The Figurative Bible and the Literal Book of Mormon

On another thread, BCC contributor and Sunstone editor managing editor John Hatch makes a very interesting observation. He writes:

I’ve spoken to plenty of Church members who are more than willing to accept the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor. I recently spoke to a friend who is a bishop who told me he loved Abraham, even though he may not have existed, and if he did exist, the stories the Bible attributes to him most likely didn’t happen. Yet I suspect my friend would be most uncomfortable saying the same thing about Nephi, or Alma, for example.

Indeed, there is a lot about the Bible that people may view as figurative. The extreme ages of Methusalah and his kin, the flood, Jonah, Balaam, and other stories are often viewed as figurative or allegorical rather than literal.

John raises an interesting point. Why are we so willing to accept the idea of Biblical allegory, but unlikely to do so for the Book of Mormon? For example, I have a hard time imagining someone saying, “I like the Nephi story as a metaphor. I don’t think he really existed, but the story makes several good points.” (Of course, there are also many church members who believe that the Bible is generally a literal, inerrant text. This view is easier to reconcile with the idea of literality in the Book of Mormon).

I can’t pretend I know the answer to this question. I did have a few thoughts about it:

1. The Book of Mormon’s veracity depends much more strongly on the literal nature of its underlying facts. For example, if Abraham did not exist, we still can construct a coherent narrative for the existence of the Bible itself; it may have been written by Jewish priests who used the idea of Abraham as a metaphor. On the other hand, if Nephi didn’t exist, how the heck did the Book of Mormon come into being?

2. The Book of Mormon is, for believing members, of more recent and more trustworthy vintage than the Bible. It is the most correct of any book. That idea may be hard to reconcile with the thought that much of it is allegory.

3. The Book of Mormon translation story is itself evidence of miracle. If we’re willing to accept the one, it seems more natural to accept others. I.e., it is an unusual combination to posit that

“the characters of Nephi, Alma, and Captain Moroni were composite mythical figures used by Nephite priests. King Benjamin himself was a good historical man, but not really a prophet as later generations may have believed. Oh, and the whole bundle was miraculously translated by Joseph Smith.”

4. Finally, the Book of Mormon has not been subjected to the types of critiques the Bible has. It has generally been subjected to “it’s false!” or “it’s true!” sorts of arguments. It has also been around for a much shorter period of time. Perhaps more time and scholarship will allow for development of middle-of-the-road ideas like non-literal nature of some of its characters.

Anyway, those were some preliminary thoughts on my part. But I think this is a very interesting question, and illustrates some of the important differences in how church members view the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

101 comments for “The Figurative Bible and the Literal Book of Mormon

  1. lyle
    May 2, 2004 at 8:29 pm

    re: Adam & Eve, I know that Pres. Kimball made it explicit that part was metaphor. Hence, why many would be comfortable. I don’t know re: Abraham or other parts of the Bible.

    Also, where do we draw the line between miracle & metaphor? i.e.: As happy as I’d be to reject the idea of a global flood (so that hard-core green types couldn’t use it as justification for anti-job policies), I haven’t heard in GC or SS or any Mormon bible books why I would want to.

    I’ve read Spong, and like his ideas…however, the metaphor nature of scripture doesn’t _have_ to replace the literal. I think both can exist comfortably in most instances.

  2. Jack
    May 2, 2004 at 8:44 pm

    While I’m very interested in exploring the “metaphorical” vs. “literal” interpretation of scriptural events and/or persons I must confess that I don’t get very far down the road before seeing a “literal” signpost popping out of modern scripture. Joseph F. Smith saw every major biblical prophet in his vision of the dead – even the “mythical” Adam and Eve. Such passages as “Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people…” seem to be too specific to generate a metaphorical interpretation only. Likewise, the stories of Adam’s conversion, Moses’ encounter with the adversary and Enoch’s mission are so specific in their delivery that I find it hard to dismiss their literal quality.

    That said – I do believe the sciptures to be powerfully metaphorical. I marvel that Jared, Lehi, Moses and Brigham Young could lead their followers essentially through same exodus pattern. Again, however, before I side too closely with the “metaphorical only” interpretation I am checked by the historical veracity of the pioneer trek.

  3. John H
    May 2, 2004 at 8:50 pm

    Great thoughts, Kaimi. I think you’re exactly right about the Book of Mormon being a more recent example of scripture and the “most correct book” in members minds. I also think the answer to why members view it differently than the Bible lies with Joseph Smith. What would a metaphorical, but not literal, Book of Mormon say about him and his prophetic calling? If people accept the Bible as metaphor, perhaps it’s because they are less sure about the Bible’s origins and the obscurity allows room for different ideas.

    BTW, I have to mention, I’m not the editor of Sunstone – I’m the managing editor (read: low, low, low man on the totem pole). Dan Wotherspoon is the masterful and most capable editor of Sunstone. I only wish I came close to his editorial skills :)

  4. May 2, 2004 at 9:31 pm

    Nice post, Kaimi. I can’t help but think that part of the reason behind the different treatment is because the Book of Mormon was held out as literal record by Joseph Smith.

  5. Kaimi
    May 2, 2004 at 9:37 pm

    Plus, it seems that the figurative/allegorical approach is often taken to avoid having to deal with the messy idea of miracles. I.e., you don’t have to worry about the Red Sea parting, or Noah, or Jonah, it’s all allegorical.

    Meanwhile, Mormons are (a) unable to disavow miracles entirely — or Joseph Smith translating would be impossible; so why bother to go halfway; and (b) theologically more disposed to accept miracles anyway (see, e.g., Mormon’s statements on miracles).

  6. May 2, 2004 at 11:27 pm

    While some of the stories in the Book of Mormon are probably embellished or tidied up for dramatic effect — for example, Ammon chopping off the arms of the sheep scatterers, the arrows veering away from Samuel the Lamanite, and the Shiz-Coriantumr death battle at the end of Ether — I can’t think of any stories that have the fantastic features of Balaam’s ass, for example. Question for John: Can you point to particular characters or stories in the Book of Mormon that seem like fantasy or myth? If not, then I suspect that the puzzle is solved.

  7. greenfrog
    May 2, 2004 at 11:50 pm

    I can think of a couple of stories of the Book of Mormon that are contextually figurative (i.e., figures, rather than literal historical events) — Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, Jacob’s account of the olive tree come to mind.

    Perhaps part of the willingness to take Biblical accounts figuratively results from how frequently Jesus spoke in figurative language. I’m not sure that there is any parallel in the Book of Mormon, though I need to think about it more.

  8. lyle
    May 3, 2004 at 12:28 am

    Some of the BoM is figurative; but when it is…it is expressly so. Lehi’s dream is somewhat of a mix, because he presents the dream as a “reality,” which is later interpreted for meaning.

    re: the Shiz death match. I like Hamblin, et al. at FARMS on this one. The peons fought out front and the last one standing was the King…much like the game of chess. Oversimplified, but not overly fantastic.

    What about Nephi praying that God would burst his bonds? And then they just come loose? I doubt we should think that this wasn’t literal and/or that the bonds just came loose by accident/carelessness on Laman/Lemuel’s part.

  9. May 3, 2004 at 12:35 am

    God uses people to accomplish his objectives unless there is no other way.

    So a lot of things described as being done by the hand of God in the Book of Mormon and the Bible probably were- but through the hand of a mortal servant.

  10. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 1:25 am

    “Question for John: Can you point to particular characters or stories in the Book of Mormon that seem like fantasy or myth? If not, then I suspect that the puzzle is solved.”

    I can think of some, but I also think your point is a good one for why there is hesitation to accept the Book of Mormon as metaphor. With the Bible, it’s very clear that much of it at least has a historical grounding. Jerusalem is obviously a real place, for example. So someone can say that certain stories are mythical or exaggerated, but they don’t have to say the whole book is a myth. The Book of Mormon might appear, at first glance, to have a different problem. If Nephi didn’t exist, for example, that pretty much means the rest of the book is a myth. But it doesn’t mean the characters couldn’t have been real people, but there are myths that surround their lives included in the Book of Mormon.

    Although there are some Book of Mormon stories that strike me as being mythical, my reasons for being intrigued at the idea of it being a spiritual metaphor stem from what I see as numerous problems with the book as a historical record. I don’t by any means want to suggest that I’ve made up my mind about Book of Mormon historicity. I’m always open to future research and studies that may vindicate it someday. But right now, I see three different areas that clash so much as to pose real dilemmas. First, the internal comments and evidences in the Book of Mormon. Second, the statements and comments from Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders. And third, modern science, which encompasses geography, geology, anthropology, genetic studies, etc.

    The irony is, right now someone like me, who is open to the idea of a metaphorical Book of Mormon, probably wouldn’t be to well received by some in the Church. Yet if say, 20 years from now, science conclusively proved the Book of Mormon to be a historical impossibility, my beliefs wouldn’t suffer or have to change, yet scriptural literalists would be faced with a very serious dilemma. I’ve actually heard some people who are the greatest defenders of the Book of Mormon say they would leave the Church if it was proven to be fictitious. Why chuck such a great religion and great book just because it didn’t happen?

    Think, for example, of a movie that has an overwhelming, powerful impact on you. You might even weep openly at the end. You might even say the spirit touched you, if you were watching a Church film or a movie with great moral or spiritual teachings. Yet, what you’re watching isn’t real. Just off camera, there’s a dirctor and a crew. The sounds are mixed months after filming wrapped in a studio. In some scenes, one actor might have even been filmed 5 months later than everyone else in the scene, yet with clever editing they make it look like he was right there. My point being, if we find such tremendous value in something, why not hold onto it instead of quibbling about details?

  11. May 3, 2004 at 1:36 am

    If the Book of Mormon were metaphorical, it is a metaphor of what? (I have not had time yet to read many studies of the Bible as metaphor…)

    By the way- from a certain level of abstraction, couldn’t we argue that everything is metaphorical, including the computer I am typing on?

  12. May 3, 2004 at 4:14 am

    Jack said:
    “Joseph F. Smith saw every major biblical prophet in his vision of the dead – even the “mythical” Adam and Eve…”

    Jack’s point is key for understanding why “metaphorical” interpretations can seem problematic in a Mormonism. I am very sympathetic to non-literal interpretations of scripture, personally, but I think those of us who are inclined to embrace them have to grapple with the fact that 19th Century Mormon leaders claimed to receive personal visitations from various Biblical figures. I am not persuaded that there is anything inherent to scriptural texts that requires interpreting them at a particular level of literality (a word?). I also fail to be impressed by the fact that 19th Century Church leaders read as literal parts of the scriptures that I’m less inclined to read similarly. But it is harder to read certain Biblical stories as mere metaphors when their leading characters are personally visiting Joseph Smith.

    One of the Gospel Doctrine classes in the older Cambridge, MA single’s ward was taught by an MIT physicist whose course was premised on the idea that the Bible was not to be read literally. The premise was not defended, but just assumed. While sympathetic with his take, I once asked him how he squared his assumptions with the literal visitations of Biblical actors claimed by Joseph Smith and others. He acknowledged my question was a good one, and attempted an answer. I don’t remember the answer exactly, but I do remember that it was unsatisfactory.

    Aaron B

  13. May 3, 2004 at 6:56 am

    Big question, Kaimi. It’s worth pointing out that the modern Church especially has upped the stakes by linking the evaluation of Joseph Smith very tightly to the literal truth of the Book of Mormon. By contrast, note D&C 77 where Joseph Smith freely interprets several striking images presented in Revelation as “figurative expressions”–so he himself was not tied to literal interpretations of scripture. The only question is which figuratively interpretable scriptural accounts require a foundation in literal or real-world events to retain their validity and which do not. Some do, some don’t.

    Furthermore, Bible texts and stories come to us via a natural transmission process, while the Book of Mormon texts and stories claim supernatural transmission of what are often first-person narratives. One consequence of this difference is that Bible stories and accounts are amenable to figurative readings without casting doubt on the transmission of the texts, while that option is seemingly foreclosed to the Book of Mormon accounts. So “amenability to figurative interpretation” is a quality of Bible texts not shared by the Book of Mormon.

  14. May 3, 2004 at 11:28 am

    My problem with the idea that the Book of Mormon can be easily understood as inspired fiction of some kind, is that all such discussions seem to make the mistake of viewing the Book of Mormon primarily as a text.

    The problem is that the Book of Mormon is far, far more than a text within Mormonism. It is a sign, and its meaning for the religion cannot be understood independently of the story of its coming forth. Furthermore, despite the ebb and flow of Church interest and focus on the text of the Book of Mormon, the focus on the story of its coming forth has remained constant. It is not that people think that allegorizing bits of the Book of Mormon text would destroy any spiritual value that it might have. The problem is that suich allegorized versions of the text fail to provide a coherent way of understanding its coming forth and the place of that coming forth in Joseph Smith’s ministry. One might adopt something like Dan Vogel’s Joseph-intentionally-made-it-up-and-lied-about-it-to-help-people-spiritually thesis (See Dan Vogel, “The Prophet Puzzle Revisited,” in The Prophet Puzzle, Signature Books, Bryan Waterman ed.), but lets not pretend that this wouldn’t be a big deal, or that those who argue strenuously for the historicity of the Book of Mormon are engaged in a meaningless and irrational side show.

  15. lyle
    May 3, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    re: Science disproving the BoM.

    So what? As Nate points out, the BoM is a sign of the Restoration as much as a “history,” which as Givens points out…is a very very ltd history.

    Also, if the BoM is false, then how/why does the Spirit of the Lord testify to its truthfullness? I think that is the greater challenge to answer rather than some hypo re: IF science could disprove the BoM.

    re: greatest defenders leaving the church if the BoM is disproved.

    Um…don’t believe it. sounds like puffery, hot air & rhetorical persuasion to me; uttered solely because the speaker _knows_ that such is impossible & knows their bluff will _never_ be called; per the Holy Ghost verification challenge mentioned above.

  16. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 12:40 pm

    John H: If the Book of Mormon is “fictitious,” does that mean the plates were too? The Urim and Thummim? Or are you saying that the plates, while real, might have told a story heavy with mythical elements.

  17. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 12:43 pm

    Lyle, I agree completely that speakers know their bluff will never be called and they won’t have to face the music someday.

    You ask, if the BoM is false, then how/why does the spirit of the Lord testify to its truthfulness? First, I think the word “false” might not be the best word to describe what I’m describing. Again, I return to my analogy of a film. I’ve heard many people talk about how the spirit touched them as they watched “Legacy” or “The Testaments” in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. But what they are watching isn’t true. What they are watching is a recreation, with actors, directors, grips, lighting technicians, etc. Why did the spirit touch them if the movie isn’t really true?

    Also, I think the answer to your question comes from our preconceived notions and our expectations. If someone is taught that if they pray about the Book of Mormon, they will receive an answer that it’s true, that doesn’t necessarily mean the spirit’s told them it’s historically true. Yet they just assume that. That’s the problem with spiritual experiences – we immediately infuse our own worldview and perspectives on them.

    I’d also just toss out, why do people in other faiths have spiritual experiences that directly contradict with those in Mormonism? They would say that the spirit of the Lord has testified things to them that we certainly don’t believe. Why do we get to be right and they get to be wrong?

  18. ed
    May 3, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    “Joseph F. Smith saw every major biblical prophet in his vision of the dead – even the “mythical” Adam and Eve…”

    I saw an article in the Journal of Mormon History a while back about Wilford Woodruff’s famous vision where the signers of the Declaration of Independence appeared to him, asking him to do their temple work. But, unknown to Elder Woodruff, temple records show that their work had already been done.

    My point is, it’s possible these kinds of visions aren’t always all that reliable.

  19. greenfrog
    May 3, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    Aaron B wrote: “…those of us who are inclined to embrace them have to grapple with the fact that 19th Century Mormon leaders claimed to receive personal visitations from various Biblical figures. …it is harder to read certain Biblical stories as mere metaphors when their leading characters are personally visiting Joseph Smith.”

    I find myself less troubled by such ideas. Principally, I understand dreams and visions (even of historical or quasi-historical characters) to be figurative, rather than “literal” (whatever that may mean) in important ways. For an easy example, I do not understand Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life to suggest that there is a literal tree growing within sight of a literal great and spacious building and that the literal people looking out of the literal great and spacious building are literally mocking those who are holding onto a literal iron rod in order to get the the tree. The meaning of the vision is figurative, and I understand the images, *and the people* represented in it to be figurative as well, even when the figures are in the form of people whom Lehi knows personally. Were I not expected to abstract from the individuals identified to a larger group, then the vision would only be about Lehi’s family, and would have no bearing on my life at all.

    So when I read of prophets (or others) having visions of particular characters from scriptural accounts, I am not troubled by the idea that some of them (or even all of them in some degree) may have been representations of patterns rather than specific individual post-mortal spirits.

    I guess I think of such things this way: When I meet a person, I gather information about the person from a variety of clues — visual, audible, sometimes touch. Those data allow me to construct, *in my mind* a representation of that person. My understanding is highly limited, and can be potentially flawed in terribly important ways, but nonetheless, it is what I have to work with.

    Then I imagine the First Vision, in which Joseph Smith saw physical manifestations of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Were those manifestations accurate? I presume so. Were they complete? How could they be? We understand God to be all powerful (or, in Mormon thought, at least as all powerful as it is possible to be). In fact, how could *any* physical manifestation accurately convey to a physically limited human the lack of physical limitations that God experiences? How could verbal communication in English accurately convey to a physically limited (and relatively unschooled) human the breadth of knowledge, understanding and meaning that God possessed relative to the subjects being communicated?

    With those kinds of questions swirling around in my head, I’m inclined to understand the First Vision as the most useful (not the most accurate, the most precise, the most complete or any other “most” I can devise) communication that was possible between God and Joseph Smith on that particular day. Could God use different appearances for different communications? Why not? I wear different clothes when I go to work than I do when I go to Church. And I present different aspects of my self when I argue a motion to a judge than I do when I counsel a client.

    So all in all, I’m less inclined to consider visions (or even cocktail party social meetings) as “literal” than others may be.

  20. Gary Cooper
    May 3, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    I have read through this post and the accompanying threads this morning, and wish to add some points to this, primarily in the form of questions:

    1. John H. says that he can’t understand why a member would reject the Church if science in some way “proved” the “historical impossibility” of the BoM, because the the Church is a wonderful religion anyway, so why would one reject it if one its major sources were “untrue”. Isn’t the reason because most members are not followers of Nietzsche and other German philosophers, believing that religion is a necessary pack of “beautiful lies”, important because of its emotional impact, and its rejection of reason? Isn’t our religion, for the vast majority of us, a practical, every day way of life that makes no sense if it is *not* true? How many normal human beings voluntarily engage in sacrifice and self-denial to the extent LDS do for something they believe is false? Perhaps some intellectuals can, but if this doesn’t illustrate the “disconnect” between “intellectuals” in the Church and the regular members (discussed elsewhere here at T&S) of the Church, what else does?

    2. How on earth could science ever “prove” the BoM was an historical impossibility? Wouldn’t pretty much most of the Western hemisphere have to be dug up, to a depth of hundreds of feet, to “prove” that Nephite civilization never existed? By its very nature, isn’t archeology and history a “work in progess”, with an open mind always required?

    3. Why should those of us who really *have* experienced miracles (such as seeing miraculous healings, the sudden ability to speak a foreign language without former training, near-death experiences, actually seeing/hearing/physically experiencing evil spirits and rebuking them, etc.) discount the similar experiences of others, such as in the Bible and BoM? For that matter, why should those who have *never* experienced miracles have any reason to categorically state that another’s account of same cannot be true?

    4. What, exactly, are we demanding of the Scriptures, and of the Lord? Is it not fair to say that, given what the Lord has already revealed about the Plan of Salvation and the role of Faith, the Lord will simply *not permit* the evidence to appear that would prove to the whole world, in a scientific way independent of the Holy Ghost, that the BoM is true (at least not until the Millenium, when it will be a moot point)?

    5. As a convert to the Church, who grew up in Protestantism and experienced (but never believed) the tendency to allegorize the Word of God into mush, and rejected it even before I joined the church, why in the world should I embrace such a tendency now, as a member of the only true and living Church? Would not the wisest course of action be, as others here have pointed out, to simply accept the Scriptures literally except where they or living prophets have stated otherwise, and if so doing presents problems (such as a literal world-wide flood, etc.), chalk these up to the problem of translation, misinterpretation, etc., but focus on what pertains to salvation?

    6. Did Joseph Smith see the angel Moroni or not? Did Moroni tell him the BoM was a record of the former inhabitants of this continent or not? Did Joseph F. Smith see Adam and Eve, Abraham, etc. or not? How many such questions have to be asked before we come to the root of what a testimony is? If we can believe that a prophet, being human, and misunderstand the appliccation of a doctrine or can speculate incorrectly about some Gospel subject, is that really the same thing as then taking the leap that such a prophet could lie about an actual conversation with a divine or angelic being, or just make it up? Which takes greater faith, to believe, based on one’s personal spiritual confirmnations and experiences, that the BoM is what it says it is (a real spirtual account of real people and experiences), or to believe in a God who simply makes up stuff out of whole cloth? Which of these two types of faith can genuinely save us?

  21. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    “If the Book of Mormon is “fictitious,” does that mean the plates were too? The Urim and Thummim? Or are you saying that the plates, while real, might have told a story heavy with mythical elements.”

    It’s certainly possible that the plates were real and told a mythical story. The plates are an interesting anomaly for those who advocate a metaphorical book. However, how is this any different than the Book of Abraham. I think most people have pretty much given up trying to argue that the papyri Joseph Smith even remotely had anything under the sun to do with Abraham. Yet we still regard it as scripture – a revelation Joseph received since the papyri inspired him to recieve it.

    It does seem like Joseph had something with him, whether they were gold plates or not. I don’t think one can easily argue he didn’t have anything and he was just lying to everyone about it. On the other hand, as I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, the plates have their own dilemmas. If we trust Joseph’s description, they would be far too heavy for him to be carrying them around the way he describes. At the least, they’d be much, much too heavy for Moroni to haul them all the way from Mesoamerica to New York state.

    I don’t want to pretend like the idea of a mythical or metaphorical Book of Mormon doesn’t have many of its own problems. I just find that it allows for more possibilities and can provide more explanations right now than a literal Book of Mormon. That may change someday, and I would welcome the change. But for my personal spirituality, accepting that the Book of Mormon may not have historically happened has really helped me. It’s allowed me to get over the problems that might be a hang up for me and still read and use the book as a spiritual guide.

    Although I’ve come across as pretty defensive of the “metaphorical model”, I’m in reality undecided and try not to let the discussion trouble me. I find personally, I’m much more comfortable right now in my life with that position instead of trying to engage in all sorts of intellectual gymnastics to try and make everything fit. I know such gymnastics are possible – I hear them all the time. Here’s some examples:

    “Maybe the Lamanite’s DNA changes when their skin was darkened, and that’s why we can’t find them.”

    “Maybe the promised land the Book of Mormon talks about isn’t a literal promised land, but a spiritual one, since the Book of Mormon took place in such a small location.”

    “Maybe God lightened the plates for Moroni to carry.”

    “Maybe when the Book of Mormon talks about horses, it really means domesticated deer.”

    “Maybe when the intro to the BoM and the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants talk about Native Americans as descendants of the Lamanites, maybe they only mean spiritual descendants, not literal.”

    I know many people feel solace and comfort from such explanations, and I don’t deny them that. But personally, it feels like twisting my brain like a pretzel to make it all fit. So I have no problem not needing to make it fit.

  22. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    John H: You aren’t saying that LDS history is “fictitious” just because someone happens to make a film about it? I am not sure that the historical reality of grips and lighting directors goes very far to mitigate the historical reality of Joseph Smith. Please clarify: Are you analogizing the Book of Mormon with Legacy in the sense that both are recreations (with mythical and fictional elements) of something that actually happened, so that the plates, angels, divine interpreters, etc., are real—or is your analogy a not very careful one, and your position is that the Book of Mormon is possibly a work like The Lord of the Rings.

  23. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 1:27 pm

    The intellectual gymnastics you describe don’t seem to be of a very rigorous kind. Joseph Smith said the plates had the “appearance” of gold, and left it at that. Emma said they “seemed to pliable like thick paper and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb.” The image is not one of Joseph traipsing about with a solid gold block.

  24. May 3, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    John H.: What do you make of John Gee’s argument that most of the papyri available to Joseph Smith were destroyed in the Chicago fire, and we will therefore never know the true nature of the Book of Abraham translation?

  25. Kaimi
    May 3, 2004 at 1:49 pm


    The thing is, I think that the Book of Mormon was never meant to be a history book. God is not an historian, and the Book of Mormon is not his dissertation, supposed to be 100% historically accurate.

    The Book of Mormon is scripture, and it is intended to teach us the gospel. That may be a goal that can be accomplished with a pure history book. But, if it comes down to deciding whether to (a) write the most historically accurate book, or (b) write the most effective book for bringing people to the gospel, I think that God would choose (b).

    Suppose that some important historical detail was left out, or even changed. For example, what if Nephi had another brother — call him George. George was a more-or-less good guy, who opposed Laman and Lemuel at times, and he’s the one who went back for the brass plates. But George eventually fell away for some reason.

    Mormon prays, and the Spirit tells him that the most effective teaching tool will be a book that shows Nephi doing some of the things that George actually did. So Mormon writes such a book.

    I think that is a perfectly acceptable way to write scripture. It would be a terrible way to write a history book, but the Book of Mormon isn’t a history book. It is designed to bring people unto Christ. If that requires altering its historical content, so be it.

  26. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    But Gary’s addressing the idea that Nephi can be viewed as Joseph Smith’s creation without fundamentally altering LDS faith and practice, rather than how Mormon compiled his history.

  27. lyle
    May 3, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    John: Great point re: the experiences of others in other churches. I think the answer to that is fairly simple, as that of the films:

    The HG testifies of all truth. There is some truth in the movies, even literal historical truth. So…the HG. Same with other churches, esp. non-Christian churches. There is truth there, and so the HG is there also. While it might be somewhat heterodox, I don’t have a problem believing that God wants some individuals, or even many, to be in churches other than the LDS church. While this is surely just a pit-stop, whether for a year or the mortal life, is a diff. matter.

  28. May 3, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    Kaimi: It seems that you are conflating two different claims. First, there is the claim that the Book of Mormon is not an “accurate history” of Nephite and Lamanite civilization as that term is understood in modern historiography. Second, there is the claim that the Book of Mormon is essentially fictional, that there were no Lamanites and Nephites, and that we should understand it as an inspiring (or even inspired) novel. It seems that one can subscribe to the first position without subscribing to the second positition and that it is a mistake to think that all attacks on the second position require that one deny the first position.

  29. May 3, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    John H said: “But for my personal spirituality, accepting that the Book of Mormon may not have historically happened has really helped me. It’s allowed me to get over the problems that might be a hang up for me and still read and use the book as a spiritual guide.”

    This highlights a neglected issue: What are the consequences of a figurative Book of Mormon? For some, it clears away “problems” with defending the literal story. For others (who accept the literal story and don’t see any “problems” with it) a figurative Book of Mormon position creates new problems. Since the second group outnumbers the first by about 100 to 1, officially endorsing figurative approaches would create more problems for the Church than it would solve. Of course, the Church also perpetuates the situation by teaching only the literalist version.

    The pragmatic solution would be to let the literalists think literally and the figurtivists think figuratively, except most won’t accept that “live and let live” approach. LDS leaders are clearly not willing to tolerate any approach departing from the literal model, while figurativists keep publishing articles that try to embarrass the literalists (such as the recent Malay geography article).

  30. Gary Cooper
    May 3, 2004 at 2:32 pm


    After giving your example of what might constitute an appropriate manner of writing scripture (Nephi substituting himself for deeds another brother did, because God tells him it makes better copy), you state,

    “I think that is a perfectly acceptable way to write scripture. It would be a terrible way to write a history book, but the Book of Mormon isn’t a history book. It is designed to bring people unto Christ. If that requires altering its historical content, so be it.”

    Now, Kaimi. Would you feel the same way about this mode of “communication” if your own son told you a similar story, and when you confronted him, he replied, “But Dad, the Spirit told me to tell you the story that way, because it would make you feel better than the truth!”

    At what point can this discussion be said to leave the field of Gospel discussion and enter the realm of humor? I believe there is a “god” who was a “liar from the beginning”, and who “deceived our first parents”, but this “god” is Satan, not Elohim. Granted, God may deliberately withhold all the details He knows because of our inabilty to fully grasp something, but isn’t it a whole new world to say that God made up a beautiful lie called the BoM, to “bring us to Christ”? This makes Heavenly Father seem more like a salesman than a God. Come on, now.

    I find it ironic that some here on this post seem ready to forgive and applaud God for supposedly engaging in a form of story-telling that some of the same people decry when early Church leaders may seem to have done the same thing with early written Church histories (Documentary History of the Church, etc.) Just which God do we worship, the God who “cannot lie”, or the “god”, say of the Unification Church (“moonies’), whose adherents believe, as one of them told me years ago, that “God lies, God has always lied, all through history. He has to for our own good!”

  31. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    Ok, let me try and answer all the questions in one post (since I’m already painfully long-winded).

    I’m not saying that LDS history is fictitious based on my movie analogy. Like all analogies, it can be taken too far. My point only was that people can have spiritual experiences based on things that aren’t true. A friend of mine described an experience he once had:

    While working at the Utah State University archives, a man brought in a piece of paper he had recently found, authored by Joseph Smith. He showed the curator and they were all very excited. My friend just happened to be a student there and was just in the right place at the right time and saw the paper. He held it in his hands and while doing so, had a powerful spiritual experience testifying of Joseph Smith as a prophet and that the Book of Mormon was true.

    You can probably see where I’m going with the story. That was in 1980 and five years later Mark Hofmann was arrested and the Anthon transcript that my friend held in his hands, and had a powerful experience with, was proven a forgery. So, was his spiritual experience invalid? Of course not.

    You mention (Kingsley) that the intellectual gymnastics don’t seem to be all that rigorous. Perhaps my examples weren’t great, or perhaps you don’t find them to be rigorous. That’s fine, we just see things differently. I think Brent Metcalfe described my own feelings quite well in the last issue of Sunstone. Paraphrasing Brent, on the one hand, we can’t trust what Church leaders have said about Book of Mormon geography, because they consistently got it so wrong (it would seem) for so many years. Everyone from Joseph Smith to Ezra Taft Benson has followed the hemispheric model (Joseph even claiming a revelation at one time where he saw a Nephite battle in Illinois) and stated that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the last great battle of the Nephites. Anthon H. Lund called it the “waterloo of the Nephites” and he and President Joseph F. Smith bought arrow heads from a souvenir shop that had been retrieved by Cumorah, and they believed they were Nephite weapons. But on the other hand, we’re told we can’t trust secular scholars who don’t accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and are, in fact, very dismissive of it. What we’re left then, in my opinion, is a maze of problems to try and make fit. We have to come up with answers as to why Joseph Smith, the source for the Book of Mormon who had visions of its characters, got the geography so incredibly wrong. We have to come up with answers as to why no scholar outside the Church takes Book of Mormon claims remotely seriously. For me personally, it’s a tough path to negotiate, so I’m more comfortable saying “I don’t know”, instead of basically putting my trust in FARMS and BYU who are the ones controlling what we know about Book of Mormon historicity.

    To answer Nate’s question, I’m pretty skeptical of Gee’s claim, but I don’t rule out the possibility entirely. My skepticism arises from the fact that it seems like the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham came from papyri that was not destroyed and those facsimiles have very different meanings that those given to them in the Book of Abraham. So personally, I find the argument that Joseph had a revelation to be more compelling than that the papyrus was just destroyed.

  32. Kaimi
    May 3, 2004 at 3:04 pm


    I understand that you think it’s important that the Book of Mormon be a historically accurate depiction of Nephite history. I don’t think it’s important. There are hundreds, thousands of things that are more important to me than ancient Nephite history, as history.

    The only reason these stories matter is for the lessons they impart. (I think that we have pretty strong evidence that early Nephite history doesn’t matter, since the Book of Mormon itself skips over hundreds of years in a few pages).

    As history, I don’t care about it. I don’t think it will matter at all if, for example, Teancum really existed as a single person, or if he was actually two people, one named Tee and one named Ancum.

    I don’t think that God has a duty to be a great or even an accurate historian for us; I think that his mission is to bring to pass our eternal life and exaltation, however that can be achieved.

    I’m not saying that the Book of Mormon is allegorical or fictionalized in places by the prophets, just that, if that is the case, it would not disturb me at all. Like I said, I don’t read it for the history.

  33. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    John H writes, “for me [conflicting scholarly ideas about the Book of Mormon are] a tough path to negotiate, so I’m more comfortable saying ‘I don’t know,’ instead of basically putting my trust in FARMS and BYU who are the ones controlling what we know about Book of Mormon histrocity [sic].”

    First off, the idea that FARMS and BYU are “controlling” anything when it comes to Book of Mormon historicity is a little laughable, especially when it follows hard on the heels of “Brent Metcalfe described my own feelings quite well in the last issue of Sunstone”—i.e. there are lots of interpretive voices out there, and each of us is quite free to lean toward one or the other. Secondly, I think most of us are comfortable saying “I don’t know” when it comes to questions of Book of Mormon geography etc.—otherwise, what is the point of faith?

    Far from “basically putting my trust in FARMS and BYU” (or any other scholarly venue), I would say that I know the Book of Mormon is true (i.e. is an ancient, translated record) by the power of the Holy Ghost, and that when intellectual problems arise I find the solutions posited by FARMS and BYU more convincing than those of Bret Metcalfe and Sunstone.

  34. May 3, 2004 at 3:43 pm

    Kingsley: “I know the Book of Mormon is true (i.e. is an ancient, translated record)”

    I guess I’m confused as to what you mean when you say it’s true. Do you mean that it is a true translation? A true (accurate) account of real past events? A true description of how the Gospel works? Maybe you could specify.

    As to FARMS & BYU’s role in historcity arguments, there’s no question that FARMS and BYU lead the way in their fields of research, and bear the most influence for church-wide interpretation. For an example, you should look at the Church’s newsroom website and look to see how often the Church defers to FARMS and BYU historians for BoM-related questions. So I’d disagree with your depiction of John’s claims as “laughable”.

  35. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    Kaimi writes, “The only reason these stories matter is for the lessons they impart. … as history, I don’t care about it.” I think he is missing Gary’s point. The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion because the truth of Joseph Smith’s claims in general rises or falls with the truth of his claims about the Book of Mormon. In that way, the Book of Mormon’s historical nature is something every Latter-day Saint should care intensely about, and the idea that “Book of Mormon stories that my teacher tells to me” were created by Joseph Smith in order to inspire us should be intensely rejected. So while Kaimi’s position is a perfectly respectable one within the community of believers in plates, angels, divine interpreters, etc., it’s really not very helpful in considering the claims of those outside that community.

  36. Gary Cooper
    May 3, 2004 at 3:53 pm

    Kaimi, John H., et al.,

    I think I do understand what you are getting at, that *if* it turned out that the BoM was just an allegory, that it would not sway you from your loyalty and participation in the Restrored Gospel. I actually agree—Whatever God does is right, though we may not at the time understand His reasons for doing it, as Joseph Smith said. So, *if* God ends up telling us, when history is over, that the BoM wasn’t a real depiction of real events, then I’ll accept that.

    My point is, that I think the idea that the BoM is just an allegory (or that major points of it are) creates more problems, from logic alone, than it solves, and that trying to beleive that can seem (to some of us at least) more comical than crude attempts to make logic fit the other side of the aregument (so Kaimi my last thread was a good-natured poke, not meant to be offensive).

    From my own perspective, I see the BoM in the same way as I do a Mormon family’s family history. It is possible to write a family history that includes brief discussions of historical events that took place during the lives of the family members, and how those members fit in to those events. The important points are those specifically dealing with the family members and their relationship to God. The historical information is true, but relatively unimportant and hence so basic and perfunctory that much is left out, so that taken on its face it would be maddeningly oversimplified to a true historian, and border on being inaccurate.

    For example, I (and many others, these opinions aren’t unique to me) strongly suspect that the “black skin” of the Lamanites may not have been as dark as they may make it seem, and may reflect the Nephite’s own racial prejudice. I also suspect that the term “Lamanites” came to be a generic description of anybody who wasn’t a white Nephite, whether they were descendents of Laman or actually indigenous. The Nephite writers may have overblown the extent to which the conflict between the Nephites and Lamanites was a “family conflict”, when it may actually really have been a constant war against their various pagan, Indian neighbours, all of whom “looked the same” to the white Nephites. Now if we assume that these last two opinions could be true, it makes sense that an historian, reading the BoM’s description of the same issues, could say, “What a gross oversimplification! What a jingoistic account! It virtually falsifies history!” Well, in a sense, yes. In another sense, the point is the family history, not the historical elements. Even the historical info is true, *from the point of view of the writers*—in much the same way that I know, when I read diaries of people living in the Reconstruction South, that the “War of Northern Aggression” referred to was a real event, though I may disagree that the war in question was as described. The important part is that the diary describes how Grandpa Joe met and fell in love with Grandma Jane, etc. (By the way, I have heard elsewhere, but don’t have enough knowledge to know, that Jewish histories always have the cultural tendency to exaggerate the importance of Jews in whatever geographical location they are found, which is something we Mormons sometimes do also. Anyone know if this is true? It would explain some issues.)

    In short, for those who want to believe the BoM is an allegory, etc.—fine, we are all entitled to our opinions. I think the Lord does have a sense of humor (I especially think this when I look in the mirror), and He must chuckle when he looks at our puny reason and logic trying to lay hold of both sides of this argument. It’s all clear to Him, and will be to us some day. In any case, let’s just be careful that we don’t slip into thinking that somehow God is “pulling one over” on us. God presides over the Gospel, not a pyramid scheme or multi-level marketing plan.

  37. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    Perhaps the word “controlling” wasn’t the right one, and I apologize for that. But I’m not aware of anything Church leaders have recently done in terms of promoting the historicity of the Book of Mormon, other than to point people to FARMS and bear testimony. My perspective is that the tail is clearly wagging the dog in this instance. FARMS has changed the doctrine of the Church and has, it would seem, recently had the endorsement of the Church in this matter. That’s fine, but I think Brent’s assessment is correct.

    Again, for me there will always be larger questions that deserve looking at. You say you know the Book of Mormon is true by the power of the Holy Ghost. Yet surely many people have prayed about the Book of Mormon and felt nothing. What are they doing wrong? Or are they doing anything wrong? Certainly people of other faiths have had spiritual experiences that don’t exactly fit with Mormonism – what about them? Citing spiritual witnesses strikes me as quite a dilemma. On the one hand, I would never be dismissive of your experience or tell you that it didn’t happen. But if I’m going to extend you that courtesy, then I have to do the same for others, don’t I? In short, why do we get to be right, and everyone else gets to be wrong?

  38. Jack
    May 3, 2004 at 4:00 pm


    You make a good point about the difficulty in defining (what I would say is) the precise “quality” of a heavenly manifestation, ie. was it a dream with figurative elements or a waking vision with the same or more literal elements and if so how filtered are they so as to be useful to us, etc. But, I think the real question is – was there a Joseph Smith? And if so, did he have a divine manifestation?

  39. May 3, 2004 at 4:11 pm

    John H.: Given the nature of the truth claim made by those who say “I know by the Holy Ghost that X is true,” I doubt that you can maintain the “nice” position that you seek to maintain. You are going to have to affirm:

    1. Contradictory truth claims can be simultaneously valid. By by to logic! How are we going to have discussions now?

    2. The experience wasn’t really an experience with the Holy Ghost but was just some emotional response, etc. Hardly consistent with your “nice” position.

    3. The experience was really an experience with the divine, but you are misinterprettting it. This, it seems to me, is the closest that we can get to the kind of “nice” eucimenicism that you seem to be aiming for. In the end, while it is nicer that (2), I think you have to acknowledge that it does nevertheless require that you believe people are mistaken.

  40. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    “In that way, the Book of Mormon’s historical nature is something every Latter-day Saint should care intensely about, and the idea that “Book of Mormon stories that my teacher tells to me” were created by Joseph Smith in order to inspire us should be intensely rejected.”

    I disagree. First, if the Book of Mormon was a myth or metaphor, it doesn’t necessarily mean Joseph Smith made it up. It still could have come from God, again, just as the Adam and Eve story came from God yet probably (at least in my estimation) didn’t happen. I also don’t think we need to “intensely reject” claims that the Book of Mormon is inspired yet not historical fact. Suggesting that we all have to view the scriptures the same way seems akin to my born-again Christian friend who thinks that since he’s had a powerful experience with Jesus, the rest of the world should leave their faith and follow the same path he has. I reject both notions, because for me, all minutia, arguments, evidences, testimony bearing, etc. aside, they say one thing and one thing only to me: I am right and you are wrong. Believe what I believe.

    Such claims make me uncomfortable, since they come from so many sides and so many people, none of which can demonstrate the truth of their claims.

  41. May 3, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    John H.: What is the purpose of making arguments and trying to persuade people if it is not to change their beliefs? Furthermore, when you suggest that those who strenuously claim that the historicity of the Book of Mormom must be insisted upon are mistaken, how are you NOT saying “I am right (if only about my ambiguity) and you are wrong”?

  42. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    Steve Evans: There’s no question that FARMS and BYU are leading “the way in their fields of research, and bear the most influence for church-wise interpretation”; that is a far cry, however, from the idea that they’re “controlling what we know” about those fields of research. That *is* laughable. As far as what I said about the Book of Mormon goes, I was responding to the issue at hand: does the Book of Mormon lose force if it’s seen as “inspired fiction” rather than as an ancient, translated record. The subtleties of my testimony (such as they are) will have to wait for another day.

    John H: Granting that citing spiritual witnesses is problematical, does that mean we stop citing them? That we don’t bear testimony? Who on earth is saying “we get to be right, and everybody else gets to be wrong”? The Church’s position has always been that we accept truth wherever it lies (weak pun intended). I personally find Roman Catholic teaching and history thrilling and gorgeous, and the fact the hundreds of millions of people have felt (and feel) the same way doesn’t surprise me one bit. The Church shares basic Christian truths with Christians the world over, and basic ethical truths with non-Christians the world over. There are vast areas of agreement. That there is disagreement as well shouldn’t paralyze me from telling others what my experience has been.

  43. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    I’m not sure number one is as impossible as you suggest, Nate. But you are also right, we all have to acknowledge at some point that some people are mistaken. I don’t want to make it sound as if I believe in a free-for-all love fest of everyone is right, no one is wrong, we’re all going to heaven, we’re just taking different paths to get their. I don’t have too much problem saying I reject David Koresh’s perspective, or the Lafferty’s, or … you get the idea.

    On the other hand, I am much, much more comfortable accepting the paradox that seems to exist in the world instead of trying to figure out why everyone else is wrong and I’m right. Seems a bit convenient, if you ask me, being born into the one true Church.

    I can’t pretend like I can explain the paradox or make sense of it, but I know I like it a lot more than what the alternative is. That paradox is, there are conflicting claims and spiritual experiences in the world. I know they all can’t be right, but I don’t want to be the one to narrow it down and say which one is right, either. The reality is, people have had visions of Mary, Jesus, God, Siddhartha, Vishnu, Allah, etc. In fact, studies of near death experiences show that people who have a close brush with death almost always follow their own worldview. In other words, a Christian who has a near death experience doesn’t see Mohammed or Allah. A Hindu doesn’t see Jesus.

    I don’t put too much stock in near death experiences, but I think the point is an interesting one. I know other people have plenty of explanations for these sorts of dilemmas that bring them great comfort and peace, and I have no desire to deny them that. But they don’t work for me – they never have. I find I am much more at peace just saying “I don’t know how it all works.”

  44. May 3, 2004 at 4:31 pm

    I’ve actually found the opposite. I’ve found people who seem wililng to discount the historicity of the Book of Mormon but seem more than willing to treat the Bible – especially the NT – as accurate.

    With regards to Genesis. I think there is a very different *style* than the BoM. However I agree that simply discounting its historicity is dangerous. Accuracy may be weak. It may have morphed stories to fit some mythic image or point. But I think it dangerous to simply discount it.

    Fiction simply doesn’t have the impact that history does. Further, many significant doctrines lose significance if they aren’t grounded by some kind of historicity. (i.e. does the meeting at Adam-Ondi-Ahman make any sense if there is no Adam?)

    I think the problem is that people make an either/or situation with figurative imagery.

  45. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 4:37 pm

    John H: What, in your estimation, makes the idea of a church or community of believers meaningful? Can there be no dogma, no (basically) inflexible foundational beliefs whatsoever? Since some people believe that Jesus was the Son of God while others believe that he was (only) a prophet of God while others believe that he was (only) a man, does that mean the Church should not take a firm position on one or the other?

  46. Jack
    May 3, 2004 at 4:38 pm

    John H.

    Would we dare tell an investigator that the events in the Book of Mormon are probably only figurative and then try to convince them that it is a witness of Christ? Would it not be more convincing to share it as a book which contains a record of real witnesses or testimonials?

    With out trying to put words in Kingsley’s mouth, I think this is what he’s getting at.

  47. May 3, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    John H.: I understand the appeal of the lets-love-the-paradox-and-all-profess-ignorance position. I adopt it myself with great frequency. On the other hand, I think that it is a substantive position that rather directly critiques other substantive positions and we ought not to pretend otherwise.

    As for affirming (1), I am doubtful. Arguing that truth is complicated, historically conditioned, etc. is not the same thing as claiming that mutually contadictory statements can simultaneously be affirmed without reinterpretation. I realize that there were some literary theorists in the 1970s and 1980s who read some French philsophy from the 1960s and 1970s and argued rather strenuously for the opposite position, but just because you can surf the wave of an academic fad to tenure does not mean that you are right.

  48. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    “What is the purpose of making arguments and trying to persuade people if it is not to change their beliefs? Furthermore, when you suggest that those who strenuously claim that the historicity of the Book of Mormom must be insisted upon are mistaken, how are you NOT saying “I am right (if only about my ambiguity) and you are wrong”?”

    You got me, Nate. I can’t argue with this. However, I’ll just offer a few thoughts. First, I don’t have any problem with discussion or making arguments to try and change beliefs. Isn’t it the free exchange of ideas that can lead to new ideas and arguments. Again, I’m probably coming off a bit different than I intend – I certainly don’t want to sound like I live in San Francisco in the 60s telling everyone that there’s no point in discussing anything, that truth is wherever you want it to be. But I think discussions surrounding religious beliefs and truth, although are definitely worth having, often end up worse than they began. If someone believes they’ve had a spiritual experience or witness, they aren’t likely to change their mind soon.

    As for the second part, you’re correct of course, and I was foolish for not catching onto my own irony.

  49. May 3, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    Kingsley, the subtleties of your testimony are part of the issue at hand: what does it mean to say it’s true? If you want to post about that some other time, that’s fine — but don’t dismiss it as irrelevant.

    In my mind, the only meaningful way we can testify that the Book of Mormon is true is to say that it has successfully led us to Christ; that is, the ancient or historical nature of the book is secondary to its intended purpose of bringing us to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. If we’re looking at the Book of Mormon for any other reason, these are ancillary at best to the BoM’s stated purpose.

    This is why I asked you what you meant in your testimony — are you testifying that the book has brought you to Christ, are you testifying that it’s an accurate record of real events, or what? Bearing testimony of these secondary things is questionable, IMHO.

    As for your statement about FARMS’ control — John’s clarified his point. But labelling someone’s point as “laughable” isn’t appropriate or very neighborly, which is why I brought it up.

  50. Gary Cooper
    May 3, 2004 at 4:49 pm


    You are right. I haven’t addressed that part of this discussion yet, as a couple of other threads by others have tried to do so, but I believe, as I think I tried to express in my last thread, that a spritual record can still be true, and still have accurate historical information, even if the historical elements of the record are so thin and lightly touched upon as to not do the real history justice. That is a far cry from saying the whole record is an allegory or some kind of beautiful, well-menaing fiction. Why does it have to be “either-or”? Also, why is there a *need* to make the entire BoM, or the large sections of it, into allegory, just because there isn’t any genunine archeological evidence to make the world stop and say, “Gosh, the Mormons were right—Baptize me!!!”

    I said earlier that I don’t think the Lord would even permit such evidence to ever be found before the Millenium, for the same reason He had Moroni take the plates back. If some archeologist actually was about to stumble onto the ruins of Zarahemla, I wouldn;t be surprised if the Lord caused an earthquake or some other event to hide it away. (For this same reason, I believe there was a Noah, and there was a flood of at least “the land” where He lived, understanding what we know about the Hebrew world for “world”, but I don’t think we’ll find the Ark on the present day Mt. Ararat.)

  51. Gary Cooper
    May 3, 2004 at 5:01 pm


    I meant “…understanding what we know about the Hebrew *word* for ‘world'”, not “*world* for ‘world'”.

  52. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    Steve Evans: You’re right, it wasn’t neighborly—I stand corrected.

    I’m looking hard to see where I might have dismissed the subtleties of my testimony as irrelevant, and failing.

  53. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 6:01 pm


    I do believe there can be dogma and foundational beliefs that exist in a community of believers. Otherwise, Church would be mighty boring. But therein lies the problem – what qualifies as a “foundational belief”? I would argue that belief that the Book of Mormon is the word of God is a pretty important foundational belief for Mormonism. But I don’t tie that into historicity. The two issues are entirely separate. Whether or not the Book of Mormon came from God is simply a matter of faith, as far as I’m concerned. Whether the Book of Mormon was a historical record, in my estimation, is a bit more complicated than that.

    Here’s an example: Belief in Santa Claus can never be proven or disproven – it is simply a matter of faith. But once we have someone suggesting that his workshop is in the North Pole, we can take steps to demonstrate just how true that statement is.

    It’s impossible to prove a negative, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t signs that point us in a certain direction. We can never prove whether or not Santa Claus has a workshop somewhere in the North Pole. But we can go look for it, and we can get a general idea of whether or not it’s there. When we continue to come up with no evidence for Santa’s workshop, we can say that it was much smaller than originally thought, or that maybe it’s underground, or whatever.

    The same strikes me as being true with the Book of Mormon. It is simply impossible to demonstrate whether or not the book came from God. And while it may be impossible to say concretely whether it did or did not take place on the American continent, we can see signs that point us in a certain direction.

  54. May 3, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    Santa Claus. Well, that’s a comparison that’s sure to get some people here worked up, which is certainly not lost on John H, but we don’t need to stir the pot to get people interested here. Why goad friendly people into making rash comments?

    Ironically, Santa Claus has a historical antecedent, St. Nicholas in 6th century Turkey or something. So in the mind of a Clausian there is historical support, a kernal of truth to the story, while to an anti-Clausian the tale is debunked because he’s not living in a toyshop at the North Pole. Even with Santa Claus, people will manage to see it their own way.

  55. Greg Call
    May 3, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    We’ve actually had a little discussion on Father Christmas, as well as professions of sincere belief in the same:

  56. May 3, 2004 at 7:02 pm

    Dave: “The [INSERT MORMON BELIEF HERE] as Santa Clause” trope seems to actually be a favorite of Brent Metcalfe, or at least seems to be from various exchanges that I have seen him have on LDS-PHIL over the years, and since John H. sweetly acknowledges his current Metcalfe debts, one shouldn’t be too hard on him.

    For what it is worth, Russell has gone on the record several times here as believing in Santa Clause, so be careful what you say ;->…

  57. May 3, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    “It is simply impossible to demonstrate whether or not the book came from God.”

    That may be true in terms of external, objective proofs. Clearly, people can form their own conclusions regarding the BoM from personal revelation, which I don’t think we should necessarily discount as much as we have.

    It’s interesting though that personal revelation concerning the BoM sometimes manifests towards outside, objective proof: the Three Witnesses, for example, or when people bear testimony about the BoM being a true translation. What are we supposed to do with their testimonies? John, you seem to point towards rejecting their testimonies, although I’m sure you wouldn’t do so entirely. What’s the right approach, then?

    p.s. Santa is the devil. Just rearrange them letters, guys, and you’ll become a believer.

  58. May 3, 2004 at 7:14 pm

    Santa Clause arguments are always weak. It tends to confuse a perspective from a “god’s eye view” in which we can evaluate evidence from the evidence available to the believer. To what limited experience a six year old has, it very well makes sense to believe in Santa Clause, just as it made a lot of sense in the 19th century to believe in aether. Yet the charge of “just an other Santa Clause” presupposes the ability to make that judgment that it *is*. i.e. it ends up begging a lot of questions.

    Regarding old St. Nick. He also was known for getting into a fight over the doctrine of the Trinity and pummeling a few “non-believers.” I wrote about this humorous fact back at Christmas.

  59. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    John H: I simply disagree that you can divorce the Book of Mormon’s historicity from the Book of Mormon’s being the word of God. Or rather you can, but at great cost to the word of God part. But perhaps I’m misinterpreting you; I’m still not quite sure of your position—did ancient men scratch out stories on physical plates which Joseph Smith translated, or did Joseph Smith make the stories up, or was it a combination of the two, or—? “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” isn’t a particularly effective subtitle if we are saying “another twentieth-century testament of Jesus Christ”—we’ve got plenty of those.

    The Book of Mormon gets its punch as a witness, so to speak, by being an ancient book whose writers, widely separated from the Biblical writers, nevertheless testified of the same things. Jesus Christ as Son of God wasn’t an idea created by overzealous disciples after his death—because you see he had other disciples, an entire world away, who never knew him in life and yet also named him Son of God. Richard Bushman believes that “Mormonism [is] history, not philosophy”—it gets its distinctive power from its view of how God works in history, not ideas; a belief in ancient plates, seer stones and angelic visitors is foundational to the faith.

    We’ve talked a lot about geography, but what about some of the Book of Mormon’s internal wonders (as far as looking for evidence goes)? What about the view, as stated by Terryl L. Givens, that “attributing to a young farmboy the 90-day dictated and unrevised production of a 500-page narrative that incorporates sophisticated literary structures, remarkable Old World parallels, and some 300 references to chronology and 700 to geography with virtually perfect self-consistency is problematic”? I have come to the point where it would take greater faith on my part to believe Joseph Smith *did* create the book than otherwise.

  60. John H
    May 3, 2004 at 7:37 pm

    Sorry all, I had no idea I was opening up a can of worms with the Santa Claus analogy. It wasn’t meant to offend or sound dismissive of anyone’s arguments. I also had no idea that Brent Metcalfe had used the Santa Claus thing before. It’s just what popped into my head at the time.

    Kingsley, I do agree there are some remarkable things inside the Book of Mormon that seem to support historicity. But there’s just as many things inside the Book of Mormon that cause problems for historicity – including names, population sizes, quotes from the King James Bible, etc. Critics and apologists have argued these issues long before I was even born. My perspective is, I prefer not to concretely say that the Book of Mormon is a historical record, or to say that it is a nineteenth century creation, or to say that Joseph Smith made up some of it but other parts were true. I know that will drive some people nuts. They need to categorize their heroes and villains properly. But I’m just out of ways to explain myself.

    I believe the book is the Word of God. I have faith that it is, and I have hope that it is. All faith is a choice. I’ve made the choice to believe in this. I’m troubled that some in the LDS Church have managed to basically make faith and knowledge the same thing. Faith, by its very definition, assumes a bit of doubt and skepticism, doesn’t it? Faith isn’t a perfect knowledge of things, right? I am skeptical that the Book of Mormon is a historical record of actual events, but I am more than open to the possibility. But I have faith that it is the Word of God.

  61. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 7:54 pm

    John L: Your faith is admirable. I think you are being uncharitable, however, when you say that a “concrete” position on the truthfulness (or otherwise) of Joseph Smith’s account of how the Book of Mormon came into being implies “a need to categorize … heroes and villains”—come on.

  62. Kingsley
    May 3, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    John H, I mean.

  63. Matt Evans
    May 3, 2004 at 9:59 pm

    John H,

    I sympathise with those who have pointed out that your view that the Book of Mormon may not be an historical account raises as many questions as it solves. It appears that you’ve simply exchanged the historical dilemmas of silk and Isaiah for the historical dilemmas of urim and thummin and gold plates seen and hefted.

    Where did Joseph get the gold plates? Where are they now?

    Given your dismissal of spiritual affirmations of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, why do you have faith that it’s the Word of God?

    On the surface it appears to exemplify the “convenience of being born into the True Church” that you find troubling in other contexts.

  64. John H
    May 4, 2004 at 1:23 am

    Matt, I haven’t dismissed personal affirmations of the Book of Mormon at all. In fact, I take them quite seriously. But I don’t feel comfortable turning the spiritual affirmations of others into “Mormonism is the one true Church on the face of the whole earth and anyone who’s had a spiritual affirmation that might contradict Mormon claims must somehow be incorrect.”

    Once again, I’ll ask the larger question: What do all the Hindu legends and tales of visitations of Vishnu over the years mean? How do they fit in with Mormonism? What about those who have had visions of Mary? Of Jesus? I hear Mormons either say those people are wrong, they’re hallucinating, they’re seeing Satan, or God’s just giving them a spiritual experience in the hopes of somehow getting them on the path to Mormonism. Perhaps others on T&S have other ideas, and I’d be curious to hear them. But for the time being, I’ve made the decision to give those faith claims just as much credit as I would for someone who reads Moroni 10, prays about it, and has a spiritual experience.

    I do agree that I have exchanged one set of dilemmas for another. I have no problem with that. Personally, the dilemmas of a metaphorical book are far more appealing to me than the current dilemmas surrounding historicity. Again, the day may come when many of those dilemmas are resolved. I’ll gladly say I was wrong and not feel the least bit ashamed of what I believed right now.

  65. Matt Evans
    May 4, 2004 at 10:19 am

    Hi John H,

    I’m still perplexed.

    Most importantly, you neglected to explain the basis for *your* faith in the Book of Mormon. You said you have reservations about accepting others’ testimonies of its truthfulness, but neglected to say why you place faith in the Book of Mormon. Knowing your reasons for trusting the Book of Mormon will help me understand your perspective.

    Also, I’d still like to know your thoughts about the historicity of the gold plates seen and hefted. If they too are a product of the mind of Joseph Smith and his colleagues, in what ways are those who argue the Book of Mormon is a hoax mistaken? How is it different from the Hoffman forgery?

    As for the spiritual experiences of others, most people, of course, deny the heirarchy of spiritual visions that culminates with our prophets at the top. A subset of those people believe all *spiritual* experiences are socially constructed. Because you deny the heirarchy view, giving equal legitimacy to spiritual experiences affirming Vishnu, Zeus, or Christ, why do you not believe either:

    1. there is no *spiritual* affirmation at all, just a socially constructed emotional response, or

    2. all signs come from and all paths lead to God?

  66. greenfrog
    May 4, 2004 at 10:51 am


    May I ask a similar question of you? On what basis do you conclude that one variety of charismatic experience is to be preferred over others?

    And perhaps a more interesting question: why is it that God apparently does not *typically* respond to the sincere faith of a Hindu with a vision of Jesus Christ, but rather allows some other kind of experience to be manifested? Or the sincere faith of a Baptist with a vision of Moroni?

    I hasten to note that I am not suggesting that such things do not occur — just that they are not typical. Why?

  67. Kingsley
    May 4, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    Visions of Moroni and Jesus Christ are pretty rare, whatever your faith. Generally people have much *quieter* spiritual experiences through sacred texts. A Hindu reads his scriptures, a Baptist his, a Mormon his, and so on, and the Lord in his mercy works through each medium according to the current needs of the student.

  68. John H
    May 4, 2004 at 1:23 pm

    Matt, I’ve got to confess for the first time on this thread I’m getting a bit frustrated. That’s the second time you’ve mentioned that I dismiss or have reservations about other’s spiritual experiences or testimonies surrounding the Book of Mormon. I have never said any such thing. Or perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

    I’ve tried hard to make it clear that I absolutely accept other’s testimonies about the Book of Mormon. I believe them, and I believe they had the experience they claim to have had. But once more, that was an experience FOR THEM. I didn’t experience it. So I’m not comfortable using their experience to dismiss the experiences of others who do not have a testimony of the Book of Mormon.

    I believe life and belief in Mormonism is more complex than the very simple “stacking” we use to make everything fall into place. By stacking I mean, “If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith is a true prophet, and if Joseph Smith is a true prophet, then Gordon B. Hinckley is a true prophet, and …” I don’t think so. That seems like an amazing bit of circular logic to me. It’s as if we made up all the rules, then, when we’re the only ones who play by those rules, we declare ourselves the winner. We tell people what the requirements are for having a true Church, or for having a prophet, or for what scripture is, or what scripture means, then we pat ourselves on the back when we’re the only ones who meet those requirements.

    My own faith in the Book of Mormon comes from my own experiences with it. I’ve never prayed after reading Moroni 10 and had a powerful experience. But I very much like many of the teachings in the book and consider it a good spiritual guide. I’ve had moments reading it where I’ve felt at peace. When I read it, my life seems to be better off. I know some will immediately say, “Hey, there’s your answer,” but of course people in every faith have felt peace reading their own sacred texts. I have faith the Book of Mormon comes from God and I have hope that it comes from God because it’s a choice I’ve made. Like I said before, all faith is a choice. We all choose what we want to believe and what we want to reject.

    As for the gold plates hefted, it seems like you’re putting an awful lot into the gold plates – as if they are somehow the answer to this riddle. Just because there may have been real gold plates given to Joseph Smith hardly solves the many, many dilemmas and problems swirling around Book of Mormon historicity. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding again.

    I have no problem saying I can’t explain or understand where the gold plates came from. Do I believe Joseph Smith invented them, or made them, as some have suggested? It’s possible, but I highly doubt it. I suspect God gave them to him or led him to them in the hill. But once again, I won’t be making the leap that others make. Just because God gave Joseph the plates doesn’t mean they contained an actual record of actual peoples. Once again, I’ll refer you to the Book of Abraham and the papyri. Here we already have an example of Mormon scripture that clearly was not a literal translation, yet people have such a hard time accepting that the Book of Mormon may not have been a literal translation, rather than a revelation inspired by the gold plates.

  69. lyle
    May 4, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    to be blatant & over-inclusive, left of center folks (who tend to be figurative folks also) King Benjamin. So…here are his words on the Bom:

    Mosiah 1:6

    “O my sons, I would that ye should remember that these sayings are true, and also that these records are true. And behold, also the plates of Nephi, which contain the records and the sayings of our fathers from the time they left Jerusalem until now, and they are true; and we can know of their surety because we have them before our eyes.”

    We can always argue about what “true” means or includes, but perhaps we could just accept it as commonly used/thought of. The diction certainly reminds me of the words of the 3 & 8 witnesses.

  70. Matt Evans
    May 4, 2004 at 3:49 pm

    Hi John H,

    I apologize for frustrating you. I didn’t mean to suggest that you dismissed the relevance of others’ spiritual experiences for themselves, only your statement that such third-party witnesses don’t do much for you.

    As for stacking, I agree that the chain you mention isn’t iron clad. Even though there are gaps in the deductive reasoning, the reason the chain makes sense to most people is because of the inductive elements. Once someone accepts that God appeared to a 14 year old boy to condemn the other churches and promise to restore his ancient church, they’re willing to believe that God had a purpose for doing so. So they can see the threads that tie all of the elements into a cohesive account of God’s purpose.

    No one questions the story of the 5000 loaves with, “He made a handful of loaves turn into 5000? That’s ridiculous. He could only turn them into 500 loaves, max. But 5000? Don’t strain credulity.”

    In the same way, I’ve yet to meet someone who believed that Joseph Smith was telling the truth about the First Vision, but was lying about Moroni’s visit. Nor have I heard someone say that Yes, angels ministered to Joseph regularly and gave him ancient plates and swords, but he didn’t restore God’s church. No one thinks this way because once they accept one sign of heavenly approbation, they’ve grasped one end of the stick.

    That’s why I’m left scratching my head by your approach. You believe God could appear to a teenage boy and give him plates of gold to translate, and God may even bury gold plates and special translating glasses in the hills for angels to lead a poor boy to, but you don’t believe God could square the Book of Mormon’s historical dillemmas?

    None of this shows that the Book of Mormon *isn’t* a metaphor. It just shows why I don’t understand the reason you retreat from the position that the Book of Mormon is an historical record. It’s the selective skepticism at historical claims that perplexes me. By accepting the gold plates and the Joseph Smith story, one has swallowed the camel, so to speak, so it seems they shouldn’t strain to believe God hides evidence of pre-Columbian horses.

  71. Kingsley
    May 4, 2004 at 4:51 pm

    John H writes: “Here we already have an example [the Book of Abraham] that clearly was not a literal translation, yet people have such a hard time accepting that the Book of Mormon may not have been a literal translation, rather than a revelation inspired by the gold plates.”

    If by “literal translation” you mean the sort of translation a scholar does, then all of Joseph’s work, the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Bible stuff, etc., is going to miss the mark, because Joseph wasn’t a scholar. He didn’t know Reformed Egyptian etc. and for the Bible stuff he didn’t have *any* original sources in front of him, even if he had known enough Hebrew etc. do to a literal or traditional translation. So your example of the Book of Abraham “clearly [not being] a literal translation,” as if that makes it specially unique in the Joseph Smith canon, needs to be qualified a bit. Also, that “clearly” part needs qualification, as John Gee’s work on the amount of still-missing papyri hasn’t been disproved or, to my mind, even really vigorously rebutted.

    As far as the “hard time” people have accepting your ideas about the Book of Mormon, why should they accept them? The discovery of the papyri fragments forced us to change some of our assumptions about the Book of Abraham. We don’t have the original plates, and even if we did it might be tricky to get an authoritative translation of them. It sounds as though you’re asking us to believe (or consider believing) that perhaps they were a Nephite Book of the Dead which Joseph used as a springboard into the Book of Mormon, as some theories have him doing with the papyri and Book of Abraham. But once we’ve accepted the idea that thousands of years ago someone purposely buried the things so that God could lead a boy to them who would then make an English version using special divine interpreters, etc., it seems like the traditional view (that the stories Joseph “translated’ were actually on the plates) works fine for now.

  72. Jack
    May 4, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    How does the literal vs. figurative views of scripture impact basic doctrine? What if the Savior were only a figurative character? I’m not convinced that anything less than a real atonement suffered by a real person can induce the kind of faith necessary for salvation. Can we have real hope without a literal ressurection?

    For me, even the basic doctrine of faith as a requirement of salvation becomes convoluted if we interpret the scriptures too figuratively. Hebrews 11 & Ether 12 convey the idea that everything that God has done for the benifit of His children came after they (or at least some of them) had faith. If we take this to heart with regard to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a fulfillment of a promise made by the Lord to Nephi, Enos, Mormon, Moroni and others because of their faith; how do we comprehend it in a usefull doctrinal sense if they are only figurative characters? The idea that God fulfills His promises loses some of its punch if there’s no real second party to whom He makes His promises.

  73. lyle
    May 4, 2004 at 5:10 pm

    John: The big problem with just an “inspired” vs. a “translated” BoM is that the Prophet Joseph Smith claimed otherwise. Again as Nate pointed out, and Givens has emphasized, the Book as True/Divine Symbol is tied to Joseph as a Prophet. Although I like Matt’s camel imagery better. :)

  74. greenfrog
    May 4, 2004 at 7:08 pm


    Regarding “the current needs of the student”…

    If there is one, and only one, definitively true and correct set of scriptures and teachings, why would God withhold that information from children scattered across the globe, and prefer to communicate with them in the manner of their own false traditions?

    And if God is willing to do so with them, should we not expect that God deals with us in the same fashion and to the same degree we suppose He is dealing with others?

    Your statement seems to agree with John H’s perspective. Do I understand your point correctly?

  75. Kingsley
    May 4, 2004 at 7:57 pm

    Greenfrog: You asked:

    “If there is one, and only one, definitively true and correct set of scriptures and teachings, why would God withhold that information from children scattered across the globe, and prefer to communicate with them in the manner of their own false traditions?”

    First, let me refer you to a statement made by the First Presidency on February 5, 1978:

    “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.”

    I assume that some of those moral truths are embedded in the writings of Mohammed, Confucius, etc. So that it is not, of course, a matter of a God who “withholds” truth in preference for “false traditions.” (I’m not quite sure how my post gave you *that* impression.) Rather, God works to “enlighten whole nations and bring a higher level of understanding to individuals” with the “portion of … light” that they have. Why not just give them the whole shebang and be done with it? I don’t know. It’s very complex. I assume it has something to do with agency, and the presence of the missionary program implies that God relies on people to pass on the whole shebang. “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel,” etc.

    You also asked:

    “And if God is willing to do so with them, should we not expect that God deals with us in the same fashion and to the same degree we suppose He is dealing with others.”

    Yes. Joseph Smith often lamented that the Saints seemed satisfied with a mere portion of the light that God was willing to grant them. He was also insistent, however, that what the Saints did have represented the greatest portion of light the world had ever known and that it was crucial to get the word out as quickly and effectively as possible.

  76. greenfrog
    May 5, 2004 at 12:09 am

    Thanks for the response.


  77. lyle
    May 5, 2004 at 1:59 am

    Alt: let’s take the most recent example of “historical research” in south/central America & hash out whether it has anything to do with the BoM.

  78. Kevin Christensen
    May 6, 2004 at 3:50 am

    Alma 32:27 says “if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words…even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.” Alma does not specify which portion. That is left to the individual. Whatever works for you is a good place to start. Now with respect to religion in general, core religious experience, what I call the wine, rather than the doctrinal containers we use to interpret and carry them, includes things like awe and wonder at the creation. Both Joseph Smith (the 1832 account), and Plato started here. (I’m following Ian Barbour and Ninian Smart now.) Numinous experience (following Otto, The Idea of the Holy, dependence, distance, and contingency, being seized by the Personal Other, as in Moses 1, for example) or mystic experience, the experience of unity, serenity, loss of ego boundary, the impersonal oneness (say Emerson, or the Buddha, or certain passages in D&C 88). Such things may lead to experiences of reorientation and reconcilation (changes in both thinking and feeling, as in Alma 36) which provide release from sin, guilt, and provide courage in the face of suffering, mortality, death, and loss. This leads to experience of moral obligation, and of what Buber calls “I and Thou,” the sense of life lived in the presence of God, where God speaks through events, and you answer through actions. One can appreciate the power of mythic patterns in scripture and myth, even literature, and how it guides our understanding through life. Finally, one can discover key historical events in which the work of God seems manifest. The things that define and bind communities, like the Exodus, the story of Christ, Joseph’s first vision. All religious communities have some meaure of the kinds of core experience, but once we get to key historical events that define and bind communities, we start to get separation. It’s not a matter of which is true, but of which, if any, provides better access to the divine. Which is not just “true and living” but “well pleasing” with respect to various things spelled out in D&C 1. It’s here where Bushman’s comment about the thing that makes us Mormons is not philosophy, but what we believe happened to real people. The experience of the RLDS, as their leaders decided to abandon history, and their name, does I think, portend what would happen to us if we decided to call it all a myth, a lovely symbol. They’ve been unraveling. That doesn’t mean we don’t have real religious experience available. Or that they don’t even now. But we’d loose what binds us. “Is this not real?” Alma says. Those who say, “Nope” aren’t bound in the same way as those who say, “Yes.”

    None of the essays in the recent Sunstone discussed at all the Old World correlations in the Book of Mormon, which have implications for the possibility of a successful Old World correlation. The work starting with Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert, going through the Aston’s and the Potter and Wellington stuff, is impressive. In my opinion, Margaret Barker’s work adds to the weight of all of this in an exponential fashion. She, independently of LDS apologetics, changes everything, and makes obsolete a huge stack of common complaints against the Book of Mormon. Indeed, she opens up all sorts of things in the Book of Mormon we have never seen before. Suddenly, Jerusalem, 600 B.C. holds the keys to the origins of Christianity. She adds new levels of complication to the equation. Yet not one footnote to her work in the recent Dialogue and Sunstone essays. Even Robert Price, who has read and reviewed The Great Angel, does not seem to have noticed the potential for enlightening comparisons available. Deuteronomy as “pious fraud” yes. But Lehi would have been contemporary. Why should Joseph Smith and Margaret Barker have come up with so much the same picture, specific to one place and time, and such different sources and methods? The question totally escapes his problem field, his method, and his standards of solution, despite having all the data at hand.

    And I’m personally very impressed with Brant Gardner’s recent work on the Mesoamerican side of things. Particularly his comment that for him, everything changed when, instead of “looking for The Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica,” he started “looking for Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon.” he said that made a huge difference in the nature and quality of the correlations he saw. A simple change in perspective, very much akin to what 2 Nephi 25:5 says about the Jewish cultural context. You have to know it to see and understand it.

    But, as Kuhn says, in paradigm debates, everyone gets to decide for themselves “which problems are more significant to have solved.” It’s the unconstrained picking and choosing and weighing that makes for the chaos. In his Sourcebook, Sorenson put in a long checklist of requirements demanded by the Book of Mormon text that any potential New World Geography ought to solve. It has been 14 years, and not one alternative correlation has made use of the list. Why not? We prefer not to constrain our choice of which problems are more significant to have solved. For Olsen, “North must be my North.” For Wayne May, who likes the New York Cumorah, but refuses to offer any detailed map, tradition is King. Gardner and Sorenson offer other solutions, a very complex set all dependent on a single correlation and time period, not one bit of which got so much as a nod.

    For individuals, if a mythic approach to the Book of Mormon keeps you here. Fine. I think it’s a valid option, and the presence of such things is healthy, whether in the extreme form Groesbeck offers, or the mixture in Ostler’s 1987 version of the “expanded” Book of Mormon. But for the community to adopt it, such a thing would be suicidal. We’d fall apart in the same way the RLDS have as they transitioned to the Church of Peace. When I heard Groesbeck describing his Jungian approach at Sunstone a few years ago, he was not dismissive of the worth of historicity as he is in the published version. I wonder what happened? His footnotes and comments don’t strike me as being particularly well informed on that topic, however knowledgable in his specialty. Ostler, incidentally, has changed his views on several points in light of Barker’s work.

    Kevin Christensen
    Lawrence, KS

  79. Adam Greenwood
    May 6, 2004 at 10:21 am

    Kevin Christensen, comment of the month!

    It’s not just the RLDS, of course. Most allegorizing sects of Christianity are weakening (see the work of Phillip Jenkins). Even us poets (poetasters, in my case) aren’t romantic enough to live for a myth all the time.

    The Book of Mormon recognizes this, which is why I find the position that it is inspired fiction incongruous. The Book of Mormon emphasizes that miracles, spiritual gifts, the revealing of hidden things of the past, are the substance of real religion. On its own terms the book questions the power of fiction to save.

    So while people of faith-in-fiction are welcome to an honored place at the table, I don’t think their views are.

  80. Kristine
    May 6, 2004 at 12:05 pm

    Adam says: “So while people of faith-in-fiction are welcome to an honored place at the table, I don’t think their views are.”

    How, pray, is that possible, Adam? You can come to the table if you promise not to say what you think? You can come as long as you sit in silence while I tell you what you are supposed to think? What would such an “honored place” be like? (especially in the current context, where really all we know about anyone is his or her views?)

  81. May 6, 2004 at 12:14 pm

    Kevin, I think you do Ostler’s thesis (which was a very intelligent and responsible attempt to deal with the hermeneutical realities of translation in light of the claims implicitly made by one’s acceptance of a revealed text without source material) a disservice by associating it with a “mythic approach” to the BoM. At least, I strongly suspect Blake himself wouldn’t describe his arguments as “mythological.” Maybe you have a different, specific definition in mind. Incidentally, I didn’t know that Ostler had revised or repudiated any of his arguments about the “expanded” BoM; where has he done so?

  82. Adam Greenwood
    May 6, 2004 at 12:27 pm

    Times and Seasons isn’t the table, Kristine. We all bloviate here together.

    As to one being welcome at the Church table without all one’s views being welcome, that seems so obviously possible and common that I’m not really sure what i could say to explain it to you.

  83. May 6, 2004 at 12:32 pm

    I’d second Russell’s comments. Blake’s perspective (which he has qualified somewhat since the paper) is simply that God might inspire Joseph to add commentary explaining the underlying text. Given the way the JST translation progressed I don’t see that as being that controversial. It isn’t what some strict textualists might desire. But I personally find their arguments problematic.

  84. Kevin Christensen
    May 6, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    It’s true that Blake Ostler’s “Expansion” Hypothesis does not call for a “mythological” Book of Mormon. He does believe in real Nephites, and a real set of plates. I did not mean to give that impression of his approach overall. Blake still believes in a Midrashic view of the translation, and I still like his discussion of translation issues in his Dialogue essay. What has changed is that many of the examples he suggested for Midrashic expansions in 1987 no longer seem to require that hypothesis. Most of them responded to the charge that the Book of Mormon is “too Christian before Christ.” Margaret Barker’s work on the First Temple changes everything here. My source of information is Blake Ostler, in personal correspondence from last year that he is letting me publish in a long essay I have coming out in the next FARMS Review of Books.

    Kevin Christensen
    Lawrence, KS

  85. May 6, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    Really interesting stuff. I find it interesting that increasing numbers of “christians” (mostly academics & those from the old mainline churches)
    have fallen away from believing in the literal events in the Bible.

    1. Archaeology increasingly supports that biblical events, or at least places, are ‘real’.
    2. Mormons, who have the BoM/stick of Ephraim to “prove” the truth of the Bible…stick to literalism. i.e. many doubt that God talked to Moses directly & gave him the 10 commandments…seing this as allegory, myth, etc. For the LDS…it is much easier to take it literally, per the First Vision & other experiences by prophets in the BoM.

    On a sidenote: also interesting is that the older mainline churches are increasingly “liberal” politically…

    I wonder if there is a causal connection between liberal politics & figurative scriptural interpretation? It seems to hold up, at first glance, in the LDS community at least?

    as this is not on topic for the thread…i’ll move the discussion on this to my own blog.

  86. May 6, 2004 at 3:09 pm

    Kevin, I look forward to the paper. (If you want to send me a pre-release I wouldn’t complain either (grin)) I agree that many of the issues Blake raised in the paper have alternative explanations, in terms of apologetics. However I think from a structuralist view many passages simply are asides that are commentaries. Alma 11 being an obvious example. It seems that to assume all such asides are the province of the original editor, author, or redactor is questionable. i.e. how can we tell who the aside in Alma 11 was done by.

    Since translations necessarily require some explanation of cultural practices to make sense, I could easily see it being done later during the translation of the plates into English. The only question would then be why we have some asides, such in Alma 11, while not for others, i.e. for animal names.

  87. Rob
    May 6, 2004 at 10:19 pm

    Wow…I take a couple days off to catch up with life offline and my reply to a previous post (Mala BOM Geography) prompted another reply that sparked this thread…and I’ve missed much of the fun!

    Back to the original point of Bible vs. BOM literalism, I think that we are just now starting to see the huge opportunity with Margaret Barker’s work. I was happy to see her talk from BYU published this year in BYU studies. It is really mind blowing to see the correlations between pre-600 BC Judean/Israelic religion and Joseph Smith theology. I look forward to more correlations over the years.

    I like the idea that form criticism of some kind might be able to help us better understand both the Bible and the BOM. It might also help us out of the archaeology problems…i.e. no evidence for the conquest, united Davidic kingdom, etc. A book I enjoyed was The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein.

    What do Mormons do without the Joshua stories from the Bible? Maybe rejoice…if they were stuck in there by a misguided priest of the second temple (or even later)…then we don’t have to worry about the baby-killer God commanding destruction of innocent children. Whew! What a relief!

    The Bible turns out to be a huge jumble from different time periods, written by people with different understandings of holy things…or maybe written (compiled?) later during what we would consider the apostacy between the prophetic and Christian dispensations. Pretty cool…it turns out to be exactly what the BOM said it would be…a corrupt transmission of sacred truths, with some good stuff taken out, and some spurious stuff stuck in.

    As for historicity of the BOM…what know even less about the writing of the BOM than we do about the Bible. But could the BOM be at least similar to the Bible? Some historic truth, mixed with some old stories? For instance, what do we really know about the Book of Ether? Plates found by some wandering Zarahemla-offshoot colonists, plates given to Mosiah…then what? Redacted by Moroni? Did Mormon and Moroni include any erroneous material? Did Joseph Smith get it all right, every day, every word, while looking at his seerstones in his hat? Could he have had an off day? What about Mormon? Are all the long sermons in the BOM actual word-for-word transcriptions, and then translations, of ancient sermons…or in the tradition of ancient historiography, reconstructions or later creations? Is any of the BOM ancient psuedopigraphy? Presumably Mormon and Moroni, were redacting ancient records hundreds or thousands of years old. Who knows what that process entailed.

    The problem we have with the BOM is that we have even fewer external written sources to compare it with. We have very few ancient american texts from the time period of the BOM
    –a very few Olmec period glyphs
    –maybe something like ancient Chinese found on a few olmec figurines (really controversial readings)
    –a handfull of texts in the Isthmian script which date to the centuries right around the time of Christ.
    –Some glyphs from Teotihuacan, no really good texts, around time of Christ and later.
    –Some early and poor glyphs, no real texts, from Zapotec Oaxaca.
    –Mayan texts, most not appearing until the later Teotihuacan inspired Classic Period starting up at the end of BOM times.

    In short…we don’t have much history to compare with. However, one thing that is fascinating is the end of the BOM is a time of widespread violence and warfare when robbers from the north are fighting with Lamanites in the south–right at the exact same time in Mesoamerica when Teotihaucan leaders are conquering and taking over the Maya cities and creating the classic maya civilization. So on the one point where we can compare contemporary documents, we get much the same, if not the identical, picture.

    As more texts are discovered, we may see more and more correlations. However, just as we see that some of our Biblical materials seem to be reworked ancient Babylonian or Sumerian myths, maybe some of our BOM will be seen as reworking of other materials. I think we should be open to the probability that the BOM, like the Bible, may be a mixture of both historic and unhistoric narratives.

    Does that take away from the Bible or the BOM’s ability to lead us to Christ? One provides(Barker and others are showing us) a distorted view of the holy from Palestine. Another provides us a (we believe) less distorted, but admittedly partially distorted, view from ancient America (and maybe partially from Latter-day revelation to JS).

    I like the idea that the BOM and Bible are both imperfect and have questionable lineages…making them harder to fetishize. We can then turn directly to God himself for our understanding, rather than mire ourselves in imperfect historical (and sometimes unhistorical) records.

    Brigham Young didn’t read much…he got his word of God from God. While the BOM and Bible can help lead us to God, Latter-day Saints are somewhat unique in saying we don’t have to rely on these imperfect sources for our understanding of God. Like JS himself, we can go to the source.

    The BOM better be partially messed up…otherwise we might mistake it for the unfallible word that can only come directly through living revelation from God.

  88. Ben
    May 6, 2004 at 10:51 pm

    ACtually, Orson Scott Card has proposed something along these lines. He suggests that the Mulekites were natives, not from Jerusalem, and that Zarahemla made the whole thin gup for political gain:) From ‘The Book of Mormon: Artifice or Artifact?” whole paper available

    –Let me offer an aside on the matter of Zarahemla and the Mulekites. Much has been made of the statement by King Zarahemla that his people were descended from the youngest son of King Zedekiah. Extraordinary and completely unconvincing efforts have been made to find such a son, overlooked by the Babylonian captors of Jerusalem; just as much effort has been devoted to explaining how a good Jaredite name like Mulek could show up in the family of an Israelite king. But is this really necessary?

    In Meso-American culture, every ruling class had to assert an ancient ancestor who was a god or, at the very least, a king in an admired culture. Whoever ruled in the Valley of Mexico always had to claim to be descended from or heirs of the Toltecs. Rival Mayan cities would play at ancestral one-upmanship. Imagine, now, the vigorous and dangerous Nephites, coming down the valley of the Sidon River from the highlands of Guatemala. King Zarahemla is negotiating with King Mosiah. Mosiah tells him of his ancestry, of course, and the story of how God led Lehi and Nephi out of Jerusalem at the time when Zedekiah was king of Israel.

    To Mosiah, what he is doing is bearing his testimony and asserting the divine guidance that he receives as the legitimate king of a chosen people. To Zarahemla, what he is doing is claiming that his lineage gives him the right to rule over the people of Zarahemla and displace him from the kingship. So what does Zarahemla do? Well, Mosiah admits that his ancestors were not kings in Israel. So Zarahemla picks his most noble ancestor, Mulek, and then declares him to be the son of that last king of Israel. Thus if anybody has the right to rule over anybody, it’s Zarahemla who has the right to rule over Mosiah and his people. But Mosiah kindly points out that if Zarahemla and his people are descended from Israelites, they certainly seem to have forgotten the language and writing, and therefore have obviously degenerated from the high culture of Israel. The Nephites, on the other hand, have preserved a writing system that no one else uses, and which Zarahemla can’t read. They have a history accounting for every year since they arrived in America, which Zarahemla of course cannot produce.

    In the end, whatever negotiation there was ended up with Zarahemla bowing out of the kingship and his people becoming subject to rule by the Nephites. But the story of Mulek served a very useful purpose even so — it allowed the people to merge, not with the hostility of conquerors over the conquered, though in fact that is what the relationship fundamentally was, but rather with the idea of brotherhood. They were all Israelites. Thus no one had any reason to question the Mulek story, because, while it failed in its original purpose, to allow Zarahemla to prevail over Mosiah, it still served the valuable function of uniting the newly combined nation as a single tribe. It wasn’t completely successful, of course, or there wouldn’t have been a later revolt of Kingmen against Nephite Freemen, but considering that the people of Zarahemla outnumbered the people of Mosiah by quite a bit, the Mulek story may well have contributed to the ultimate victory of the judges in that struggle.

    If this speculation is true, it does not imply that the Book of Mormon is somehow false. No one in the Book of Mormon ever claims that the story of Mulek came to anybody by inspiration. The source is never more than Zarahemla’s assertion during his negotiations with Mosiah. That Mormon and other writers believed the story does not prove it true or false, it simply proves that it was part of the Nephite culture. And if my speculation is right, and Mulek was no more a son of Zedekiah than I am, we are spared the confusion of trying to reconcile this account with the utter lack of convincing evidence that Zedekiah had a boy named Mulek who escaped the Babylonians without generating a vast amount of Jewish tradition looking for the return of the lost son of the last king of Judah. We don’t have to account for a migration to America led by the Lord but without the same kind of preparation and commandments given to Lehi and Nephi. We don’t have to account for the fact that we think of America as being the inheritance of Manasseh and Ephraim, while in fact two thirds of the Nephites would have been descended from Judah — which to my mind, at least, would make hash of the literality of the application of the parable of the stick of Joseph and the stick of Judah to the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

    But this is only speculation, and if I’m wrong, and there really was a Mulek led to America by the Lord, I’m not going to lose my testimony about it! I just think it’s something to think about, a possibility to consider.

  89. Rob
    May 6, 2004 at 11:19 pm

    OSC and Ben on Mulekites…very good example of possible mixing of mythic and historic elements in the BOM. Interestingly, the “Mulekites” wouldn’t be the only ones to claim descent from a lost child of Zedekiah–the whole British Israel crowd has a similar story (see Fascinating parallels, perhaps both used, as OSC and Ben speculate, to attempt to legitimize authority by tying in to mythic leaders.

    This isn’t so far fetched as we might suspect. We have some of this still around today–in “official” church sources. If you follow several lines back in the LDS Ancestral File geneological database, you eventually get back to Odin, the Norse God. I think his temple work has even been done. I myself descend from Odin…as well as from the Biblical figures via the medieval Irish geneologies, and from Zeuss–through the Roman inspired geneologies of the Britons.

    I think looking for Mesoamerican culture in the BOM can be rewarding…especially if we look at such enigmatic figures as the Nehors. Contemporary Mesoamerican depictions and early texts show priests in huge bird costumes, with an elaborate and potentially ancient Olmec cosmology and ritual system. This was apparently the dominant ideology of the time–could the cult of the Nehors be tied in with this tradition? What about Sherem, who “came among” the people in the time of Jacob, when there really shouldn’t be too many people around in the Nephite society. Where did he come from? Was he one of these bird priests from a neighboring society as well?

    Another cool document is the problematic Wallum Olum–the Deleware nation written record of their migration to America from (presumably) Central Asia–guided by seers and prophets. Another case of people being guided to America by divine providence?

    Of course, we’re getting away from the question of angels appearing to JS, and the problems of early LDS understandings of BOM geography. I think this is a complicated problem–Sorenson and others have shown conflicting accounts. I haven’t thought about it for awhile, but I’m not sure we should expect JS or early church leaders to have a full understanding of the incredibly complex precolumbian (pre-)history and how that relates to the BOM. Many false assumptions could have crept in over time. It doesn’t seem like JS himself really lingered much on the BOM, or even its teachings (as shown by Givens and others).

    But back to figurative scriptural accounts…Brigham Young said that Joseph Smith would have translated the BOM differently if he had done it at a later date. He also said the Bible was full of “baby stories”. LDS members are in a great position to weigh evidence about any part of the scriptures and don’t have to be tied to literalist interpretations.

    We can be free from the idolatry of reifying the word–looking beyond the mark to miss The Word. Pointing out inconsistencies or problems can help us better trust in the Lord himself, and not in the arm (or that which is written/redacted/compiled/translated by the arm) of flesh.

  90. Rob
    May 6, 2004 at 11:42 pm

    Having just read Alma 14 today during my personal scripture study, I’m struck again by the magical/mythical nature of this story of Alma and Amulek. If nothing else, this story seems to have attracted elements related to the Mesoamerican Hero Twins story found on Classic Maya pottery and best-known in the Post-Classic Quiche version recorded in the Popol Vuh.

    The account of Alma and Amulek overcoming the wicked priests/lawyers of Ammonihah seems to echo stories of the Hero Twins overcoming the Lords of the Underworld. I don’t want to do a full Nibleyesque parallelomaniacal reconstruction here…but they seem ring some of the same mythic themes.

    Beyond that, I think we clearly have here a case of word and life influencing each other. I’ve often been struck by the sheer sarcasm of the account–the burning of the believers in mockery of hell fire, the “gnashing of teeth” upon the heros by the damned lawyers. Even if this is a completely accurate historic account, we’ve clearly got a case here where the words are more than mere historic narrative–the words and narrative are interwoven in a complex fashion contrasting the sarcastic and depraved lawyers and priests from the restrained heroism of the pious heros. Even their discoursive styles are contrasted–sarcasm vs. supplication.

    This is a very complex story…way more than a simple “baby tale,” yet it may be hard to reconstruct historic from mythic elements in the narration of this event.

    Would our understanding of the story be diminished if we were to see it more as the attribution of a mythic episode to the lives of revered prophets? If we could understand the Hero Twin story, the rituals of the Nehors, and other historic and narrative devices, wouldn’t that maybe tell us more about how Alma and Amulek were perceived by Mormon or possibly earlier Nephites steeped in a Mesoamerican worldview?

    Is that less inspiring than a story of wicked people chewing on and burning righteous people? Or by accepting historic and mythic elements, might the story not inspire us on many different levels?

  91. Kingsley
    May 7, 2004 at 12:19 am

    Rob wrote: “Brigham Young said that Joseph Smith would have translated the BOM differently if he had done it at a later date.”

    That sounds interesting; what’s the source?

  92. Ethesis
    May 9, 2004 at 12:27 am

    “ACtually, Orson Scott Card has proposed something along these lines. He suggests that the Mulekites were natives, not from Jerusalem, and that Zarahemla made the whole thin gup for political gain:)”

    Hey, I’m in good company. I made that point last Gospel Doctrine about my theory that the Mulekites were one group of natives, etc.

    Glad to see someone else is thinking the same thoughts.

  93. Rob
    May 10, 2004 at 11:11 am

    >Rob wrote: “Brigham Young said that Joseph Smith
    > would have translated the BOM differently if he
    >had done it at a later date.”

    >That sounds interesting; what’s the source?

    “Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to rewrite the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be rewritten, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as the people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiff-necked, the Lord can tell them but little.”
    –Brigham Young (JD 9:331)

    I know there are other ways to read this passage, but I think the main point has to have us question the “word for word” translation process, and who knows what else about the production of the BOM as an ancient and modern text.

  94. Kevin Christensen
    May 11, 2004 at 3:10 am

    As Sorenson points out, Sherem “comes among” the Nephites, and he is “learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people.” So he’s not a Nephite. (In JBMS 1) Brant Gardner suggests that he’s targeting Jacob with respect to trade issues. (See Brant’s The Social history of the Early Nephites on the FAIR site.) So he seems to be an outside trader, or at least working in their interests. But John Welch, in “Answering B. H. Roberts Questions” observes that Sherem’s charges against Jacob are grounded in the Law of Moses. What is more, in light of Margaret Barker’s work, Sherem’s charges correspond neatly to that of the Deuteronomist Reformers. He denies the Christ. Jacob 7:9. The reformers removed the “annointed one” from the Royal ideology at the time of Josiah. Sherem apparently denies the need for an atonement. (Jacob 7:12) Barker observes that the Deuteronomic calendar has no place for the Day of Atonement. (See, for example, The Great Angel, or What King Josiah Reformed.) Sherem denies the ability to know the future. Barker observes that this is another Dueteronomic theme. All of this to me suggest that Sherem is likely a Mulekite trader. He could be first or second generation from Mulek’s party, a group that establishes themselves as a ruling elite in characteristic Mesoamerican fashion. (And the current JBMS has a long essay on Jer. 38:6 as a reference to Malikyahu, son of the King, etc.) As a trader, he may not have been forthcoming about exactly where he had come from. (Trade secrets and all.) As a pure Jaredite with no Israelite background, how do we explain his perfect knowledge of the language of the people? I notice that the word “language” in 1 Nephi for example, refers not just to the medium of speaking, but the content. The things people talk about. This could include the Law of Moses. As a first or second generation Lamanite, the language could be taken for granted, but then it would seem that his Lamanite background would be an issue when Jacob reports violent conflicts with them. Among the indigenous peoples, Brant makes the case that the “false Christs” that Jacob complains about would be Mesoamerican God-impersonators. An indiginous opponent would not then, deny Christ, and preach the Law of Moses, but would offer up a rival Christ and would not use the Law. If Zarahemla’s people were purely indigenous or Jaredite remnants/and-or/mix, and the story about Mulek were a pure fabrication, where else do we get someone in Jacob’s time who can match Sherem’s requirements? A Deuteronomist trader with language skills seems a good fit as a companion for Mulek.


    Kevin Christensen
    Lawrence, KS

  95. Rob
    May 11, 2004 at 10:12 am

    Nice…I like the BOM as not just another testament of Christ, it’s a testament against the Deuteronomist Reformers–a powerfull statement against Jewish and Christian Orthodoxy. So much for the neo-orthodox among us. And when the news breaks, we’ll be driven out of Missouri again, for sure.

  96. Rob
    May 11, 2004 at 10:22 am

    So…if we are going to toss out the Deuteronomist Reformers, where does that place our faith in the Bible? Do we go with the documentary hypothesis and hang on to a pre-exilic J and E and toss out D, P, and R? What about Thomas Thompson’s “The Mythic Past” placing the formation of the Bible in the even later time of the Maccabees? I’d be happy to lose Joshua’s “conquest” of Canaan and its problematic baby-killer YHWH.

  97. Ben
    May 11, 2004 at 11:21 am

    What’s interesting here is that you have two people who have both published primarily with FARMS (Kevin Christensen and Daniel Peterson, who is on the other thread here) who are taking opposite positions. Christensen makes good arguments, largely based on Barker, that the Deuteronomic reformers were throwing out the theological baby with the bathwater.
    Peterson, on the other hand, said in his 1998 article on Asherah “I suspect that the ancient notion of Asherah as the wife of El reflects true doctrine, albeit frequently garbled and corrupted. I suspect, furthermore, that it was such garbling and corruption that impelled the Deuternomoic reformers, **whom I believe to have been inspired,** to oppose and suppress the veneration of Asherah, just as they opposed and suppressed the veneration of the Nechushtan of Moses.” (“Nephi and his Asherah” in Mormons Scripture and the Ancient World, p. 218-219).
    FARMS is not a monolith. Neither, however, were the D. reformers, and I think it’s possible to reconcile the two.

    I’d recommend Kevin Barney’s Dialogue article on LDS approaches to the documentary hypothesis if you haven’t already read it, which is available at

    I don’t think Thompson has any merit…
    Regardless, hasn’t our faith in the Bible always been “as far as it is translated correctly [in its broader LDS usage of being handed down]?”

  98. Kevin Christensen
    May 11, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    Incidentally, with respect to Daniel Peterson’s view of the Deuteronomist Reformers, I wrote to him about this exact issue back in 1999, when I was starting to read Barker’s The Great Angel. My question had to do with the apparent knowledge and influence of Deuteronomic Law by Book of Mormon prophets versus Barker’s negative view of the Deuteronomists. He told me then that he hadn’t really explored that issue, and encouraged me to do so. I’ve since noticed essays by Noel Reynolds and John Welch on Deuteronomic influence in the Book of Mormon, and have found lots more correlation with Barker’s view. The key to the situation is the 600 B.C. timing, and Lehi’s approval of Jeremiah. Lehi starts after Josiah’s death, during the period when the reform unraveled, but before the Exile, where their views became refined and entrenched in response to the exile. Jeremiah apparently quotes Deuteronomy around 200 times, and Richard Elliot Friedman claims that Jeremiah’s books “is filled iwth the language of the Deuteronomistic history, the same favorite terms and phrases, the same metaphors, the same point of view on every important point.” (Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? 146. See 127 for examples.) Friedman even suggests that Jeremiah, or perhaps Baruch was the Deuteronomist. What is interesting in this context are the points at which Jeremiah seems to disagree on important points that Friedman ignores, and indeed, seems to me to be having a dialogue with the Deuteronomists:

    “Keppe therefore and do them [that is, Deuteronomic Law], for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deut. 4:6, a key passage in Barker’s view)

    “How do ye say, We are wise and the law of the LORD is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is vain.” Jer 8:8. Friedman’s translation is stronger: “We are wise, and Yahweh’s torah is with is? In fact, here it was made for a lie,the lying pen of the scribes.” See Friedman, 209. Also consider “I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that steal my words… for yet have perverted the words of the living God of the LORD of Hosts our God.” Jer 23:30, 36. (And who is the God of the LORD of Hosts? Who is Yahweh’s God? Interesting.)

    Also: “Ye heard the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice.” Deut. 4:12

    vs. “For who hath stood in the counsel of the LORD, and hath percieved and heard his word.” Jer. 23:18

    Also “It is not in heaven, that that shouldst say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may here and do it?” Deut. 30:12

    vs. “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things which thou knowest not.” Jer. 33:3

    Despite Jeremiah’s immersion in Deuteronomy, the points of disagreement happen to correspond to Barker’s view of the Reformers, and also agree with the Book of Mormon picture, which approves of Moses and the Law, but retains the Older Wisdom. (This is a work in progress. I have several other examples.) Notice that Jeremiah was called during the Reform years, and was specifically set against the very people who set the young Josiah on the throne and who orchestrated the reform. (Compare 2 Kings 21:24 and Jer. 1:18.) The only two positive references to Josiah in Jeremiah commend him for caring for the poor and being just, both positive Deuteronmistic values, but are both qualified by “then is was well with him,” (Jer 22:15-16) as though in other respects, things did not go well.

    Kevin Christensen
    Lawrence, KS

  99. Kevin Christensen
    May 11, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    Ah.. I left out the comma in Jer. 23:36. That could make a difference. *Sigh*

    Kevin Christensen
    Temporarily St. Louis

  100. Rob
    May 11, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    So we’ve got Lehi and Jeremiah opposed to the Deuteronomists, taking part in the heavenly counsel…what does this do to our acceptance of a P materials (if there is a P source)? Since P seems to be even more *anti* J and E than D–and farther removed from angels and divine encounters, can we lose P? What does that do for the creation account? If we see P as corrupt, can that get us out of any tricky spots elsewhere? But what does that do to our understanding of temples and priesthood?

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