has clearly been filtered through the consciousness of a person of the 19c–the King James inspired language shows that clearly enough.

    Which also addresses, I think, the issue of different scribes and so forth who worked on the ‘earlier versions’, if you will, of the BoM–any influence they may have had is unlikely to be distinguishable (with the obvious exception of Nephi and Mormon, obviously). Barring a new translation of the golden plates, we have no choice but to accept Joseph Smith’s version as more or less “correct”.

  16. Kevin Christensen says:

    Interesting, as always. Food for thought. However, contextualization always matters to what we see when we read, and that is something that 2 Nephi 25 discusses, which means reading the text raises the issue, like it or not. And we can’t know what a difference a specific context will make until we move ourselves from our own naive ethnocentric presentist stations, stand in that potentially illuminating perspective (whether skeptical or believing) and look around carefully. Soil, nurture, time, and care, all make a difference in the harvest (100 fold increase, or nothing) from the same seed (words, as Jesus explained, commenting in Mark, “Know ye not this parable? How then shall ye know all parables?”) Joseph Smith’s story really begins with his post-Modern observation that “The different teachers of religion understood the same passages so differently as to destroy all confidence…” in just reading a text that a once dominant social protocol declared to be “complete, inerrant, and sufficient.”

    Mark Thomas tried to just read the text itself in Digging in Cumorah, but the implications of his 19th century contextualization show up in nearly every paragraph, something that becomes particularly clear if you compare what he says about the text itself regarding, say, “dying heretics” with what John Welch has in Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon. Of course, that clarity becomes less evident if you throw Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon out of court on grounds that we shouldn’t muddy the waters of just reading the text we have.

    And there is the issue of Thomas claiming to read the text as its original 19th century audience would read, while drawing upon Robert Alter’s revolutionary 1980 The Art of Biblical Narrative, something, that Alexander Campbell did not draw upon when providing his own practical, rather than theoretical 19th century audience reaction. Nor did Alexander Campbell use Northrop Frye in reading the Book of Mormon, something I found very useful, along with Alter. And how about Joseph Campbell? I’m thinking some some very good essays that used Hero with a Thousand Faces to illuminate Nephi and Joseph Smith. Is that going out of bounds, or not?

    Some crucial Book of Mormon contexts are also Biblical. Jerusalem and 600 BCE,notably not discussed in point 2 above. Notice the difference in harvest between Robert Price starting his essay in Dialogue and American Apocrypha by using the pious fraud of the Book of the Law (Deuteronomy) conveniently found in the temple as a model of Joseph Smith providing just such a pious fraud, and Margaret Barker treating the reforms of the Deuteronomists and the discovery of Book of the Law as a specific relevant historical context against which to examine the Book of Mormon. (I actually have a forthcoming essay that discusses this in more detail.)

    Contextualization sometimes makes for crucial differences in reading. For instance, I saw a Maxwell Institute essay that provides a reading of the “mark” in Jacob 4 compared to the definitions in the 1828 Websters Dictionary as “target” I’ve also published on the “mark” comparing it Ezekiel use of “mark” the anointing of protection, which also was the anointing of the High Priests using the chi mark as literally anointing with the Name, which relates directly to the change in High Priesthood by the reformers, so that the High Priest no longer was the anointed, which is what Messiah and Christ both mean. We can’t both be correct. We write from faithful perspectives published by the same press. We contextualize differently and see different meaning in the same words. How do we decide which reading is better? Social expedience and academic protocol? It’s true that such things do count for something. Should a designated common ground though, however useful for some academic purposes, both circumscribe and legitimize all potential inquiry?

    I would tend to argue that my reading of the mark in Jacob 4 is better than “target” on the grounds that it is situated in an elaborate and interlocking set of connections made visible and relevant by the specific historical context of Jerusalem in the 6th Century BCE, none of which appears in the 1828 Dictionary approach, and none of which, I notice, was imagined by Alexander Campbell in reading the same text. That is, it involves testable predictions, elaborate, unexpected connections based on a specific known historical context that was little known to Joseph Smith. Not proof, but, I think a good example of what Alma 32 designates as “cause to believe.”

    I have a mental image of Stan Friberg standing next to a man size can labeled “Worms” and saying, “We don’t open that can of worms here.” Fine. It would be messy here. But we should have a place to do so. In the right context, worms provide essential services for complex systems. However icky in some contexts, we’d miss them if they were gone.

  17. Ryan Thomas says:

    Hello Michael,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I just wanted to let you know I put up a response over at Faith Promoting Rumor.


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