Who’s on First?

As we read our scriptures, something we tend not to think too much about is who’s point of view we are being given. This is called Point of View (POV) analysis, and basically there are three types. First person POV is the actor telling his own story in his own voice, using first person pronouns. Generally his perspective is limited to what he could know at the time (that is, he doesn’t comment on the movement of armies far away, for he has no way to know those details).[1] Third person perspective is when a nameless narrator recounts events in third person voice and using third person pronouns. The perspective of such a narrator could be either limited to what an observer could know in that space and moment, or it could be “omniscient,” meaning the narrator knows all aspects of the story irrespective of space and time.

The most common narrative frame in the Bible is third person omniscient. In most of the Pentateuch the story of Moses is recounted in third person. In Deuteronomy Moses speaks in the first person, but all of that is a quotation from a third person narrator who introduces the text in 1:1-5. So figuring out the POV in the text can sometimes be a little tricky or messy. and can shift as the text proceeds

The Book of Mormon is really interesting in this regard. The Small Plates are all first person POV: Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni. The Words of Mormon are also first person. Then the material abridged and edited from the Large Plates is third person POV, except when Mormon as editor pulls the curtain back and intrudes in first person voice. This is true of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman and 3 and 4 Nephi. But then the books of Mormon and Moroni are first person. Ether is first person from the perspective of Moroni.

The Vision of Moses (Moses 1) is third person. But the Book of Abraham is first person; Abraham 1:1 even features an “I, Abraham” to mirror the “I, Nephi” from 1 Nephi 1:1.

What made me think about this was an article in the latest Biblical Archaeology Review, Andrew B. Perrin, “The Lost World of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls.” Let me quote some passages from this piece:

Right out of the gate readers will notice that the tales told of Genesis and the Aramaic texts reimagining the ancestral past predominately in bold first-person voices of Biblical characters, even though their authorship lies with anonymous authors centuries later. These pseudepigrapha capture the vivid and authoritative voices of founding figures for a new generation or give the impression of Diaspora characters telling their own story of the plight of the recent past. Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) 5:29, for example, introduces a new section as “a copy of the book of the words of Noah.” Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242) 1-3.1 begins, “The words of the prayer of Nabonidus, king of Babylon, the great king,” This seems to be a common compositional technique that recurs throughout ancient Jewish Aramaic literature.

The Aramaic texts are not only indebted to the cast of characters from the Hebrew scriptures, but are also steeped in topics and expressions drawn from them. . . . Other writings, such as 1 Enoch or Genesis Apocryphon, blur the border between scripture and interpretation by developing creative and clever expansions of familiar stories.. . . In sum, the scribes of the Aramaic texts exhibit an exceptional command of ancestral traditions as well as creativity in reimagining them.

Regardless of how we describe these texts’ formation and function in light of their scriptural antecedents–rewriting, interpretations, allusions, etc.–the overarching insight here is that the scribes of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls transport us to a lost world of larger traditions of the Second Temple period. In their time, scripture was more than a single set of inscribed texts; it encompassed bodies of vibrant traditions.

This article made me think of the way the Prophet Joseph used vivid first person POV in the mouths of patriarchal and other biblical or biblical-like personalities to creatively reach and teach his people Gospel truths.

[1] Second person point of view is when an actor addresses a reader directly with second person pronouns, like when an actor breaks the fourth wall. on the stage or in a movie. As this is rare in scripture I’m skipping it here.

Comments

  1. Way to tuck in a zinger! (“the Prophet Joseph used vivid first person POV . . . to creatively reach and teach his people Gospel truths”). I’m curious what reaction that gets!?

    The POV analysis, along with genre analysis of recent discussion re. Job, is very valuable/important to my scripture reading. Thanks for the reminder and exposition. A next step in thinking is to consider the way we attach “truthiness” to different points of view and different genres. I’d suggest that (culturally, at least) we are most likely to put the highest “truth” confidence in words of the prophets–first person POV, speaker labeled a prophet, history or biography genre. A sermon from a prophet gets a smidgen less, where we recognize some degree of freedom for interpretation. Third person narratives still less, because there’s a recognition of the possibility of transmittal error–somebody once upon a time told a first person story, but when we get it in third person it has surely been relayed from one story teller to another to another.

    I’m speaking culture, of course. For myself the “truth” content hierarchy broke down long ago, with a suspicion (when I was 14 years old) that “I, Nephi” has a particular self-serving point of view and is ultimately an unreliable narrator. Other examples abound, including multiple tellings of the First Vision.

  2. “…the way the Prophet Joseph used vivid first person POV in the mouths of patriarchal and other biblical or biblical-like personalities”. Kevin, though I don’t know what examples of JS’ usage you have in mind, I wonder why you stopped with “patriarchal and other biblical…personalities.” JS’ history of changing and adding significantly to D&C revelations written [as if] in the Lord’s first person seems to some to confirm the understanding that JS was not a stenographer taking down the Lord’s words. Instead, they see the first person POV in those revelations as written that way by JS for the sake of vivid instruction. That view does not seem to be the most common view, but then most of those whose I have encountered who take a literal view also seem to be wholly unaware of such changes made by JS following the first publications. I’m also curious as at reactions to the “zinger” as Chris called it.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I didn’t mean that to be quite the zinger it came across as. Let me try to explain.

    I take what I call an “open” view of Mormon scripture, by which I mean that I try not to take hard and fast positions but remain open minded to various possibilities. I do take tentative views on various issues, but I try to keep them susceptible to revision with further light and knowledge. So in general I’m open to a text being historical in just the way faithful Mormons assume; I’m also open to it being an elaboration of an historical core a la the concept of expansion; I’m also open to it being pseudepigraphal. My views might ebb and flow on particular texts over time, but I try not to harden such views and remain open to further light, knowledge and understanding.

    So when I read the BoM and it talks about chariots or horses or whatever, in my mind’s eye I envision those things. I think if we get so hung up on defending historicity for all texts at all costs we end up in tapir territory. The principle of linguistic transference is a useful one to keep in mind, but to me taking the BoM seriously means envisioning chariots and horses when I read it and not being so concerned about historicity that I feel the need to mangle the text.

    For my money, if we can reasonably analogize Joseph’s scriptural productions to the Aramaic Jewish tradition as described in this article, I count that as a win.

    For a meditation on the possibility of some Mormon scriptural texts as seudepigrapha, see this: https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/07/03/yo-dre-i-got-something-to-say/

  4. Could you call the entirety of Psalms and Proverbs as 2nd person? I looked it up (having thought that Agatha Christie was second person) and now I’m not sure enough to judge the difference.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    It might be tougher to figure out POV in the Psalms and Proverbs because they are not historical discourse and there is a lot of number shifting due to call and response poems. We probably can’t say much on a global basis and would have to analyze individual texts.

  6. “I think if we get so hung up on defending historicity for all texts at all costs we end up in tapir territory.”

    Thx for the reference, Kevin, got a chuckle – but how does this finally end? I arrived at BYU when there were still displays of “Lamanite” artifacts from Central America in the Smith Religion Bldg. No longer. There seems to have been a broad retreat from this position. How does the Church remain viable w/ an ahistorical BoM, because every single marker seems to point in that direction?

  7. “How does this finally end?”

    Just speaking from my personal experience:

    Some people are fascinated by questions about historicity, and if that’s your thing, then that’s cool. But as far as I can remember, I never really gave a rat’s ass about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. There was a time when I thought historicity might be important, but that was just because teachers told me so. I decided the Book of Mormon was holy because the Holy Ghost spoke to me through its pages. In time I started to see that it’s also a literary miracle. It’s like a sacred puzzle box that never stops yielding beautiful, often breathtaking marvels. And exactly none of that, in my experience, has to do with its historicity.

    The book speaks for itself. It needs no confirmation by historical artifacts. It has within its pages all that’s necessary to convey the powers of heaven to a receptive reader. I’ll bear testimony of the Book of Mormon for some of the same reasons that Michael Austin testifies about the Book of Job. It is a wondrously crafted work of scripture. If you believe that the Book of Mormon is historical, that’s fine. I probably agree with you to the extent that I’ve given it much thought. But its historicity is not what makes it true.

  8. The second person examples would be interesting to analyze, too.

    “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not.”

  9. Wow. That was beautiful Loursat.

  10. Brother Sky says:

    “its historicity is not what makes it true”: Would that our leaders could come to the same conclusion, Loursat. It’s a shame to see so many “scholars” twist themselves into knots trying to “prove” the historicity of any number of Mormon texts or artifacts. That’s wasted energy, IMHO. I personally put the Book of Mormon into the same category into which I put Hamlet: It’s fiction, but there’s some stuff that feels true and really resonates as long as I can get past all the senseless violence.

  11. “I probably agree with you to the extent that I’ve given it much thought. But its historicity is not what makes it true.”

    I agree, Loursat. I take the Book of Mormon as an authentic text given to Joseph Smith by an angel who said he was one of it’s writers. That means that I take it to be as historical as other ancient scripture. But those transcendent spiritual experiences I’ve had with the Book have nothing to do with it’s historicity and everything to do with it’s testimony of Jesus’ grace and of the urgent need for human repentance.

  12. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Thanks for this, Kevin (and other Commenters). POV is important to think about as we read scripture, and as we make an attempt to apply it in our lives. I think this is as important to keep in mind as is the audience to which scripture is directed. Being attenuated to both POV and the audience helps us to contextualize what is written, and to remember that what we are reading was written for a purpose, and that purpose was almost never to help ME make whatever decision I am facing. That doesn’t mean I can’t draw upon what I learn, or my interpretation of what I read, in my everyday life. It just means I need to be careful about the assumptions I make about the text. Or, more precisely, I need to remember that I am always making assumptions about the text.

  13. Historicity “True” or Scripture or Wondrous or Moving or Valuable. For the Book.

    However, historicity does have a significant role to play in the legitimacy and uniqueness claims of The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints, because the Church (Correlation??) has made it so. I put that in my “understandable error” bucket.

    For myself, I revere and use the Book of Mormon as scripture, while questioning almost everything about how the book came to be.

  14. HTML is annoying. That was supposed to be
    Historicity {does not equal} “True” or . . .

  15. One of the best and truest things about the Book of Mormon is that it keeps being something other than what we thought it was. I suspect that among the things that might equip the church to become a genuinely global religion, the most important is the Book of Mormon. It is a written text, and there are definite limits to how malleable such a text can be. (In the context of a globalizing religion that’s a virtue, because such a text is a unifying force.) However, my intuition is that the Book of Mormon is also much more adaptable and universal than we have yet imagined. It persistently transcends the limits we place on it with our preconceptions and presumptions.

    My thoughts turn to the prospect of Book of Mormon reception history. Some work has been done along these lines, but there is more to do. I’m especially curious to know more about the ways the Book of Mormon has been perceived at different times and places within Mormonism.

    And Kevin, I apologize for straying so far from the topic of your excellent post.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Loursat, not at all, I very much appreciated your comments.

  17. I read the entire article and not a single Abbott and Costello reference. Disappointed.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    (Snort!)

  19. Left Field says:

    Naturally!

  20. The historicity, the anchoring in reality of the Book of Mormon, was important to Moroni as its last author and editor. He showed the gold plates to the witnesses because they are like him, a character in the narrative, including the small plates of Nephi, spanning the thousand years of its history. He and they affirm that we live in the same world of revelation and miracles as the many authors of the book describe. And he promises with his last words in the book that he will be a witness against us at the judgment bar if we reject his testimony. He makes it clear that we do not judge the book, but the book judges us.

  21. Fine example of scripture as threat matrix, coltakashi. I also reject rattlesnakes & strychnine. I see absolutely nothing positive or worthwhile in these approachs to the Divine.

  22. I think “historicity” and “anchoring in reality” are two different things. Something can be anchored in reality without being very historical. Most ancient scripture is likely not very historical. That’s just not how people wrote in the ancient world. That doesn’t make it not anchored in reality.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    In the OP I kind of punted on second person perspective, but perhaps shouldn’t have. I’m reading The Expanded Canon now and in Grant Hardy’s contribution appears this: “Throughout the Latter-day Saint scripture [IE the BoM], the narrators reflect on their sources, editing, and communication strategies, *and they frequently address their readers directly*.”

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s another passage from David Bokovoy’s contribution to The Expanded Canon that is relevant to the OP: “Moses 1 constantly invokes the voice of an omniscient narrator speaking about Moses in third person. Statements such as “And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence. And God spake unto Moses” (Moses 1:2-3), appear all throughout the course of Smith’s entire revelation. This pattern stands in stark contrast to the first person biographical formulation of Smith’s subsequent scriptural text, the Book of Abraham.” (o, 131)

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