With these notes, I’m saying that making deductions about Nephite history and culture while ignoring philology and textual history is like an astronomer using the Hubble telescope to study Mars and describing in great detail its numerous moons, swirling atmosphere and resplendent ring system. The precision is stunning, but the telescope is pointed in the wrong direction. What we have instead for observing Mars is a homemade telescope with a six inch mirror. Through it, Mars usually appears as a reddish blob, with occasional traces of something that looks like canals. The loss of precision is disappointing, but at least we’re observing the right planet.
With the Book of Mormon, it’s tempting to think we’re reading the very words of Nephi, or the discourses of Alma as by Mormon, but we can’t verify that Mormon attached Nephi’s original small plates rather than a copy produced centuries later, still proclaiming that I, Nephi, made these plates, despite centuries of intervening textual development. And we can’t assume that Mormon himself constructed Mosiah-Helaman/3 Nephi 7, and in fact it seems likely to me that he adapted the work of an earlier editor or editors, although this too is not verifiable. Is this kind of philological deliberation useful? Is it even permitted?
Va. The permissibility of philology
There are a number of possible objections not just to the particular points I’ve made so far (any or all of which are more likely wrong than right), but to the basic concept of applying philological experience to the Book of Mormon.
One type of objection is religious: Doesn’t this line of inquiry undermine the status of the Book of Mormon as scripture? I don’t think so. Much of what now constitutes the Book of Mormon began as a record of mundane history, so we can believe the text and at the same time think about the processes that affect the writing of history. Thinking about Mormon’s sources, how they were created, and what Mormon made of them doesn’t change how we approach the Book of Mormon in devotional practice or as a source of doctrine. Mormon was a prophet with an urgent message for us, and so we should read his message and earnestly ponder it. We canonize the Book of Mormon as scripture, not Nephite history as we imagine it may have happened. I have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, but I don’t have a testimony of Mormon’s editorial and historiographic skill.
Does it make sense to wonder about the accuracy of Mormon’s narrative of history, especially the location and continuity of 3 Nephi 8-28:16, when Mormon talked face to face with several of the key participants? I think so. Mormon doesn’t describe the Three Nephites as historical informants, and divine beings have in any case shown little willingness so far to do other people’s history assignments or text-historical homework for them.
Philological inquiry does involve accepting some parts of the text while critically examining others, but the decision of what to accept and what to question is not arbitrary. The questions focus on the creation and transmission of texts based on patterns that can be observed in other acts of textual creation and transmission. Like any analytic tool, it must be applied with caution to avoid hammering any feature of the text into submission through philological speculation. (“Cureloms and cumoms? Must be a borrowing from the Zoramite records. Case closed!”)
Others will take offense at the idea of applying concepts of academic philology to a revealed text like the Book of Mormon, insisting that the entire book must be treated either with secular skepticism or, if accepted as scripture, then as inerrant. But I don’t believe those who make this argument are primarily concerned for the quality of my devotional reading. If I accept that the Book of Mormon is and was a real book, I’ll bring everything I know about books and their histories to my study of the Book of Mormon, and allow others to read it how they may. It’s reasonable to point out potential devotional challenges, but I reject the idea that reading the Book of Mormon must be either skeptical or inerrantist.
Vb. The utility of philology
Mentally disassembling the Book of Mormon nevertheless seems like a strange way to read scripture. Is it useful for anything? Possibly.
1. Useful cautions
Taking philological considerations into account can help us confront the Book of Mormon with humility and an awareness of how much we don’t know. It’s a useful reminder to avoid sweeping generalizations about linguistic, religious, or cultural context. The cultural context at any given point in the text is primarily what can be reasonably documented at or near that point, with an uncertain relationship to what may be documented a hundred pages earlier or later, or in Exodus. We can’t assume that the cultural context of one section of the Book of Mormon is identical to other sections, especially sections outside the same narrative core. What we think of as “Nephite culture” in 1 Nephi may be only distantly related—culturally, linguistically, or religiously—to what we find in Alma or Mormon. The Book of Mormon describes events spread out over centuries, in an uncertain geography, and subject to unknowable external influences, so the assumption of persistent and stable Semitic culture, Jewish or Christian religion, or Hebrew language is not self-explanatory, and each assumption introduces some degree of uncertainty. In each section, the question always has to be asked: How did these actors understand their own identity? How widely shared was this understanding? The Book of Mormon teaches some doctrines very clearly, but it gives us a fuzzy lens for observing Nephite culture, so doctrinal arguments based on cultural context can be advanced only tentatively.
We also have to recognize that the chronology of Nephite history is less stable, and anchored to mundane chronology much less firmly, than we would like. We have some grounds to trust the sequence of chronology within a narrative core, but a smaller basis for trust in dating outside or across them. The span of years from Lehi to Jacob seems measurable, while the centuries from Jacob to Mosiah are more fluid. Mosiah to 3 Nephi 7 seems chronologically stable, but even Mormon isn’t entirely sure about the centuries prior to his own time. And chronologically speaking, Ether is a world unto itself.
* * *
Blah blah blah… I think I’m repeating myself at this point. Is this series ever going to go anywhere? It’s time to wrap things up with some specific cases where a philological approach might be useful.
V. The permissibility and utility of philology for studying the Book of Mormon
Va. The permissibility of philology
Vb. The utility of philology
Vb1. Useful cautions
Vb2. What did the Nephites know about Nephi?
Vb3. The overdetermination of Nephite origins
Vb4. Jacob and Sherem