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.


Omni 1

And behold, the record of this people is engraven upon plates which is had by the kings, according to the generations; and I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy; wherefore, that which is sufficient is written. And I make an end.

(Omni 1:11)

While there’s lots that could be drawn from this chapter, I find this verse of particular interest. In just the preceding book (and chapter), Jarom states that:

And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith.

(Jarom 1:4)

Jarom himself doesn’t write his own revelations, but for the reason that he feels it is unnecessary in the light of what his predecessors have written. But he asserts that he and many others have had revelations, and goes further to say that all who are not stiffnecked and have faith may have the same privilege.

In this light, Abinadom’s statement that he doesn’t know of anyone who has any revelations is an indication of apostasy. As Mormon declares about miracles or the ministering of angels, “if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain” (Moroni 7:37).

When we think of apostasy and restoration, we tend to think in terms of the Apostasy and the Restoration, but passages like this show it as an ever present cycle throughout the scriptures. Thus in the book of 1 Samuel we read that “the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision” (1 Samuel 3:1). And then the Lord appears to Samuel:

And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground.

And all Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord.

And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

(1 Samuel 3:19-21)

Likewise here Abinadom likewise claims there are no revelations and prophecies, and then in the very next verse his son, Amaleki, records how God revealed himself to Mosiah, who led all those who listened to God’s word to safety. Likewise, based on what King Benjamin was commanded to reveal to his people, it appears much of what Nephi and Jacob had taught about Christ had been forgotten by the people, so it had to be revealed again. As if to hammer home the point about the importance of continuing revelation in avoiding apostasy, Amaleki states how he will give his records to King Benjamin for safe-keeping, “exhorting all men to come unto God, the Holy One of Israel, and believe in prophesying, and in revelations” (Omni 1:25, my emphasis).

There is more here than just the general pattern, however. It is not only salvifically important to believe in the existence of prophecy and revelation, but Jarom’s words in Jarom 1:4 suggest the promise of revelation is to everyone: “as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit”. It reminds me of the following comment by Brigham Young:

There is no doubt, if a person lives according to the revelations given to God’s people, he may have the Spirit of the Lord to signify to him his will, and to guide and to direct him in the discharge of his duties, in his temporal as well as his spiritual exercises. I am satisfied, however, that in this respect, we live far beneath our privileges.

(Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 32)

As we believe and follow the revelations God has given to His prophets, we may also experience such revelations ourselves. I’ve had such experiences, and it is a marvellous thing. But I am also sure Brigham Young is right, and that it is easy for us to live beneath our privileges in this regard. And I am sure that at least one key step in being able to receive these privileges is to believe that they are possible, and that we personally can and ought to receive such revelations, and be willing to follow them. Then, if we are not stiffnecked and if we have faith, we too may have communion with the Holy Ghost.

“For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain”

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

(Galatians 2:21)

I find this an interesting verse to mull over. Sometimes it seems our reaction to sin and bad habits is to try and conquer them purely through our own efforts or mortal means. But this isn’t possible. What is true of addictions is really true of all our sins: we, as natural men (and women) cannot overcome them by our own efforts (indeed, in this light addictions are simply the adversary getting smarter about how he preys upon our fallen natures), no matter how hard we try.

But Christ did not die in vain. Freedom from sin, from addiction, from bad habit is possible, but only through his power. Through him, we can be cleansed from all wickedness and have the power to put off our fallen natures to which we are otherwise prone:

Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.

(Alma 7:14)

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

(Mosiah 3:19)

Link: “On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi”

One significant thing I cover in my thesis (now submitted, and hopefully en route to my viva) is that quite a few scholars get the tone of the Book of Mormon work: there’s a tendency in some quarters to treat it as if it is engaging in some gentle academic discussion, which understates the ultimate authority it claims and the forcefulness with which it states its demands for its readers to change their lives and repent.

One facet of this is touched upon by this interesting article by Noel B. Reynolds, which has just been posted on The Interpreter. Reynolds is responding, amongst other things, to certain claims made by Joseph Spencer in his An Other Testament: On typology (a work, I confess, I’m not a fan of), particularly the division Spencer suggests in Nephi’s writings. One compelling point Reynolds raises in his article is proposed claims result in the characterisation of Nephi as an esoteric writer, something which fits uneasily with Nephi’s own explicit enthusiasm for ‘plainness’.

The article is available via On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi: A Critique of Joseph Spencer’s An Other Testament: On typology | The Interpreter Foundation

Jacob 5

Everything I said about Jacob 4, in terms of being able to mention all sorts of things, applies even more to Jacob 5. Most of chapter four of my thesis is a detailed examination of Jacob 5, and I can confidently say after that exercise that there’s a lot to examine. I’ve also happened to post about Jacob 5 before in part, in commenting on an article that I felt was inadequate in its approach to the allegory. So there’s a lot that could be said, and a lot that I have said elsewhere.

What struck me reading through it this time though was the very first few verses (Jacob 5:1-3):

Behold, my brethren, do ye not remember to have read the words of the prophet Zenos, which he spake unto the house of Israel, saying:

Hearken, O ye house of Israel, and hear the words of me, a prophet of the Lord.

For behold, thus saith the Lord, I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard; and it grew, and waxed old, and began to decay.

Aside from the incongruity of a olive tree in a vineyard (something I do happen to discuss in the thesis), this opening reminded of thoughts I had when I was first writing the chapter, and unravelling the vast number of ways in which Jacob 5 connects to biblical passages that use olive tree imagery. It’s one of those things where the more you dig down, the more complex the issue actually gets. Scholarship tends to be very focused on the issue of where such ideas came from, and Jacob 5 has attracted similar commentary. But who first used the Olive Tree to symbolise Israel? The deeper one digs the more it seems like a chicken and egg scenario where it’s not quite clear what influenced what (assuming direct contact at all). And of course, Zenos does not attribute this image to himself but directly to the Lord.

It’s while I was thinking of this chicken and egg issue that my mind turned to a couple of other scriptural passages:

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.

(2 Nephi 11:4)

And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.

(Moses 6:63)

From these verses we learn that all things given by God typify Christ, and that all things are created – both spiritual and temporal – to bear record of God, Christ and the plan of salvation (see Moses 6:62). With these verses in mind, I wondered if this whole thing went even further? Perhaps it’s not an issue of ascribing who first used the olive tree to represent Israel to any one author, even God? With the above verses in mind, is it not possible that the Olive Tree was purposely created and permitted to have the traits that it has, precisely so that it might serve as such a symbol (for God would know of the destiny of Israel)? In other words, is it the symbol that came first, before the actual tree and even the world itself was created?

Jacob 4

Jacob 4 is a chapter I’ve gone over a lot recently, as it plays a significant role in my thesis and revising chapter four (which covers Jacob 4-5) took some time. So I wasn’t quite sure what would catch my eye this time around, and there’s so much in this chapter I could talk about: Jacob’s foreknowledge of Christ, and how he explains this, the reason the Old Testament isn’t so clear on the topic (and it is not because of human tampering), the Book of Mormon’s approach to causality (namely that God is not bound by it), and the definition of truth. But there’s a couple of other things that caught my eye this time.

Firstly (and I’m quoting these as they appear in the 1830 edition, because in some cases the different punctuation and paragraphing helps bring things out):

Now behold, it came to pass, that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people, in word, (and I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates,) and we know that the things which we write upon plates, must remain; but whatsoever things we write upon any thing save it be upon plates, must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved brethen, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers.

I was struck when reading this by the emphasis placed on the impermanence and perishability of records that were not recorded upon the plates. I think it’s a human tendency to imagine a lot of the things around us as permanent institutions. But most human acts, governments and cultures are so impermanent that they will not only one day fail, but will for the most part be so forgotten no one will know that they’ve been forgotten. Anything that is not rooted in something eternal will fade away and perish, and yet we put so much emphasis on those things. Likewise, it took considerable effort (part of which Jacob refers to above) as well as divine aid to preserve the words of the Book of Mormon for later millennia, yet at the time it must have seemed to some that such efforts were unnecessary. Jacob, however, was blessed with a far longer perspective.

The second bit which caught my eye is definitely partly the result of how it is formatted. I think in previously reading Jacob 4, the potential implications of the passages around it have caused me to read over verse 11 more lightly. In the 1830 edition, however, verse 11 comes at the end of a paragraph, and moreover is a continuation of a sentence from verse 10, so it is clearer to see how it is a continuation of the thought expressed there:

Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand. For behold, ye yourselves know, that he counseleth in wisdom, and in justice, and in great mercy, over all his works; wherefore, beloved brethren, be reconciled unto him, through the atonement of Christ, his only begotten Son, that ye may obtain a resurrection, according to the power of the resurrection which is in Christ, and be presented as the first fruits of Christ, unto God, having faith, and obtained a good hope of glory in him, before he manifesteth himself in the flesh.

Personally, I found it a little easier to see this time how knowing that God counsels in wisdom, justice and mercy can encourage us to seek to be reconciled to him through the power of Christ (and how it did for them, even before he appeared in the flesh). Likewise, it’s interesting (and perhaps emphasises elements of his redeeming power that we are prone to miss) to see this described as “the power of the resurrection which is in Christ”. By having faith in Him and seeking reconciliation through Him, we may obtain a hope that we too may be resurrected by this power of His and presented to God in the first resurrection.

A Bible! A Bible! We have got a 76 Bible[s]

Sometimes I get a trifle confused at things that I really shouldn’t. The other day I got a little confused because someone left their scriptures at home beside their bed where they had last been reading them. I was a trifle baffled for a micro-second, before I remembered that most people did not have sets of scriptures for studying with, and a separate set for taking to church. And yet more sets for when working on the thesis. And more sets for when I happened to be working away from home on the thesis. And yet more sets, because that old Bible looked really lonely in the charity shop, and needed a new home…

I’ll begin again. I’m David Richards, and I have a problem…

However, while it is true that I have an inordinate number of books of scripture, and not always for the most rational of reasons, sometimes a different set can offer a genuine benefit. So I’ve used differently Bible translations from time to time. Sometimes, however, even just a different format can offer distinctive benefits. Sometimes people aren’t always aware of these, so I thought I’d share what I’m currently using for my own personal reading (I tend to change them from time to time):


For the Book of Mormon, I’m using a 1830 replica published by Herald Publishing House (the Community of Christ – formerly RLDS – publishing house). I think I ordered it some years ago, I’m pretty sure directly and it was very inexpensive, particularly since it was coming across the Atlantic. As a replica, it also reproduces some faded script and wonky pages that may have been part of the original too. However, there’s a couple of reasons that make it worth reading over a more recent edition. One is paragraphs!


Ta da!

This makes a huge difference in reading, much more than people may expect. The 1830 edition isn’t perfect in this regards: the paragraphing was largely done by the typesetter (the original manuscript was largely without paragraphing or punctuation), and sometimes those paragraphs can extend for several pages. But it still often reads better than “spreadsheet” format. It is my dream that one day the official LDS edition will also revert to paragraphs (for those looking at a modern edition that does, Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon puts the 1920 LDS edition into paragraphs, while Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text employs sense-lines).

The other significant difference is that it does not have the chapter and verse system imposed by the 1879 edition. Considering how we moderns tend to use chapters and verses to break our reading up, this means we sometimes treat the same speech, for example, as several separate disconnected parts, and miss the overarching theme. It’s as if we only listened to conference talks in 5 minute segments, and insisted on leaving 24 hours between listening. The 1830 edition has chapters which appear to stem from the original manuscript, but they are longer, and in some cases divide the text in different places. Again, that can all make a bigger difference when reading than many might suppose.

The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (in this case the personal size, which is quite affordable via Amazon, although in my case it was a much appreciated gift) is a version of the King James Version. It has modern spelling and punctuation, but most importantly (as the name suggests) it is also paragraphed!


Ta da harder?

One again, paragraphs make a big difference. While the KJV can be difficult for many people (and there are some books where it legitimately is), at least part of the difficulty is often the formatting. So far reading the NCPB is much easier on the eyes, which allows more attention to be devoted to the word itself rather than wrangling with how they are arranged. I recommend it.

New “Reading through the Book of Mormon” page

Last year I began a series of posts in which I wrote whatever had caught my eye or my attention in my personal reading for each chapter of Book of Mormon. The pressures of trying to finish my thesis, however, meant that series became disconnected from my personal reading, and then got interrupted completely. However, I’ve now finished writing my nemesis and hope to submit shortly, so I thought it worthwhile to revive this series. In preparation for that, I’ve made a new page indexing all the previous posts (I got up to Jacob 3, and then had one post for Alma 29), and will add links to the new posts as I do them. I haven’t quite yet decided in what order I’m going to do them in yet, and I’m leaning towards doing it in a decidedly non-chronological order. Eventually, however, there will be posts for every chapter, before doing something like moving to the other standard works.

“Reclaiming Jacob” | The Interpreter Foundation

Duane Boyce has written an excellent article at The Interpreter, responding to what I thought was a rather unconvincing and poor reading of Jacob 7 by Adam Miller, but which what at least some seemed to have feel was rather deep.

I thought the following points were particularly good:

  1. That we have two major witnesses as to Sherem’s character and conduct other than Jacob himself: Sherem, and the Lord.
  2. Laman and Lemuel were not somehow sincere and pious, as some people keep suggesting (I respond to the same claim here).
  3. That our definition of what constitutes Christlike conduct has to be based on the actual words and actions of Christ himself, rather than the rather selective image people use which would actually exclude the real Christ (again, a subject I’ve briefly touched on too). Boyce happens to quote one of my favourite quotes of Jesus to make this point (“Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”, Matthew 23:33), but also makes the excellent point that – since he’s presumably the Lord here – it’s Christ who actually strikes Sherem dead!
  4. The problems we face when we place a “lens” over our reading scripture (again – sorry! – something I mention here). I think Duane Boyce does a thorough job of showing precisely how that has happened here.
  5. We should be very cautious in attempting moral evaluations of prophets, and run very real risks. I think that should be especially the case when we’re charging them of being judgemental and “un-Christlike”.
  6. “An unconventional reading of scripture is not equivalent to a deep reading of scripture”.

Read the whole thing here: Reclaiming Jacob | The Interpreter Foundation

Alma 29

Well between a bunch of different things (not least trying to finish my PhD thesis), the series of posts I was doing on my personal reading of the Book of Mormon sputtered out, and so my own reading is now completely out of sync with where I left the posts. I can’t commit to any regular posts until I’ve actually submitted my thesis, but I guess what I can do is the occasional post from time to time as something captures my mind. Eventually I’ll do something on every chapter, I guess it just won’t be in any chronological order.

Anyhoo, I was motivated to write this post by something I ran into while reading Alma 29, a fairly well known chapter. In this chapter, Alma the younger famously writes:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is Alma’s desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is Alma’s desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that Alma’s desire isn’t an abstract one. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

Alma’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence Alma’s explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as Alma goes on to explain:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)