A central question about the Book of Mormon that has been asked over and over again is whether it is an ancient document or a modern one. Despite being asked and answered by so many people, that question is still being argued and fought over and probably will be indefinitely. But what other questions are being asked about the Book of Mormon? In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Joe Spencer and Nick Frederick talked about some of those questions in a discussion about the field of Book of Mormon studies. What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion.
In the interview, Joe Spencer and Nick Frederick talked about why it may prove to be more productive to look at other questions about the Book of Mormon.
For the longest time Book of Mormon studies was largely dedicated to either proving or disproving the historicity of the text. Those on the side of historicity focused on cultural or linguistic elements that would point toward an ancient origin of the book. Those on the side of disproving historicity worked to identify themes or ideas from the 19th century that would point to Joseph Smith as the primary source.
Beginning in early years of the 21st century scholars both inside and outside the Latter-day Saint tradition began to study the book as a book, focusing more on what the Book of Mormon has to say to its audience than on the question of whether or not its historicity can be proven or disproven.
Obviously for many believers the issue of the Book of Mormon’s divine origins is a significant one, and we should strive to reinforce that principle in our own study of text, but we can also be open to bringing different lenses to bear in our reading of the Book of Mormon as well.
They listed a few of those different lenses:
The literary study of the Book of Mormon as well as its reception over the past two centuries or so.
We’re still in the early phases of doing serious theological work on the Book of Mormon (see the recent Brief Theological Introductions published by the Maxwell Institute).
The Book of Mormon’s relationship with the Bible, the way the Book of Mormon sort of deconstructs and reconstructs biblical language and narrative is an important one for us personally.
Studies of the Book of Mormon from the perspective of gender or ethics have been picking up steam in recent years.
So, there are a few areas of promising developments in Book of Mormon studies aides from ongoing discussions of historicity.
Delving deeper on the topic of reception history, they wrote:
The study of a text—especially of a well-loved text—is built on the challenging work of trying to see something familiar in new ways. Reception history helps to reveal just how differently certain passages have been read in the past, often in startling and deeply interesting ways.
Further, though, doing reception history helps amplify quieter voices in the Restoration’s history, those who have read and thought about the text of the Book of Mormon in contexts that seldom receive a great deal of attention.
We get a clearer picture of the Saints as we look at how they’ve read their beloved scriptures.
By studying how the Book of Mormon has been read and used in the past helps us both understand the earlier members of the Church and to see other ways that we can understand the scriptures as well.
Another approach that sidesteps the question of historicity while still engaging the text is to look at how it is put together, including looking at how it incorporates other texts:
If readers approach the presence of biblical language in the Book of Mormon simply in terms of “Does it belong” we will lose sight of the meaning. Language from Isaiah and John the Beloved are a clear part of the translated record–that language is in the text of the Book of Mormon for a reason.
If we as students of the Book of Mormon are to take it seriously, we need to be asking “Why is it there” just as much as we’re asking “How is it there.”
For example, Let’s say we’d finally settled, to everyone’s satisfaction, that there’s no reason for anyone to be concerned about the presence of all the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. Would we then be done responding to what the Book of Mormon itself claims was said by the resurrected Jesus—namely, that Isaiah needs to be studied? It seems to us that we’d finally be ready to start to fulfill that injunction.
Some recent scholarship has essentially said, “Well, the historians will be fighting about this for a long time to come, but I want to move on to that other set of questions: What are we to learn from Isaiah in the book?”
There’s a lot of good work that hasn’t yet been done in trying to answer that kind of question.
Joseph Spencer himself has authored some important work in that area, such as The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record. (That’s a fantastic book, by the Way.) Asking that type of question is useful for anyone wanting to engage with understanding the Book of Mormon.
For more on developments in Book of Mormon studies, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Joe Spencer and Nick Frederick.