Ten Axioms towards the Academic Study of the Book of Mormon as Scripture

 

(1)   The Book of Mormon is neither history nor literature; it is scripture. It makes historical claims and uses literary devices. The academic study of both history and literature can aid in its interpretation, but employing such tools comes with a price. The price is treating the text like something that it isn’t, which often leads to bad readings of the text itself.

(2) The Book of Mormon is unlike any ancient history that we know anything about. It is also unlike any 19th century work of fiction that we know anything about. It is a lot like other scriptures that we know about, but the textual record that we have access to does not permit the same kind of analyses that are possible with other scriptures. For the purposes of textual interpretation, comparing the Book of Mormon to anything else is full of peril. It is in a genre of one.

(3) The primary function of scripture is to reveal God to the reader. This is what the Book of Mormon claims to do. If it does this, then it ultimately does not matter whether or not it is good history or good literature. If it does not do this, then it ultimately does not matter whether or not it is good history or good literature.

(4) Complexity in the Book of Mormon is not evidence of antiquity. Human beings can and do produce texts of enormous complexity, and their ability to do so seems to have increased over time, not decreased. Arguing that Joseph Smith was a “poor, ignorant farm boy” does not prove that the Book of Mormon is ancient or divine. Logically, pretty much any explanation imaginable is superior to “an angel showed a teenager where the plates were buried, and the teenager then translated them with a rock and a hat and then the plates disappeared.”

(5) Anachronism in the Book of Mormon is not an evidence of fraud. That the Book of Mormon seems designed to appeal to a nineteenth century audience does not mean that it is not an ancient text. The text itself addresses itself to a future people, and claims to know what these people will need by prophecy and revelation. If one accepts the text on its own terms, then it should be specifically relevant to the nineteenth century and to later periods as well.

(6) Proving things about a text is not the same thing as figuring out what a text means. Both of these are legitimate academic operations, but they are different academic operations. There are some worthwhile avenues of critical exploration that can only be pursued by those willing to take a text on its own terms and see where those terms lead.

(7) Taking a text on its own terms means accepting the claims that it makes for itself, some of which, in the case of the Book of Mormon, are historical. One can disagree with these claims, of course, but one cannot logically argue that it does not make such claims (the way one can argue that, say, the books of Job and Jonah do not make historical claims).  Completely rejecting an ancient provenance for the Book of Mormon means not taking the text on its own terms, but on terms that you decide for it. There is no way to do this without inflicting a certain amount of rhetorical violence on the text and its believers.

(8) All texts mean things in contexts of reception, and those contexts are not fixed. Studying a religious text like the Book of Mormon, which millions of people still accept as scripture, is different than studying a religious text like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is almost entirely a historical artifact.  The reception of a text does not entirely control its meaning, but it influences it enough that the critic cannot entirely ignore how a scriptural text functions in the communities that believe it.

(9) The academic study of the Book of Mormon is important for Latter-day Saints who have an academic temperament. It is neither superior nor inferior to other ways of reading  the text. Many people find meaning and enrich their lives with straightforward interpretations of the scriptures. The Book of Mormon has much to offer here, but it can also sustain much more complex readings that allow people to engage the text with their intellects. This is a good thing, as it increases the ways that different kinds of people can interact meaningfully with the text. As Rumi says, there are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

(10) Lists about scriptural things must always go to ten.

Comments

  1. #3 is a perfect summary of my feelings, except for the word “good”.I would change it to “ultimately does not matter whether or not it is history or literature.” Always enjoy your posts.

  2. Hmmm… Just to clarify: as per (7), do you mean that if one rejects (“disagrees with”) the claims of the BoM to be an ancient text, one *cannot* read it “as scripture” ?

  3. “Hmmm… Just to clarify: as per (7), do you mean that if one rejects (“disagrees with”) the claims of the BoM to be an ancient text, one *cannot* read it “as scripture” ?”

    I certainly don’t have any authority (or the desire) to make such a call. All I can say is that, as with any text, if you do not accept the terms that it offers itself under, you have to read it on some other terms, and there are both interpretive and rhetorical consequences for doing so. Which does not mean that it is a bad thing to do.

  4. I’m always inclined to argue, but I think you’ve qualified in such a way that I can’t disagree with anything. So good work.

    However (there’s ALWAYS a however):
    1. I think too many people will take too much direction from some of the phrasing. For example, nowhere do I see an obligation–a “should” or “must”–about taking the book on its own terms. Only that there are certain readings and arguments that are consistent with taking it on its terms, and other means of analysis that are not consistent.
    2. I wish there were an 11th dealing with the “Book of Mormon is true” phrase. It is obviously code or a substitute for a whole paragraph of meaning (perhaps some combination of #1 and #3?). But in most testimonies has little to do with the text or with any particular reading.
    3. I wish there were a 12th dealing with the voices in the book. For example, in my view taking the text on its own terms means that a man calling himself Nephi did feel that he was “constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban” (1 Nephi 4:10). But whether he was correct in that feeling or interpretation, whether God or the Spirit in teleological fact commanded a slaying, is not required by the text, even on its own terms. (But then I’d have to give some weight to #8, right?)

  5. Splendid post. Thank you for these considerations. Number three is particularly important, in my estimation. Like Christian, I think we often just blithely say: “I know the Book of Mormon to be true” without unpacking or specifying what we mean. I think most of that truth weight is usually implicitly given to some combination of divine provenance and accurate historicity. I wish we would shift a bit of that truth weight to the spiritual contents and consequences of the book. Does Christ speak through the Book of Mormon? Does it help me become a better disciple? If not, then I don’t care too much regarding provenance or historicity.

  6. Michael, it is scripture that is also history, as ancient peoples of that time period knew and kept “history” (so you’re correct that it doesn’t measure up to principles of historiography either according to the nineteenth-century German school or modern concepts), and literature. It’s literarily beautiful for those to whom its structures, conventions, and narratives resonate (perhaps not you).

    It’s not *not* history and literature just because it *is* scripture.

  7. (I should clarify I really like the post — just thought coming out of the box with that point undermines some of the highly correct assertions in the rest of the post and will definitely turn off some of the key people who need to see and digest this post and these points about studying the Book of Mormon.)

  8. This is fascinating. As Christian says, it’s a carefully considered set of propositions. There is just one thing that bothers me: the phrase “rhetorical violence on the text and its believers,” in axiom #7. From a dispassionate point of view, the phrase is quite right. On the other hand, from the perspective of a church that has developed significant fundamentalist tendencies and raw political nerves, warning of “violence on . . . the believers” might be a needlessly inflammatory way of phrasing this idea. Not sure that I have a way around this, but it sits uncomfortably with me.

  9. Aussie Mormon says:

    John f: In regards to the history/literature comment, axiom 1 points directly to a talk that Russell M Nelson gave [1], “You can invite a friend to read the Book of Mormon. Explain that it is not a novel or a history book. It is another testament of Jesus Christ. Its very purpose is “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.””
    L Tom Perry [2] said something similar: “How often we read the record primarily as a history of a fallen people, failing to remember that it was compiled by inspired prophets for the purpose of helping us come unto Christ. The major writers of the Book of Mormon did not intend it to be a history book at all. In fact, Jacob said that his brother Nephi commanded him that he “should not touch, save it were lightly, concerning the history of this people””

    [1] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/be-thou-an-example-of-the-believers?lang=eng
    [2] https://www.lds.org/ensign/2005/11/blessings-resulting-from-reading-the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng

  10. John, Aussie Mormon’s comment correctly represents what I am at least trying to say. In both #1 and #3, when I say that the BOM is not history or literature, I am not making any claims about its historicity or its literary merit. Just about its genre. With regards to history, I think, this is especially important, as the text goes out of its way to tell us that it is NOT history, both in the passage that Aussie quotes (Jacob 1: 2-3) and in 1 Nephi 9:2, which tells us that there is another record (that we don’t have) containing the full historical account:

    And now, as I have spoken concerning these plates, behold they are not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people; for the plates upon which I make a full account of my people I have given the name of Nephi; wherefore, they are called the plates of Nephi, after mine own name; and these plates also are called the plates of Nephi.

  11. Aussie Mormon, I think Elder Nelson and Elder Perry, Michael, and John are using “history” in different ways. The point that Michael and Elder Nelson and Elder Perry are making is that is not a history textbook, written according to modern historiographical standards. John’s point is that most ancient “history” is not. The Book of Mormon can be “history” like the Eddas, for example, and not be “history” in the sense that Michael and Elder Nelson say it is not history.

  12. If the point is that it is not “history” because it has a very clear agenda (to bring people to Christ), I think that’s true of many works that we call history.

    I’m not sure that “scripture” is a genre. Scripture seems to me to be more about canonical status than about genre. Certainly scripture contains a number of different genres: chronicles, narratives, parables, aphorisms, speeches, poems, etc. I have no problem with the idea that history can be a scriptural genre.

  13. Mike A, with another excellent post. Thank you.

  14. I very much agree with this statement of Christian’s:

    “For example, in my view taking the text on its own terms means that a man calling himself Nephi did feel that he was “constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban” (1 Nephi 4:10). But whether he was correct in that feeling or interpretation, whether God or the Spirit in teleological fact commanded a slaying, is not required by the text, even on its own terms. (But then I’d have to give some weight to #8, right?).”

    Taking the text on its own terms is essential to understanding it. And taking it on it’s own terms means close reading to see what the text actually requires, and what is assumption that only seems obvious because of a long tradition of lazy reading.

  15. JKC, I think that the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, give us a lot more freedom to talk about genre than the BOM does. Since the Bible is really an anthology of different works, it is much easier to assign some works to the history genre (Samuel, Kings Chronicles), some to the literature genre (Job, Psalms, Proverbs), and some to the prophecy genre (like, the Prophets). Together, I agree, these are scripture.

    But the BOM does not present itself to us in the same way. It comes pre-homogenized into one kind of book that may have elements of history and literature but cannot, in my opinion, be evaluated under those terms the say that Job or Chronicles can. In this way, it is much more like the Qur’an or the Doctrine and Covenants. One cannot really say that the Book of 2 Nephi is one genre and the book of Moroni is another genre. Whatever differences of these kind existed in the original manuscripts have been flattened out by abridgment, rewriting, translating, and general ancient and modern correlation. It presents itself to us as a single thing.

    So, the best word that I can come up with for this genre of thing is “scripture.” This does not mean that there are not historical or literary elements to it. But I don’t think that any part of the BOM can be called “history” the way that 2 Kings can be called “history”–or “literature” the way that Job is “literature.”

  16. I agree to an extent. The text presents itself as the work of Mormon and Moroni, so looking “behind the text” to try to definitively recover the sources it says it came from is going to be speculative. But at the same time, the Book of Mormon does claim to be cobbled together from these sources, it claims that they exist, and I think we can see them in the text. We can see pretty significant differences, I think, between, say, the missionary sermons of Alma, the first-person narrative of Nephi, the prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite, the story of the Jaredites, and the Moroni-Pahoran letters. Whether these differences rise to the level of being separate genres is an exercise in line-drawing, but you’re clearly right that they’re not to the same degree as the genre differences in OT. Still, I think too many readers of the Book of Mormon flatten those differences out more than the text warrants. This goes to the point that Christian made above about multi-vocality in the Book of Mormon. And I don’t think we disagree that much on this, if at all.

    But back to the “scripture” label as genre, I’m fine with it, with the clarification that “scripture-as-genre” is not really the same thing as “scripture-as-canon.” Using the same word for both kind of threw me off, but I see where you’re going now.

  17. I do see individual differences in different passages, but they do not, as I read it, occur at the level of the books. Different elements and styles occur within books, but not really across them. So, while it is possible to say, “this is what the Book of Job claims to be, so it is how I am going to interpret it,” it is only possible to say, “this is what the Book of Mormon claims to be, so it is how I am going to interpret it.”

    FWIW, I think that this is how a lot of people read the Bible–as a single text with a single purpose that can be approached at any point with the same assumptions. I do not agree with this approach to the Bible, but I am fairly sure that most of the early readers of the Book of Mormon, including Joseph Smith, did agree with it, which is quite possibly why the BOM looks the way it does.

  18. Number 4 is brilliant.

    I would add that saying the Book of Mormon is true is not at all the same thing as saying it is an accurate record of a real people. “True” can have so many meanings. “Accurate record of a real people” not so much. By the way, Moroni gives no promise for praying about the latter.

  19. That 19th century readers had a flat approach to the Bible seems to me important. Is there more on this? The very few examples–sermons, devotionals–that come to mind would not support a flat reading, but my sample is so small as to be meaningless.

  20. Overall, these are great. I have to agree with Loursat, however about the phrase about violence. It appears to be a metaphor with an imprecise meaning in the midst of axioms that are attempting to make a very fine point.

    And #5… (Sigh)… I actually wish I could see it that way.

  21. Interesting, although it looks to me more like an intellectually responsible way to do a devotional reading rather than an academic approach–not complaining about it all. But be that as it may, my question is this: how do you understand the differences between your approach and that of Joe Spencer?

    Mogs

  22. “The Book of Mormon is neither history nor literature; it is scripture.”

    Please, you’re being intellectually dishonest in the extreme. Don’t tell me that Joseph Smith and subsequent LDS church leaders and pretty much most of the membership has not treated the Book of Mormon as a crucial historical artifact that gives us valuable historical insight into ancient American Christianity.

    Believe the Book of Mormon to be whatever you personally please. But please, please do not try to pass your views off as actual Mormonism.

  23. Alternatively, Mark C, you could come into this forum and engage respectfully with Mike. He’s laid out a series of assertions that are respectable, thoughtful, and frankly important. He’s not making any descriptive claims—he’s not saying how Joseph Smith, other church leaders, or the majority of Mormons viewed the Book of Mormon. Instead of vaingloriously claiming such insight and knowledge, he explains a fruitful method of addressing the Book of Mormon.

    So why not engage? Rather than accusing him of extreme intellectual dishonesty (which, btw, is completely unfounded and wrong), maybe you can explain why the Book of Mormon is valuable read as history or literature. Maybe you can make an affirmative argument for your reading. Absent that, though, I’m with Mike’s axioms.

  24. Mogget wrote that “it looks to me more like an intellectually responsible way to do a devotional reading rather than an academic approach.”

    One thing that makes the Book of Mormon so compelling is that as soon as one starts to take it really seriously, one is inevitably caught somewhere between devotional and academic reading of it. If you’re a serious scholar, you can never just shrug off its claim to be divine. If you’re a serious believing reader, it sucks you in to its intellectual puzzles. It is a mysterious book. Of course, there are lots and lots of people who are uncomfortable with that mystery on both sides of the devotional/academic divide. I suppose they take what they want from the book. But part of the book’s miracle is that it is a concrete, tangible thing. The book, with its mystery, endures.

    Michael’s list of axioms is interesting because it tries to start articulating in academic terms this strange status of the Book of Mormon. I think Michael really is doing something very academic here. It’s just that, as Michael says, the Book of Mormon is sui generis, and that has some unexpected implications for what academics do.

  25. “Intellectually dishonest” is a dumb phrase. I know it’s popular among a certain crowd, but it’s meaningless. Is there even such a thing as non-intellectual dishonesty? it possible to be dishonest without the use of one’s intellect? If a person is dishonest, that person is necessarily dishonest “intellectually,” and there’s no reason for this meaningless qualification (or is it supposed to be an intensifier?). It adds nothing.

    Of course, Mike’s post is not dishonest, either intellectually or in some other bizarre, non-intellectual way.

  26. stephenchardy says:

    Michael Austin: I wish that you would post something every day! This is so helpful and while many of the items ring true to me I would not be able to state them as well as you have. Well done, and thank you.

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