Why “history” matters in the Scriptures

I’ve seen notice of a podcast with an LDS scholar, which will apparently discuss the issue of genre within the Bible, and which apparently makes the claim that:

Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. [The guest] points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact.

I’ve seen this claim and ones like it multiple times; I briefly touch upon some of these claims here. Related claims tend to revolve around the idea that ancient peoples did not adhere to modern standards of historiography, that the “truth” or spiritual value of scriptural events does not depend upon them being “historical”, and that this is simply a matter of modern biblical scholars learning about different genres and their literary markers.

As a summary of the issues, however, this is incomplete and distinctly less than accurate. Indeed it seems to omit precisely what is of most importance to people and what is of most consequence to our understanding of the scriptures and God

It’s true that many people in the past didn’t adhere to modern standards of historiography. But that’s also irrelevant: when most moderns talk about “historicity”, they’re not talking about historical conventions, or even about accuracy in the details, they’re talking about whether particular events actually happened or not.

Now, on some topics, the reality of particular events may not have much consequence, and we may indeed be able to be inspired equally whether that thing happened, or whether it is simply like a parable. However, there are some subjects where the question as to whether something happened or not matters. If, for example, there were no historical person called Moroni, then who appeared to Joseph Smith? If the Nephites or Lamanites did not exist, how can their descendants be spiritually and physically restored? If Christ did not appear post-resurrection at Bountiful, than how can the Book of Mormon be an additional witness of his resurrection? And if Christ did not rise from the dead, then how can we be resurrected and what hope is their in the Christian gospel?

That last concern, of course, was famously discussed by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:14-19), who lived some time considerably before the Enlightenment. The eternal significance of some events depends a great deal on whether they happened or not, and people have indeed considered this issue long before the Enlightenment rolled around. Claiming people’s concerns are simply an artefact of the thinking of that era is a way of dismissing, rather than addressing, the issues involved, issues which can have significant consequences on our understanding of the gospel, or whether there is a gospel at all.

It is also less than accurate to depict academic biblical studies as simply following generic markers. There are varying views within the academy on a range of such issues. However, key individuals within biblical studies have sought to depict events like the resurrection as non-historical, and these arguments have not rested solely on the issue of genre. Indeed, in some cases, their ideas of biblical genre have been considerably influenced by their other ideas and beliefs. Rudolf Bultmann’s rejection of a literal resurrection and his project of “de-mythologising” the New Testament, for example, rested in significant part on his conviction that modern peoples (presumably including himself) could not believe in such events (or as he put it: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament”).* It is as inaccurate to characterise this approach as emerging simply from genre of the New Testament writers, as it is to depict such issues as having no real spiritual consequence.


* Some of Bultmann’s successors (at least amongst some internet commentariat I’ve come across) seem to believe that ancient peoples could not possibly believe such things either. However, as far as I’m aware, biblical studies generally still accepts that many past peoples believed in supernatural events, and of course later ancient readers, including Jesus himself, certainly did.



The things that are written

I originally wrote much of the below as an article for another site but, as it seems they have decided not to pick it up, I am hereby publishing it anyway. With the passing of Elder Packer, this seems somewhat appropriate considering his love of the written word of God.

At the time I wrote it, there had been a lot of arguments among LDS circles online as to the ‘historicity’ of scripture, meaning the extent to which the events recorded in scripture actually happened. At the time, these had attracted some heated arguments, which is understandable because they end up carrying a lot of implications. Whether certain events happened is of vital importance to our faith. For example, whether the resurrection of Christ happened is not just a historical question of interest only to those who wonder at the disposition of the Saviour’s body, but is an event that has consequences for the future destiny of our bodies and souls. As Paul states, ‘if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen, then neither does ours.

But as important as these issues are, I noticed that there seemed to have been some other basic issues involved that escaped (and continue to escape) notice. The really big issue is what we mean by the very terms scripture and inspiration. What we mean when we say that certain books are ‘the word of God’ (8th Article of Faith) shapes our whole approach to scripture and how we read it. And this is not an academic question, but one with potentially eternal consequences. Yet some of those debating historicity appear to have used these terms without realising that others held very different, and incompatible, definitions for them. Thus one individual, who argued that the question of historicity could be separated from the spiritual worth of the scriptures, stated:

The historicity of scripture is not a matter of faith. It is an issue of critical analysis and academic inquiry. On the other hand, the inspiration of scripture, meaning its ability to assist readers access divinity, can never be a matter of critical analysis and academic inquiry. Instead, much like beauty, inspiration is found in the eye of the beholder.¹

What should be noticed here is how inspiration has been redefined as a reader-centred activity. The inspiration of a given book is to be weighed by the extent to which the reader is able to find something helpful in it (and ‘access divinity’ is a particularly woolly expression of this). But this is not a universal view. Crime and Punishment and Lord of the Rings have had a powerful effect on my life, and led me to be a better person, but I would not define them as scripture. Nor is it likely that the other participants in these discussions shared this definition of inspiration. The implications of this view follow rapidly: inspiration ‘is found in the eye of the beholder’. The suggestion is that it is what the reader does, and not an objective quality in the book itself, that makes a book scripture.

This view is not new. Liberal Protestant theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith made a similar argument in his book What is Scripture?. Claiming that ‘scripture is a human activity’ (although being careful to clarify that this isn’t a statement about authorship), Smith argues that it is the relationship between a text and a community that makes a text scripture (p.1, 17-21). Thus ‘scriptures are not texts’, because their scriptural status is not dependent upon anything innate to a work, but is rather conferred upon it by the reader treating the text in a certain way. This idea has been very influential in academia, particularly for those who wish to divorce the possible value of a text from the question of its origin.

Yet despite its influence, Smith’s approach and his focus on the reader suffers from a number of drawbacks. He appears to hold that merely because a work is referred to as scripture in an academic sense it must also be scripture in a theological sense, conflating the sociological with the supernatural. He also devalues the content of the text in favour of a vague sense of the ‘holy’ (p.230-235). Overt meanings are ‘superseded’ in favour of something ‘transcendent’ (shades here of ‘accessing divinity’) that Smith believes cannot even be articulated, the feeling of which takes priority over all other forms of engagement with scripture, including actually reading it. Thus, compared to the feelings of the reader or even non-reader, the content is ultimately left rather superfluous, a very unsatisfactory position. And the very idea that it is what the reader does that makes scripture scripture seems ill-fitting with statements from Latter-day scripture that appear to teach the opposite, such as Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 where it is inspiration from the Holy Ghost that makes something scripture, an innate quality that makes something scripture from the start.

LDS proponents of these ideas appear to have appealed to idea of the fallibility of human beings, and the admission in the Book of Mormon that it may contain ‘the mistakes of men’ (Book of Mormon Title page). It is certainly true that the Book of Mormon does not teach that scripture must be completely without any kind of error. But its depiction of the process of receiving and recording scripture goes far beyond this. A closer look is warranted.

The receiving and recording of Scripture in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is particularly vocal about the process of its own creation, far more so than the Bible. We do not know the identity of the author(s) of Joshua to 2 Kings for instance (the putative “Deuteronomistic historian”, first theorized by Martin Noth as the author of the whole unit, remains nameless and conjectural), but we are left in little doubt throughout the Book of Mormon as to who is narrating at nearly every point. Likewise the Book of Mormon also describes the creation of the very medium upon which it is recorded, the chain of transmission for its major sources and the selection of material to be written in it (e.g. 1 Nephi 6, 1 Nephi 19:1-6, Words of Mormon 1:3-7, 3 Nephi 5:8-18 and many more). The Book of Mormon’s self-consciousness about its own composition thus offers valuable insights into the process of scriptural composition.

These details have been neglected in this discussion. While – understandably – some LDS scholars have been keen to apply the possible insights of biblical studies and related fields to the Book of Mormon, insufficient attention has been given to the way in which the Book of Mormon’s claims undermine many of the key assumptions that lie behind these ideas. Now someone could conceivably reject the Book of Mormon’s own account of itself (as those who reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon must), and yet seek to try and retain some measure of ‘spiritual value’ in the work. But in that case they could not claim to accept the Book of Mormon as inspired or as scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon itself uses those terms.

For the Book of Mormon makes very strong claims in these regards. As much as the making of the Book of Mormon, with its named individuals painstakingly placing words on actual metal plates and passing them down hand by hand, is very human, it is also very divine. As just a cursory look reveals, the making of the records is stated to be under divine command (1 Nephi 19:2-3, 3 Nephi 5:14), as is the selection of the contents (W. of M. 1:6-7, 3 Nephi 26:11-12). The preservation of the records is an act of divine power in fulfilment of promises by God (Enos 1:15-16, Mosiah 1:5, Alma 37:4). The authors claim prophetic foresight of their future audience (Mormon 8:34-35), and to have been given and be writing the very ‘words of Christ’, in some cases receiving instruction ‘face to face’ (2 Nephi 33:10, Ether 12:39). Thus the opening words of the Book of Mormon claim that it was ‘written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and revelation’ (Title Page).

Perhaps the most illustrative episode of how the human and divine interact in the composition of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3 Nephi 23, where the risen Christ inspects the records kept by Nephi. The Saviour spots that a prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite had been omitted and commands its inclusion (v.9-13). What is of interest here is that a human error has occurred – ‘it had not been written’ (v.12) – but the Saviour affirms that he had commanded Samuel to utter his prophecy (v.9), the disciples that it came true (v.10), and under the direction of risen Deity the mistake is corrected (v.13). Thus the very words of Samuel the Lamanite were inspired in that they were directly commanded by God, and – despite the involvement of fallible humans – the record-keeping process is likewise under divine supervision.

In all of this, there is no suggestion that the inspiration of scripture is to be found in what the reader does to it. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Book of Mormon is keen to assert that many readers will get it wrong. ‘For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and the soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet’ says Nephi (1 Nephi 19:7), who elsewhere goes on to state that ‘there are many that harden their hearts against the holy spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore they cast many things which are written and esteem them as things of naught’ (2 Nephi 33:2). The worth of scripture is not assessed by the reader, but rather the standing of the reader by their receptiveness to scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30). Both Nephi and Moroni state that they will stand as witnesses at the final judgement that the Book of Mormon itself is true, regardless of the reader, ‘for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words at the last day’ (2 Nephi 33:11) and ‘ye shall know I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you’ (Moroni 10:27). Inspiration is certainly not in the eye of the beholder, for many beholders will get it wrong, and the Book of Mormon remains scripture whatever its readers make of it.

Nor, for that matter, are inspiration and revelation as shown within the Book of Mormon about something wholly other, ‘transcendent’ or completely beyond nature. Nephi is guided to food (1 Nephi 16:23-30), is directed to ore and given instructions on how to build a ship (1 Nephi 17:8-10) and his family led to an actual place. Alma the Elder is informed of his pursuers (Mosiah 23:24) while his son receives revelation on the location of an army (Alma 43:24). Above all, the risen Christ in 3 Nephi is not some spectre, but has an actual body, and a full crowd ‘did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet’ (3 Nephi 11:15). And these revelations and divine encounters are paradigmatic, ‘for he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as times to come’ (1 Nephi 10:19). Thus revelation in the Book of Mormon has content, beyond the vaguely ‘transcendent’, sometimes involving things in the material world, and while such accounts can have symbolic meanings too (as the Book of Mormon itself applies to the Liahona in Alma 37:43-46) the reality of these revelations is intended to serve both as a demonstration and a model for what should be happening in the lives of its readers.

While the Book of Mormon is more explicit about its own creation than it is about the Bible (and has the advantage of its translation being ‘by the power and gift of God’, Title Page), it does not hesitate to make similar claims about the Bible. Isaiah saw the redeemer (2 Nephi 11:2) and according to the risen Saviour all his words will be fulfilled (3 Nephi 23:3); Malachi was given his words by the Father (3 Nephi 24:1). Like the Book of Mormon itself, Isaiah is seen as writing towards future audiences, for it is particularly in ‘the last days’ that people shall understand his prophecies (2 Nephi 25:7-8, a claim that conflicts with the assumptions about the “intended” or “contemporary” audience). The Book of Mormon aims not to challenge the Bible, but to ‘establish the truth’ of it (1 Nephi 13:39-40); it ‘is written for the intent that ye may believe that’ (Mormon 7:9). The difficulty with the Bible as described in the Book of Mormon is that ‘plain and precious things’ have been removed (1 Nephi 13:28), not that the remainder has been corrupted (attempts to suggest Jacob 4:14 to imply more thoroughgoing changes fail to note that the verse is referring to God’s actions relative to scripture, not man’s). According to the Book of Mormon the Bible is incomplete, but is true and inspired by God in the same sense that it talks about itself. Any approach to the scriptures which preserves the former but marginalises the latter runs into severe difficulties with the Book of Mormon’s own claims, including that the two shall ‘grow together’ (2 Nephi 3:12).

Finally, too much can be made of those passages in the Book of Mormon that make allowance for human weakness. Most couple the admission with warnings to ‘condemn not the things of God’ (Title Page, see also Mormon 8:12, Mormon 8:17 and Mormon 9:31), suggesting that the sight of human involvement should not cloud the view of the divine hand in both the book’s composition and compilation. Certain passages make allowance for error but without requiring it, as Mormon 8:17 does with ‘but behold, we know of no fault’, though other passages do concede ‘imperfections’ (Mormon 8:12). However, when we examine examples where allowance is made for specific sorts of flaws, these flaws have a more limited scope than it seems some have assumed.

Thus although Nephi admits the possibility of error in his selection of the sacred in 1 Nephi 19:6, his warning in verse 7 that men fail to recognise and ‘trample’ the sacred turns this passage more into a warning that readers may fail to acknowledge and obey the voice of God. 3 Nephi 8:2’s dating of the death of Christ appears to acknowledge the possibility of error with its caveat that ‘if there was no mistake made by this man [meaning Nephi son of Nephi] in the reckoning of our time’, but this is a minor matter of chronology, the exact dating of the death and resurrection being minor matters of no consequence compared to its actually occurring. Similarly, Moroni laments that the ‘Gentiles’ will mock ‘the placing of our words’ (Ether 12:23-25) and states that some ‘imperfections’ are due to their choice of language for: ‘if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have no imperfection in our record’ (Mormon 9:32-33). He is thus speaking of syntax and grammar, again comparatively minor matters. There is no suggestion in this that there are any doctrinal errors or mistakes in the Book of Mormon’s teaching. Just because the Book of Mormon does not support inerrancy (the idea that scripture must be without any error, no matter how minor in its grammar or mathematics) does not mean that it automatically provides justification for some theory of errancy where its divine message is inseparably corrupted with the ideas of men. It certainly doesn’t support the idea that the message is so blended that the divine elements can only be sifted out by professional scholars relying on human learning.

In conclusion, the Book of Mormon does not cooperate with Cantwell Smith’s conception of scripture. It makes its demands on the reader (whom, on occasion, it addresses directly) on the basis of the innate qualities it claims for itself, as a work that was written, compiled, transmitted and translated by divine means, regardless of the readers’ reactions. Revelation and inspiration are considered to be objective phenomena that contain content. While the Book of Mormon makes allowance for minor human error it also fiercely maintains the truth and divinity of its message, and its consequent authority over its readers, so much so that it will be an issue at the final judgement.

It is instructive in one passage where Moroni is anxious about his ‘weakness in writing’ how the Lord chooses to respond to his concerns. Amid the Lord’s reassurances, the Lord states that his ‘grace is sufficient for the meek’, meaning not Moroni, for the meek ‘shall take no advantage of your weakness’ (Ether 12:26, my emphasis). Rather, as he goes on to state, for those who recognise their weaknesses and humble themselves and have faith before God, the Lord’s grace will ‘make weak things becomes strong unto them’ (v.27). This has often been read as referring to our personal weaknesses (and surely the principle applies), but the ‘weak’ thing Moroni is asking for reassurance over are not personal faults, but the very book he is writing. It is as we the readers recognise our own weaknesses and humble ourselves that the Book of Mormon becomes strong to us. For as the Book of Mormon teaches elsewhere, ‘out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged’ (3 Nephi 27:25-26). At the end of all days, we are not going to be measuring scripture, but will be measured by it. If we take scripture seriously, as the word of God, we must begin to let scripture judge us.


¹ I’ve chosen to omit names, my usual practice for this blog at moments like this, primarily because I’m trying to make this about the ideas rather than something more personal.

Lost in the jungle #3 – Even more of my issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

The conclusion of my rambling list of intense disagreements, methodological quibbles, and minor nitpicks of the “Journey of Faith: The New World” DVD:

  1. Following on from where I left off, the DVD speaks of Teancum’s assassination of Amalickiah at New Years, and asserts this would be particularly disorientating in the face of the New Years Rituals the King was expected to perform. A problem here is that there is no such evidence for such rituals in the Book of Mormon, especially since Amalickiah was in the field with his army. Indeed, much of the evidence of such rituals in ancient societies often rests on slender threads, being the product of things like the myth and ritual school which have tended to receive more questioning in recent times. Incidentally, the murder of the head of state tends to be disconcerting anyway, especially when he was camping in the middle of a loyal army.
  2. Incidentally on the New Years day thing, Daniel Peterson notes that the association of this time of year with ‘the heat of the day’ (Alma 51:33) indicates that this shows it did not happen near New York, or at a different time of the year from our New Year, ‘probably both’. I’d actually largely agree with that, although strictly it only requires one or the other, but maybe he should have a word with those who inadvertently suggest the Nephites are using a modern calendar, and that this reference proves a particular geography.
  3. The suggestion is given that swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon were the weapons used in Mesoamerica, using obsidian blades on wooden swords. It should be noted there is no reference to Obsidian in the Book of Mormon and that Metal blades are definitely described in Ether 7:9 & implied in 2 Nephi 5:14. The latter references are not disputed, although perhaps inconsistent with a Mesoamerican setting – one presenter suggested the obsidian blades helped make up for a decline in metal technology, but there’s no textual evidence of such a decline. A possible point for such weapons was brought up with Ammons converts, who spoke of their swords being ‘stained’ with blood (Alma 24:12-13) – however, this also speaks of their swords becoming ‘bright’, so could also possibly be a point against.
  4. As an addendum to the above discussion, it should be mentioned that blood was sacred in cultures other than Mesoamerica – including biblical ones.
  5. The general descriptions of armour, protecting the head, body and arms in some fashion, but not the legs, can also match cultures other than Mesoamerica. They also speak at one point of the lower legs being unarmed, but strictly speaking, Alma 49:24 just mentions legs.
  6. The cataclysm that is associated with the Crucifixion of Christ is explained as Volcanic in the DVD. Certainly some of the phenomena (like the thick darkness), sound quite similar. As a nitpick, however, the first thing mentioned is a storm (3 Nephi 8:5). The overall description sounds like a number of different disasters.
  7. Another quibble, but the voice heard during the darkness doesn’t just say “I am Jesus Christ” and is then followed by silence – there is a whole discourse that makes up the bulk of 3 Nephi 9 and then there’s silence. Then the voice of the Saviour is heard some more.
  8. I really wasn’t sure of S. Kent Brown’s whole description of the ‘three ways’ in which Christ healed the people, but in particular the second of his ‘ways’, that Christ healed them of the feeling of being ‘displaced’, doesn’t really seem to jump from the text, and sound very woolly too.
  9. Nor can the claim that his visit was very different from what happened in Jerusalem be accepted uncritically. While Christ’s ministry to the Nephites is not a carbon copy, many of the elements have biblical parallels, indeed some of them receive greater emphasis by recognising them. Thus the people feeling the wounds in his hands and side, an echo of his encounter with Thomas; the quotation of the Sermon on the Mount; his interactions with the children; his conferral of the Holy Ghost, his intercessory prayer, his institution of the sacrament and the translation of three of his disciples all share deep connections with comparable biblical episodes, even if they vary in detail and magnitude.
  10. At this point, there was a very odd discussion about the implementation of government during the Utopia that follows Christ’s ministry, including the suggestion (from S. Kent Brown, I think) that the only government was the twelve disciples. I don’t know how or why he reads it in this way. At the very least, we know that in the Church there were Priests & Teachers also (Moroni 3:1), and there doesn’t seem any suggestion that there were no other authorities, especially to administer temporal things (compare the call of the Seven in Acts, specifically to free the twelve there from such things – Acts 6:1-6). There’s no real description of one, but the overall description is very brief – just twenty verses in 4 Nephi.
  11. The comment is made, in speaking of Mormon and his character, about him being ‘continually renewed in his hope for these people’. This description doesn’t quite seem to grasp him, seeing that one one occasion he confessed he was ‘without hope’ for his people (Mormon 5:2). Part of Mormon’s greatness seems, to me at least, not that he was eternally hopeful, but that even when he wasn’t he continued to perservere.
  12. The claim is made by Sorenson about a number of settlements abandoned around 350 AD. Recapping from the chronology issue discussed in the first post of this list, this seems to be about by around a couple of centuries, with El Mirador being abandoned by 150 AD.
  13. Brant Gardner appears to identify Teotihuacan as the land of many waters. This seems problematic, since the land described as such in the Book of Mormon appears to be Cumorah (Mormon 6:4), which Gardner does not identify with Teotihuacan. Likewise, speaking of the region as being deprived of trees, this was true earlier, but Helaman 3:9 records them allowing trees to spring up so they might have sufficient timber, suggesting the region may possibly not have been so deprived in Mormon’s time.
  14. Reference is also made to Teotihuacan’s conquest, or installation of vassal ruler in the late 4th century, and Brant Gardner appears to suggest Teotihuacan’s expansion from the north played a significant role in the collapse of Nephite civilisation. However, the Book of Mormon does not describe any threat from the North, nor any threat other than the Lamanites and Gadianton Robbers. If the principal actor was someone else, and were acting from the other direction, one would expect this to be mentioned. This is especially apparent as the treaty made with the Lamanites divides the land at the narrow neck, leaving the Nephites the land northward, and the Lamanites ‘all the land southward’ (Mormon 2:29). Furthermore, nearly all the military action in the following two chapters (Mormon 3 & 4) is described as happening around Desolation, a city ‘by the narrow pass which led into the land southward’ (Mormon 3:5), and the city of Teancum, which was nearby (4:3). Only after Desolation has fallen for the last time do we get a battle elsewhere (at Boaz, v.20) and only after that has fallen does the war move on – further suggesting that the fighting was concentrated at a strategic bottleneck until that bottleneck had been seized by the Lamanites. If there were a hostile power to the north, the war wouldn’t work like that.
  15. Likewise, Mormon’s comments about the war stretch rather further that merely ‘a change in the rules of warfare’, as suggested by Gardner, who appears to suggest such changes are likewise the result of Teotihuacan’s outside influence. Mormon’s lament goes much further, that it his own people who have become ‘brutal’ (Moroni 9:19), ‘without order and without mercy’ (v.18), who have rapidly descended from a civilised to uncivilised people (v.11-12). This moral decay seems to go far beyond an altered code of warfare, and it appears to rob the account of its power and purpose to suggest that it is the result of an outside cultural influence, rather than (as I believe it is depicted) as the people’s own fall into depravity because of their rejection of righteousness. Indeed, certain 20th century parallels might be better to understand what Mormon went through.

A final disclaimer at the end of the DVD, emphasing the need and importance of a spiritual witness over any scholarly evidence, made me feel somewhat better about this DVD. Likewise, the last half an hour, which concentrated more of things happening within the Book of Mormon rather than reading in Mesoamerican material, was better. Overall, however, I’m not sure I could recommend this DVD. I have my issues with the first, both in presentation and in details, but feel the average viewer might get something out of it, but these issues with the second DVD seem to overwhelm it.

In particular, I felt the hermenuetic of finding Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon was the major flaw, with several symptoms: allowing circular arguments to go unexamined; a sort of ‘parallelomania’, where any sort of parallel, no matter how loose and general with the rest of the world, was taken as evidence; and especially the tendency to see the Mesoamerica in things that definitely aren’t Mesoamerican, such as Abinadi’s quotation of Exodus, or the broken heart & contrite spirit. I don’t believe the Book of Mormon’s geography is, in any case, one of the important or that interesting questions, but allowing a particular assumption about the geography to govern the interpretation of the book is badly flawed as an interpretive scheme.

Lost in the jungle #2 – More of my issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

The continuation of my list of bugs, major and minor, with “Journey of Faith: The New World”, which places the events of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica:

  1. The DVD again associates Nephite Temples with the Mesoamerican Temples, stating that all these cultures were temple centred, and asserts that the Nephites were similar, the difference being the covenants the Nephites made at their temples. The issue here is although we know the Nephites had temples (Nephi’s, Zarahemla, Bountiful)and others and so did the Lamanites (Alma 23:2), we don’t have any real details of what was done in them. Sacrifice, based on the OT model, is probable, and three sermons are mentioned as taking place at temples (Jacob’s in Jacob 2-3, King Benjamin’s and Christ’s), but there is no record of covenant-making at temples in the Book of Mormon. These seems more a projection of present LDS ordinances on the Nephite dispensation, particularly since the big covenant-making scenes in the Book of Mormon, (such as that at the waters of Mormon or Ammon’s converts) tend not to take place at the Temple. The one at the end of King Benjamin’s sermon would be an exception – but of course it’s noted there that most people couldn’t fit physically in the temple, and it is the teachings in the sermon, rather than physical location, that are pivotal for the covenant making.
  2. The DVD spends some time claiming that a Mesoamerican maize deity reflects similar religious ideas, as this deity too dies and is resurrected. However, vegetation deities who die and are reborn appear throughout many cultures – Adonis, Tammuz and Osiris, for example. Such general parallels are not sufficient, since in many cases they can be found widely, as above, and in specifics they can often differ drastically and attempts to treat them as simplistic parallels are often highly reductionistic.
  3. The DVD also makes much of the descriptions of the Book of Mormon peoples becoming idolatrous, and associating this with Mesoamerican idols. Again, however, idols are not particular to Mesoamerica, but widespread. Moreover, while on some occasions idols does appear to refer to the specific concept, on other occasions the Book of Mormon appears to use it in a wider sense. Thus Alma hears that the Zoramites ‘bow down before dumb idols’ (Alma 31:1), but as he (and the reader) find out, they actually worship one god who is spirit (v.15-17). Their idolatry appears to rest more upon things like their denial of Christ, and particularly the fact that they set their hearts upon their gold and riches (v.24).
  4. King Benjamin’s statement during his sermon, that he is not ‘more than a mortal man’ (Mosiah 2:10) is claimed to be a specific denial of divine kingship. Again, however, divine kingship is not particular to Mesoamerica, has many precedents in the ancient near east, and the text may not be a specific denial of that point anyway – much of the wider context is on Benjamin’s kingship and his conduct of it, and Benjamin does not appear to belabour that specific point.
  5. Likewise, much is made of Amulek’s discussion of the Atonement and sacrifice (including his statement ‘for it shall not be a human sacrifice’ Alma 34:10) and Mesoamerica’s record of human sacrifice. Yet again, however, human sacrifice, while a significant aspect of Mesoamerican culture, is not unique to it. Human sacrifice occurs elsewhere, including being mentioned in biblical precedents well-known to the Book of Mormon authors. Also, while human sacrifice is recorded in the Book of Mormon, it is only mentioned during the final collapse (Mormon 4:14,21) and not at any other time. Nor does Amulek’s sermon necessarily require human sacrifice to be the context, since he is actually speaking of the inefficacy of any kind of sacrifice and of Christ’s deity: “For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.” (Alma 34:10). His sermon continues to discuss the Atonement in light of the penalty for murder and then with Mosiac sacrifice (Alma 34:11-14), rather than human sacrifice.
  6. On this subject of human & ‘heart’ sacrifice, one of the DVD’s scholars asserts that references to a broken heart and contrite spirit are an allusion to this Mesoamerican practice. Again, this is seeing Mesoamerican roots in something which is palpably biblical, as in Psalms 34:18: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.”
  7. Wars are drawn as a point of comparison, including Mesoamerica’s militarism. However, again this is not peculiar to Mesoamerica, and some of the most famous militarised societies are definitly not Mesoamerican (Sparta, for instance). Also, I’m not an expert on Mesoamerica, so am happy to be corrected on this, but it also appears that Mesoamerican warfare wasn’t really centred around conquest, but on pillage and vassalage – not the sort of wars we see described in the Book of Mormon.
  8. Likewise, I’m not sure the fortifications as described in the Book of Mormon are particularly Mesoamerican. Indeed, I recall reading a similar description (though in different words) in Xenophon’s Anabasis, although take that with a pinch of salt as I don’t have the reference to hand.
  9. There is also the claim that the seasons for fighting wars (and thus not harvest time, and so forth) match up between the Book of Mormon & Mesoamerica, namely the 11th to 2nd months. Unfortunately, there are significant problems with this, for even if the claim of the Book of Mormon months is correct (I haven’t checked it myself, although it could well be correct), it should be noted that those would be the 11th to 2nd months of their calendar, which is highly unlikely to correlate with ours (which is the one being used to time the Mesoamerican season). Indeed, upon investigation, this problem isn’ t solved, as can be seen when we seen Sorenson’s original argument here: “The Nephite war season, their tenth or eleventh through second or third months, must coincide with the period for Mesoamerican conflicts, that is, roughly November through February. That means that the Nephite year (at least in the first century B.C. when these wars were recorded) ran from the latter half of December around through December again.” Note that Sorenson is using the assumption that Mesoamerica is the place: “the most probable scene for the Nephite society”, to match the Nephite and Mesoamerican ‘seasons of war’. For someone else to then take that artificial correlation based on assuming a Mesoamerican locale, and then to assert it as evidence of Mesoamerican location is incredibly circular. Moreover, it leaves us inevitably (since the numbers of the months have to match up) with a incredibly unlikely correlation between our own and the Nephite calendar. Sorenson blurs this a bit by arguing from the latter half of December to December, though with little evidence (he says a ‘good guess’ is it ran from the winter solstice, but there is no evidence of this within the Book of Mormon), but admits that it is ‘quite close to our own calendar’. Furthermore, we do have a rough season for the Nephite New Year later on, as Christ’s death (which would coincide with Passover, and so the spring) is noted as taking place on the 4th days of the 1st month of the 34th year (3 Nephi 8:5). Incidentally, Passover is to take place in the 1st Month of the Israelite calendar, though on the 14th day of the month (Exodus 21:2-6). From what I understand, Sorenson does assume the year was changed at the sign of his birth, but it then seems very unlikely that the Nephites would develop a calendar synchronised with the modern western calendar, and then ditch it for one which incidentally was pretty close to the one they must have started with!

Lost in the jungle part one – issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

As I mentioned in the last post, I had fewer issues with the original “Journey of Faith” than its sequel. The original aimed to cover Lehi’s journey through the wilderness and, while I have issues with a number of assertions, is perhaps narrow enough to prevent wilder flights of fancy. However, the sequel – “Journey of Faith: The New World” – covers both a far greater amount, timewise and textually, but is also necessarily speculative about its geographical locale. The dvd chooses to place this unambiguously in the FARMS (now Maxwell Institute) preferred location of Mesoamerica, with few caveats.

This presents a difficulty. Personally I adopt a very cautious approach to Book of Mormon geography, since while I believe it happened somewhere, there’s issues with nearly all the proposed locations, including Mesoamerica. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, and some of those issues may well be resolved in time, but I am personally reluctant to designate anywhere as the likely place. What I am especially opposed to, however, is the practice of reading some other source, whatever it is, into the Book of Mormon. All we have with the Book of Mormon is the text, and the only extent outside source it acknowledges is the Bible. Anything else is necessarily speculative, and reading that into it risks misreading the text. Unfortunately, this seems to have become the standard practice among a number of scholars. Brant Gardner (whose commentary I’m still trying to get hold of!) has expressed this as attempting “to find Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon rather than the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica”, a view endorsed by others as the Maxwell Institute. This to my mind is a very bad hermeneutical practice, because if we look at any text through any particular preconception, we will find evidence of it there. The same approach is pursued by those seeking nineteenth century parallels, with the same seemingly positive results. Worse, if the lens we use happens to untrue, then we will seriously misread the text. I believe this is responsible for a number of the issues I discuss below and in the next post.

Speaking of which, here are the first set of various issues, major and minor, I have with the documentary:

  1. Early on is a discussion of weather. Personally, I doubt there is sufficient mention of weather in the Book of Mormon to make much of this. The claim is there’s no mention of snow or ice – not strictly correct, though Nephi is still in the old world when he uses the word (1 Ne. 11:8), and its metaphorical – but much use of the terms is. The word Hail is used, though, in Mosiah 12:6 & Helaman 5:12. For comparison, the word ice is only used three times in the Old Testament (twice in Job & once in psalms) and once in the Doctrine and Covenants (133:26), and nowhere else in scripture.
  2. Discussion of others. Now a number of people have inferred that there are other people in the Book of Mormon lands who are unmentioned, arguing from things like population growth and inferring (possibly too much) from several incidents. I think, however, it is at best an inference. The DVD goes further, talking about ‘very different religious beliefs’ – of which there is no mention in the Book of Mormon (I’d argue that all the BoM schismatic groups described in detail clearly relate to Nephite religion). The DVD also seems to claim that a big problem was the challenge of keeping covenants in the face of the temptation to assimilate into far vaster populations – yet the the threat of assimilation is not even a minor theme of the Book of Mormon. The comparison the DVD makes to Canaan makes this especially evident – compare Joshua and Judges, with their repeated mention of the Canaanites, to the zero explicit mentions in the Book of Mormon.
  3. Likewise, there is no mention of the integration of such groups into the Book of Mormon peoples – this is largely inferred from population, and comments on ancestry. Nephite & Lamanite are largely ideological designations, true, but that could easily be for the sake of the various tribes that are explicitly discussed in the Book of Mormon.
  4. There’s the assertion that Book of Mormon cultural patterns match those of Mesoamerica, and that ‘all the evidence’ matches it. I’d dispute that, if more evidence was actually discussed in this section.
  5. In terms of discussion of the overall geography, there’s the assertion that the Book of Mormon lands are ‘hour-glass’ shaped. Alma 22:32 would suggest this isn’t strictly true of the south, which is ‘nearly surrounded by water’ (Alma 22:32).
  6. There’s the whole problem of the narrow neck in relation to the rest of the land. Sorenson and others use a fairly conservative estimate for distances, reckoning that an estimated 21 days from Nephi to Zarahemla would mean about 200 miles. However, when it comes to the narrow neck of land, which is given as a day’s (Helaman 4:7) or a day and a half’s (Alma 22:32) journey suddenly use veyr optimistic measures for a military runner, and equate this day/day and a half journey with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, some 125 miles across! This seems extremely inconsistent, especially as it leaves the narrow neck being over half the distance between Zarahemla and Nephi!
  7. Sorenson makes the claim that the designations of the lands as ‘land northward’ and the ‘land southward’, as opposed to ‘land north’ and ‘land south’, implies a tilt away from a north-south axis. This is possible, but is not a necessary conlusion from the text. Moreover, the lands around Isthmus of Tehuantepec could possibly be better described as near a east-west axis. I’ll also note that Sorenson’s specific claim about designations is wrong – on several occasions the Book of Mormon does refer to these lands as the ‘land north’ and the ‘land south’ (See Hel. 6:9-10 & 3 Nephi 1:17).
  8. Again, there’s the claim that the Book of Mormon has many of the cultural characteristics, and ‘all of the important’ ones, of Mesoamerican civilisation, including belief and religion. Nothing specific is offered at this point though.
  9. There is the claim of chronological correlation – that the various cultures of the mesoamerican region match up with those of the Book of Mormon. In particularl, the claim is that the Jaredites match the pre-Olmecs & Olmecs (dates given of 2200-200 BC) and the Nephites/Lamanites the late preclassic Maya (claimed 500 BC – AD 400). Unfortunately the dates given don’t seem to match the ones I can find – dates for Pre-Olmecs & Olmecs appear as 2500-400 BC, and as for Maya, the first settlements are apparently around 1800BC, and the pre-classic period (with its collapse) at aroun AD 250, with AD 100 – 250 being the period of collapse. One of the two major pre-classic maya city states is dated as collapse in AD 150. Perhaps these dates will be revised, but at present they do not match.
  10. There’s the general claim that there are cities. Well yes, but there’s cities lots of places in the world. A lot of time is spent on cement, but they don’t really seem to deal with the issue that the Nephites generally built out of wood (the land north is noted as an exception to this).
  11. There’s more chronological confusion around Teotihuacan, including an association with its building with the time of the Nephite diaspora in the 1st century BC. Problem – Teotihuacan appears to get going around 200 BC, about 150 years earlier. I can’t say I’m happy with sweeping assertions that the Nephites ‘must have’ known about Teotihuacan either. If they’re there, they never mention it.
  12. There’s discussion of the political structure, particularly of the Mesoamerican system of Kings and various vassal kings in comparison to the Lamanites. The problem is that as Lamoni is the actual son of the overall King of the Lamanites, this suggests a more permanant structure than that of hegemonic city states and impermanant vassals. Subordinate kings in any case are not peculiar to Mesoamerica (it’s in the Bible for starters), and of the course neither the Nephites nor the Jaredites are described as following that system. And of course visits by kings are state visits – this isn’t peculiar to Mesoamerica either!
  13. The claim is given that Nephi is in the mountain regions because one always travels ‘up’ to the city of Nephi. However, up and down may not correspond to altitude (for example, one always travels up to Jerusalem). It should also be noted that Ammon and his compatriots travel ‘down’ to the land of Nephi in Mosiah 7:6, although since they’re described on a hill in v.5, that might be a positive indication.
  14. There’s the claim that considering Nephi’s leadership skills (especially since here it is assumed he not only built a city and led a people, but assimilated a much larger population) that it isn’t surprising that the kings and keepers of the plates would come from Nephi’s line. Unfortunately, neither seems true – the keepers of the plates until King Benjamin came from Jacob’s line, while the language of Jacob 1:9 (that Nephi ‘anointed a man to be a king and a ruler’) suggests the kings, while adopting the name (v.11) weren’t descendents either.
  15. There’s discussion that there would be a variety of languages spoken, but it should be noted that the Book of Mormon gives little indication of this – a linguistic distinction is noted with the people of Zarahemla (Omni 1:17-19) and presumably the Jaredites (1:20-22), but Nephites and Lamanites appear to have few issues communicating (say between Zeniff & the Lamanites, or Limhi & the Lamanite King). While Amulon and his fellows are noted as later teaching the ‘language of Nephi’ to the Lamanites (Mosiah 24:4), that this is further specified as teaching them to make records and write to each other (Mosiah 24:6) suggests they were teaching a written, not a spoken language.
  16. I am by no means certain that the observation that Mormon was ‘quick to observe’ was in any way related to linguistic ability.
  17. The Sherem episode is proffered as evidence for ‘others’, but while it is interesting as the two do not seem to know each other directly, this seems doubtful evidence of an outsider. While language is mentioned, it appears to be a reference to his oratorical skills rather than learning a language: “And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil.” (Jacob 7:4) Likewise his complaint, centred as it is on the meaning of the Law of Moses (v.7), seems an unlikely religious critique for an outsider.
  18. There’s the assertion that Nephi & Jacob’s use of the Isaiah is centred around the problem of how to include other people in the covenant. The problem is that both Nephi and Jacob appear to be applying this to the future gathering of Israel, rather than any present problem.
  19. I am not certain the Mulekites can be described as ‘losing a sense of who they were’ when it was Zarahemla who told Mosiah, well, who they were (Omni 1:18). Their language had become ‘corrupted’, and they’d lost their religion (v.17), but they knew (or at least claimed) an ancestry.
  20. In discussion of temples, Nephi specifically states he built his temple ‘after the manner of Solomon (2 Ne. 5:16). These do not match Mesoamerican temples.
  21. A big one here, and a real demonstration of the methodological problems I feel bedevil this production. The claim is made that in Mosiah 13:13, when Abinadi states that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of things which are in heaven above, or which are in the earth beneath, or which are in the water under the earth.” that this is a reflection of Mayan cosmology. This is very wrong, since Abinadi is actually quoting the ten commandments here (Exodus 20:4 in the verse in question), and explicitly so, as his earlier quotation in Mosiah 12:33-36 makes clear. Was Moses a Mayan? Of course not, and considering the explicitness of this quote, I am unsure as to how this mistake was perpetuated, except from what I discussed above – they are looking to the Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon, and so anything that vaguely looks Mesoamerican, even when the book itself states it is quoting Exodus, is misinterpreted in that light.

The above present some serious problems, due largely I believe to importing this Mesoamerican preconception into their reading of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, the above are not the sum total of these problems, which I shall finish in a final list tomorrow.

The grinding of teeth – my encounter with the "Journey of Faith" DVDs

Several Criticisms

I found myself the temporary recipient of two DVDs recently, namely the “Journey of Faith” and the “Journey of Faith: The New World”, produced by BYU’s Maxwell Institute and others. Now I had seen the first one before while in Jerusalem, but since people seemed really keen for me to watch these, I thought I’d do so in the light of my own research, seeing as my PhD research centers on the Book of Mormon too, even if I’m really not looking at the whole origin thing.

However, while I vaguely remembered not being too impressed with the first DVD when first watched, I did not anticipate that a second viewing would cause me to feel that I had overrated it, finding myself with a significant number of what I described as ‘professional differences’ with the content of the first dvd. If the first caused me concern, the second nearly overwhelmed it with my concerns about both its the methodology and conclusions, to the extent that I simply could not watch it one sitting. Now I’m sure that many of those involved are decent men & women and capable in their fields, but I found myself with serious reservations about much of the content of these dvds, especially the second. In an effort to get these out of my head, and in case anyone is interested, I thought I’d note these down here, though I’m not attempting any formal academic approach since I have enough of that elsewhere. Some of these are, in my opion, quite serious, others may be more like nit-picking. If anyone, however, has any criticisms of my criticisms, feel free to point them out. And so to my critique of the first dvd:

DVD 1: The Journey of Faith

  1. Contrary to the DVDs assertion, there is no evidence within the Book of Mormon that Lehi and his party followed any trade routes. This is the start of my big methodological bug bear, which is the tendency to read into the book things external to it.
  2. A trading background for Lehi likewise finds little evidence in the text. I believe this is an argument taken from High Nibley that’s proven very influential. Yes, Lehi is wealthy, no there’s no real indication that he got that by travelling as a trader.
  3. A city of 25,000 people may be small to some moderns, but it doesn’t mean that everyone there would know each other. I grew up in a town about the same size, and noone there did or could. Speculation about Nephi knowing Daniel or Ezekiel before their captivity is purely fanciful.
  4. Rather more serious is the assertion by S. Kent Brown that Lehi sacrificing after travelling three days in the wilderness was in compliance with the Law of Moses’ regulation forbidding sacrifice unless three days away from the sanctuary. Problem – no such regulation actually exists. Based on his article here, he appears to draw this idea from an article by David Seely here. However, Seely’s argument for this law relies upon one particular scholar’s interpretation of the Temple scroll, which in itself is the work of the Dead Sea secretaries five hundred years after Nephi! It should also be noted that Seely is offering this as one out of three potential explanations for why it would be permissible for Lehi to offer sacrifice in the first place – in other words, not only as Brown promoted a possible DSS teaching into one of the Laws of Moses, but the argument is circular anyway.
  5. I’m pretty sure Sariah had bigger concerns than ‘integrating new daughters-in-law into her family’. This seems a projection back of modern concerns.
  6. The length of stay in the valley of Lemuel is unknown; in particular the assertion that the first period of the journey was swift enough that the first children are born after Nahom may be undermined by Nephi’s reference to ‘our families’ earlier at Shazer (1 Ne. 16:14).
  7. Certain ideas about the route – particular Brown’s ideas that they went via certain cities, have no evidence in the text. The implication of 1 Nephi 17:12, that the travellers did not make fire in the wilderness, seems to imply they avoided people, and while this is mentioned after they’ve reached bountiful, it simply refers to while they were ‘in the wilderness’, and does not appear to single out any part of the journey.
  8. Contrary to the dvd, Nephi did not bear ‘tribute’ to ‘these wonderful women’ (i.e the daughters of Ishmael) or especially praise them. I remember this bothering me the first time, if only because it seemed so saccharine, but the text says nothing of the sort either. Nephi talks of the blessings of the Lord in allowing them to live off raw meat and making the women strong that ‘they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings’. Now, I have no wish to condemn people’s reactions to horrible desert journeys – I’d moan too – but Nephi is certainly not giving any especial praise here, except to God.
  9. The dvd asserts that the last leg of the journey was especially hard, and that this formed a a special furnace of affliction of Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Joseph et al. Now 1 Ne. 17:1 could imply the last leg was harder, but I feel to dispute that this was the defining character moment for these individuals- if it were so for Nephi, it would surely warrant more of a mention than one verse implying such. However, it’s especially unlikely to apply to Jacob and Joseph, considering both are noted as being very young & in need of nourishment by the time of the sea crossing (1 Ne. 18:19).
  10. There’s further assumptions or speculation about, for example, bedouin tents, camels and ship construction. None of these appear to have any particular evidence in the text.
  11. On the route taken by the party by sea, it should be noted that Arabs from the region sailed in both directs (east to India and south to Dar-as-salam, nor is there any textual indication that they stayed in sight of shore.
  12. Lastly, it’s striking that there is little to no mention of the Exodus paradigm that Nephi deliberately evokes in his account, both by direct reference (1 Ne. 4:2-3, 1 Ne. 17), language (‘murmuring’) and the pattern of events – defeat of an enemy, reception of the Law & revelatory experience, being guided and fed by God in the wilderness and crossing over water into the promised land. Even the three days into the wilderness thing finds precedent in the exodus, as Moses is commanded to ask that the Israelites be allowed to travel three days into the wilderness to offer sacrifice (Exodus 3:18).

None of the above is to say this dvd is all bad – as mentioned, I had far more serious difficulties with its sequel, which I’ll cover in a separate post. Some of what is discussed is accurate, although I’d heard it before – Nahom is a good piece of evidence, and I’d probably appreciate it more if I didn’t think such questions of geography and so on were the unimportant ones. But, should anyone choose to watch this (and I wouldn’t stop anyone), be prepared to sift.