When we read the Book of Mormon, whose voice do we think we are hearing? Trying to answer that question, I think, is one of the essential moves in a Mormon mode of interpretation.
And I, Lehi, according to the things which I have read, must needs suppose that an angel of God, according to that which is written, had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God.
On the face of it, it’s an interesting case of Lehi creating scripture by reading, contemplating, and reasoning in order to fill gaps in existing scripture. Remarkably, the story inside the text creates a mirror image of the story outside the text, as observed by a skeptic: Inside the text, Lehi reads and contemplates scriptural writings, and produces his own expansion on them (which, we can assume, receives God’s sanction and itself becomes scripture). The skeptical observer of history sees Joseph Smith contemplating the Bible and producing an expansion on the biblical text (which a proponent of the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction might regard as also having received God’s sanction).
So when we read 2 Nephi 2:17, whose voice do we hear?
The prophets whose writings appeared on the Brass Plates?
Lehi, reading the Brass Plates and expanding on them?
Nephi, recording his father’s words to his brother Jacob?
Mormon, redacting the writings of Nephi?
Some scribe or editor in between Nephi and Mormon?
Joseph Smith, translating?
Oliver Cowdery or one of the other scribes who aided Joseph Smith?
Biblical or other religious writings that shaped Joseph Smith’s worldview?
Like any interesting question, the answer isn’t obvious.
Reading the Book of Mormon fundamentally differs from reading the Bible in that devotional practice requires the reader to find unity in the Bible and its books, but multiplicity in the Book of Mormon. The Documentary Hypothesis and text-critical approaches to Old Testament prophets and Pauline epistles are perceived as threatening because they cast doubt on traditions of Mosaic or Isaiahn or Pauline unitary authorship. For the Book of Mormon, however, detecting a multitude of authors is the stuff of apologetics. Whether or not the methodology is convincing, word-print studies are founding documents of LDS interpretive criticism.
Separating out the voices we hear in the Book of Mormon is an interpretive instinct that can be brought to bear on secular literature. If you have spent any time watching an author at work, it should be clear that writing is not a monologue, but rather a process of ongoing conversation with numerous other people. We usually, mistakenly, think of writing as the product of a single mind, but language is communal, and, more importantly, the enterprise of publication is too expensive to leave to the taste of a single person. Authors write, but published authors draft and revise their work based on input from friends, family, critique group members, agents, editors, marketing vice presidents, and any number of other people. Our current notions of authorship and intellectual property do not do justice to the complex conversations that comprise a published book. Who knows if any kind of interpretive method could isolate the interlocutors and analyze the multiple textual layers in any but a narrow text-critical sense–but reading the Book of Mormon is a good way to start thinking about it.