On Conflation; or, Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater in 1911

Oftentimes, we’re presented with what appears to be a package deal: If you accept A, you accept B-G as well. If you reject A, you reject B-G as well. Just as often, however, what appears as a package can and should be unpacked,  critically and carefully examined to see if it really is so.

In 1911 Provo, a controversy erupted over some teachers at BYU. Horace Cummings, the education commissioner, was sent down to investigate and make a report. Telling the entire story is beyond the length and attention span of the average blog, so I’ll just link to it here though it has been written about elsewhere.

Cummings’ report is of interest to me because of the packaging of tradition, Old Testament interpretation and issues of miracles, science, and rationality.

Some of the matters which impressed me most unfavorably may be enumerated as follows: . .. The Bible is treated as a collection of myths, folk-lore, dramas, literary productions, history and some inspiration. Its miracles are mostly fables or accounts of natural events recorded by a simple people who injected the miraculous element into them, as most ignorant people do when things, strange to them, occur. A few concrete examples will illustrate this view:

(a) The flood was only a local inundation of unusual extent,

(b) The confusion of tongues came about by the scattering of the families descended from Noah when they became too numerous for the valley they originally occupied. After a generation or two, having no written language, their speech changed, each tribe’s in a different way. There is nothing sudden or miraculous in the change,

(c) The winds blew the waters of the Red Sea back until the Israelites waded across, but subsided in time to let the waters drown Pharaoh, while a land slide stopped the River Jordan long enough for them to cross it.

(d) Christ’s temptation is only an allegory of what takes place in each of our souls. There is no personal devil to tempt us.

(e) John the Revelator was not translated. He died in the year 96….

Visions and revelations are mental suggestions. The objective reality of the presence of the Father and the Son, in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, is questioned.

I don’t intend to treat each of these separately, but note that the first has to do with genre, one of the important aspects of interpreting any text, modern or ancient, and something I’ve talked about frequently (and will play an important role in my book.) Cummings characterizes these professors’ views of the Bible as “a collection of myths, folk-lore, dramas, literary productions, history and some inspiration.” I’m assuming for sake of the post that his characterization is accurate.

What I want to argue, however, is that accepting parts of the Bible as “myth” (a loaded term if ever there was one) does not preclude one from applying the label “inspiration” to those very same parts. Inspiration does not determine genre. The parables of Jesus, which no one contends actually happened, are just as inspired as more historical genres. There’s no reason why God, who spoke to ancient Israelites “in their weakness, after the manner of their language” could not adapt familiar myths so “that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24.)

I suspect some of those professors in 1911 did take these things as a package deal. Accepting myth in the Bible might have been not so much the result of careful parsing of genres and genre-markers and theories of inspiration, but a general reaction of extreme rationalism, scientism, or arrogance about our intelligence vs. the supposed “ignorant people” of the Bible.

The right way to interpret scripture is not to make sweeping  a priori judgments one way or the other. It’s not right to simply throw out anything that seems irrational or miraculous, as they seem to have done. (As I argued in the follow-up to my flood piece, accepting as I do that God can work miracles does not entail believing that every miracle reported in or outside scripture actually occurred.)  Nor is the proper way to interpret scripture, at the other extreme, to assume that everything must be history while graciously allowing for some minor “figurative” bits to be thrown in here and there. Mormons, like Evangelicals,

when making generic assessments of [scripture], are strongly biased in favor of historical narrative and deeply suspicious of fictional genres like allegories, myths, legends, fables, and folktales. For many evangelicals, any hint of fiction in Job, Jonah, Daniel, 1 Kings, Acts, or in any parts of the Pentateuch or Gospels, would be theologically threatening, not only for the biblical book itself but for the Bible as a whole.- Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words.

We’ve had 100 years since the BYU controversy, lots of time to refine ideas and arguments, and really sit back and think about these things. I don’t know that Mormons have progressed much with respect to the Bible, and still assume it’s all of one historical genre. (Because of its provenance and other factors, the Book of Mormon is a different and complicated case.) If, regarding our institutional approach to scripture, our current velocity in a positive direction is close to zero, I think mainstream LDS writings are accelerating in the direction of learning to read scripture more effectively and “intelligently” (to invoke Elder Widtsoe.)

I’d cite Michael Austin’s book on Job as a prime example. It succeeds in being sensitive to tradition and scholarship and pays close attention to genre, while also being enormously useful ethically and spiritually. I know of an LDS mother, taking care of her child’s former partner who is dying of cancer, who found the book a real strength in her situation. This careful, scholarly book, the very opposite of “theological twinkies [and] fried froth” was also deeply spiritual and edifying. The conclusions of scholarship are not necessarily inimical to faith or incompatible with devotional approaches and pastoral care.

Whether reading scripture or thinking about scholarship and assumptions, let’s be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, about our assumptions concerning what really is a package deal and what isn’t. Our faith, understanding, and perhaps even discipleship depend on it.


63 comments for “On Conflation; or, Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater in 1911

  1. I wonder if another “package deal” that ought to be unpackaged is the marketing trope that “if the Book of Mormon is true, then…the LDS Church is true.” As a missionary, I didn’t know any better and promoted the same reasoning, but such logic doesn’t convince me in light of further information I’ve learned.

    — Many people in the early church who “apostasized” believed the Book of Mormon to be true, but felt that Joseph’s polygamy and/or other faults indicated he had lost his prophetic gift.

    — Even assuming that Joseph retained his prophetic gift until the end of his life, there are several branches of mormonism besides ours (LDS) that accept Joseph Smith, but don’t accept Brigham Young and his successors as authoratative.

    –Even if one assumes Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both true prophets, there have been many who rejected subsequent prophets, e.g., people who still believe in polygamy and don’t accept the manifesto.

    It seems to be that the “package deal” we so often use in missionary work is false both empirically and logically. If so–and if one wishes to remain an active LDS member–what is one supposed to do when one hears this falsehood promoted in Church and by missionaries? Sometimes it seems people in our church would rather hear conventional lies than unconventional truth.

  2. If a young missionary or other benighted Latter-day Saint attempts to help another with an honest and heartfelt feeling that it is a package deal, such as that Adam and Eve were real people or the Book of Mormon’s truth does speak in favor of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as part of a sincere testimony and with the (self-felt) prompting of the Holy Spirit, who are we to say that such testimony is false? Why use the standards of academia and science to judge matters of faith?

    If Mormons haven’t progressed much, as stated in the original posting, but they’re happy in their simple faith, why not leave them alone? I’m sympathetic so some suggestions that there might be some allegory in the scriptures, but I’m not so convinced that those who look at scripture as historical genre are all wrong. And really, if Adam and Eve are allegorical, maybe the whole story of the cross and resurrection are, too — after all, there equal “historical” evidence for both (meaning none). How far do we go with it?

  3. Can we avoid the pejorative language, like “benighted” and “lies”?

    Simple faith is sometimes rigid faith, and that kind of faith is quite vulnerable, in my experience. And some of us aren’t writing for that audience anyway, but for those with different spiritual needs or conflicts.

  4. “if Adam and Eve are allegorical, maybe the whole story of the cross and resurrection are, too — after all, there equal “historical” evidence for both (meaning none).”

    I’d disagree with that statement about historical evidence, because the genre of the Gospels vs the genre of Genesis 2-3 is completely different.

  5. I know that you pointed out that the Book of Mormon is a different situation for a number of reasons, but I think our approach to scripture is too often a “package deal” as well, and the Book of Mormon itself compounds the possible problems you point out. It’s a single volume created by one editor working from various historical documents. While I think that Grant Hardy has done a masterful job of pointing out how Mormon manipulates the historical facts he has access to to make his theological points, I would argue there are no examples of the “myth” genre in the entire book (aside from repeating a few of the ones that already exist in Christendom/Judaism, and I am adding all the possible caveats any of you reading this can think of about using the term “myth” in the first place). We frequently refer to Mormon as a prophet-historian. Rightly so, in my opinion.

    And then as we are commanded regularly to read from the Book of Mormon daily, as opposed to the other volumes we accept as scriptures, our initial encounter with scriptural is presented incredibly historically. We then get around to reading the other scriptures as we ought to, it is easy to assume they are all similarly historical in nature. While I agree 100% with the modern church’s emphasis on reading the Book of Mormon, perhaps one could consider this a potential drawback of doing so.

  6. As a follow up to my previous comment, unpackaging “book of mormon is true” = “joseph smith is prophet” = “church is true” = “all things prophets say are true” also has some great benefits. One needn’t abandon the church at the first sign that the Book of Mormon/Joseph Smith/etc. has problems.

    Ben S. – point well taken that “lies” and “benighted” are pejorative terms. But if a person uses reasoning that they know to *not* be true logically or empirically, what other terms would be more appropriate? And I’m not saying such a term as “lying” applies to the vast majority of members or missionaries…but if one knows something isn’t true, isn’t one under an obligation not to spread the untruth? Isn’t the standard package of “book of mormon is true” = “LDS church is true” not true, both logically and empirically?

    You’re the one that brought up unpackaging in your post – I’m just adding my midrash to it.

  7. CC, why couldn’t stories in the BOM relating to events 100s of years before Mormon have been myth that he accepted as fact (or that he just used for his purposes)? Consider Nephi’s interaction with Laban. Or the miraculous deliverance of the 2,000 strippling warriors (none were killed!). Couldn’t those events have been myth created and passed down through the nephite culture, just like some would argue that the parting of the red sea and david vs. goliath were myths passed down by israelite culture?

  8. That report is fascinating reading. I especially like the bit about the diffusion of language. There seemed to be a real concern about watering down miracles to make them more palatable. I see the concern mainly as a slippery slope argument. Once you begin naturalizing miracles, you work your way through them one at a time until there’s no miracle at all. We don’t want to be a church of myths and allegories. We’re the restoration of angelic visitations and priesthood power. So I understand the reaction.

    I had a friend who was teaching early morning seminary and she wasn’t sure how to go about talking about the Old Testament patriarchs living over 900 years. I said I didn’t feel the need to take everything in the Bible literally, but that was scandalous to her.

  9. Dave K, you bring up a good point. However, I stand by my general assertion that there are no “myths” in the Book of Mormon. In my opinion the first-person accounts of both of those stories you bring up definitely remove them from the genre of “myth” and move them into a different category. I’m not sure what to call that category, but “biography” or “autobiography” might be it. That’s substantially different than what’s going on in Genesis, for example, as I read it.

  10. I would say that not only does the Book of Mormon train us to read all scriptures historically, it also treats the Bible as historical as well. It references Old Testament events (notably the Tower of Babel and the Exodus) as actual, historical events. And Joseph’s other revelations also generally treat Biblical events as historical events involving real people. So a Mormon who wants to unpack the Bible not only has to read the Bible in new ways, they also have to grapple with the implications that has on the other scriptures in the cannon. That’s a challenge that other Christian churches don’t have.

  11. Typing on a small keyboard with very limited access-
    Joel, it’s not as big a problem as many suppose. Joseph and Nephi, like all prophets, generally reflect the worldview and knowledge of their day. The Book of Mormon is no more an omniscient witness to history than the bible, more a witness to the received tradition of the day. That doesn’t make them any less prophetic. As for Ether and Babel, think of all he minds and editorial hands and translations that passes through. It’s not the first-hand eyewitness hat it appears to be.

    Where, on the other hand, Joseph claims a biblical figure appeared to him, I’m inclined to believe him… But that doesn’t suddenly render our stories about that figure “modern history.”

  12. Great post, Ben. Another way people toss out scripture with the bathwater is textual criticism – they come across a claim that one passage or another is post-exilic or not in the earliest NT manuscripts, and jump to the conclusion that we can therefore revoke its scriptural status.

  13. Joel, while the Book of Mormon teaches that there is a historic kernel I’m not sure it teaches in the least to read all things historically in the sense of modern histography. While it teaches there was a real tower of Babel and Exodus it’s unclear what the actual historic events were. Instead what gets emphasized typically are more type settings that then repeat and underlie other events.

  14. What is “the baby”? What is it that is worth keeping and what is worth discarding?

    In my own life, I’ve found that many LDS truth claims are inconsistent with my lived experience.

    For example, it’s been my experience that God isn’t big on “magic”–a world where things have natural causes makes sense to me. It’s my experience that God isn’t big on picking small groups of people with whom He reveals secrets–a world where God is quiet and all of mankind stumbles about after truth makes sense to me. It’s my experience that texts have mortal authors. It’s my experience that people experiment with myriad moral systems and settle on systems that “work.”

    If an idea or belief runs contrary to my own lived experience, I’ve found I have to do something with the belief. If there’s a conflict between what I perceive to be true, and what a religious teaching says is true, and if I feel obligated to believe the religious teaching, that conflict agitates my mind.

    An approach I’m experimenting with is relaxing the belief. I’m trying to set some space between myself and LDS truth claims. (I sincerely don’t want to disparage another, but this is what I’m working with.) … I find it necessary to say to myself, “These truth claims are not mine and are not a part of me.” When I do that I feel free from the obligation to own or care for the belief. They are not part of me so I have no obligation to defend them or reason about their veracity. My hope is that by letting go of certain beliefs, that I can focus on those things that have been part of my own experience.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not the type of guy who throws babies. All babies should be cared for, but by their own parents. The longer I live, the more experiences I have, the more certain I am that many LDS truth claims are not my baby.

  15. Great post!

    I’ve heard critics ask why even have the plates if they were intimately involved in the translation process. I think a possible answer is so that we would know the BOM comes from real people from a real point in history, as opposed to the infallible word of God received directly from the heavens. And while having real plates and a real Moroni delivering those plates testifies to certain kind of historicity it also bring with it an understanding that this scripture is coming from real people with real limits to what they knew.

  16. Ben s and Clark Goble, I readily acknowledge that one needn’t take a hard-line historical approach with the Book of Mormon, nor does it absolutely require that the events it references from the Bible have happened exactly like they were said to have happened. My own experience growing up in the church, my personal and family scripture study, my scripture study in church, seminary, and at BYU, was that most everything in the scriptures was treated as history involving actual people describing real events as they happened. There was never any discussion of certain stories possibly being myths that were passed down by generations, or that the descriptions of events might have been biased or exaggerated.
    I don’t think my experience is unusual, I think it’s the norm.

    I would say that correlation has only solidified the approach of reading the scriptures literally. Other approaches are possible and probably even more true to the scriptural text, but they do require a significant paradigm shift that is quite disruptive, at least it was to me. It is disruptive to unpackage the scriptures, more so for Mormons than Protestants or Catholics because we have more scriptures than they do that interconnect in some pretty complicated ways. And I think that’s why the correlation committee has maintained a literal reading of the scriptures to this day. Elder Holland was pretty explicit that Adam and Eve are not to be taken mythologically.

  17. Very well said Josh Smith! The baby was conceived by someone with an entirely different view of God and the way he interacts with us (or at least with me). I’d have appreciated, for instance, a fourth “grand key” dealing with the discernment of feelings, since the first 3 dealing with shaking the hands of angels and demons (D&C 129) hasn’t helped me out much in life so far… Even the modern baby of a couple hundred years ago seems like an alien baby at times.

    And I’ll add my experience to Joel’s. Last year someone tried to very gently suggest that the story of Job in the bible might not actually be literal and we shouldn’t feel obligated to take it that way. The idea was shot down in less than 60 seconds referring to statements from modern prophets (by the teacher and others). And I don’t live in Utah. It was disappointing, but it’s been the “normal” my whole life.

  18. Yes, obviously there are some differences in regional leadership. My SP gave copies of the Job book to all his counsellors and high council, iirc.
    Correlation is a whole nother ballgame…

  19. As soon as I realized that church leaders disagree on doctrine, that most doctrines are evolving, and that I don’t need to take any particular position on most things, I began to study scripture differently. We know very little, and much of what we think we know today, will change in time. God still loves us, and that’s an important principle, but many other concepts about what the scriptures say or what we think God wants us to do are changing.

  20. Joel, obviously some people do treat it like that. My experience at BYU was rather different although again I think there’s a false dichotomy between myth and history. There’s lot of other genres in between. I rather liked Nibley’s pushing a spectator account with unreliable narrative. And Nibley was pretty huge when I was at BYU in terms of how people approach the BoM.

    I’m careful about saying what is or isn’t the norm. My experience is that people are usually pretty quiet about their personal views. There’s typically a lot more diversity. Admittedly I’ve also tended to attend wards with a lot more academically inclined. Both here in Provo and in places like Los Alamos. But even in the other wards I’ve attended while there were certainly many adopting a simplest hermeneutic there were also many more sophisticated readers. Again my experience in BYU wards (and considering how many BYU employees are in my current ward I have to count my current ward) is quite different. I’ve never seen anyone look askew at the notion of literary genre in scripture.

    I should note that I don’t think Adam & Eve should only be taken as mythic either. There are quite strong reasons independent of Genesis 1&2 to require an historic Adam & Eve although what their history was like is more up for grabs.

  21. I’d add that I think correlation of manuals is also more complex than you suggest. I don’t know who’s been on the board, but some of those who have like Dan Peterson are hardly the literalists you portray. (And he’s been pretty open about talking about a lot of the process)

  22. This post has me thinking. As I said above, I’ve felt compelled to gently disengage with certain religious beliefs. If I were to choose a metaphor, I’d liken it to placing a toy wood boat on a river and letting it drift. No fight. No fuss. No tossing of babies or bathwater. Just letting the beliefs drift.

    This post has me asking, what will remain after I send off the last little boat? One thing that remains after I gently drift religious truth claims is the present moment and my experience of the present moment.

    We’ve had rain for a week straight. This morning we had sun. Our poppies are blooming. This morning my son and I experienced our honey bees working the poppies. In my son’s face I could see the absolute miracle of the present moment. My son’s worldview is very simple, and he has need of very few beliefs. Really, that experience required very little language. It was about color and touch and movement. In that moment, experience was enough.

    This is a question for me and I’m not really expecting an answer: Surely there is enough of the miraculous already in life. Why do we feel compelled to add extravagant claims about the nature of reality? What could we possibly add to the present moment that isn’t already there if we have a mind to perceive it?

  23. “I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.”

    I don’t think it rises to the level of adopting Pascal’s wager, but for me personally, its easier to take the Bible at its word and say the stories are real – of course, we’re talking about a God who organized solar systems, right? His intellectual abilities are beyond my own – if he wanted a real flood, he could have it – if he wants it be an allegory, swell! He must think I have something to learn from it either way.

  24. That’s just the thing, thor. Before we believe it, we must figure out what *it* is. 2000 years from now, will people who read Les Mis as historical fiction be “unbelieving”? Or are they just recognizing its proper genre? How does one “believe” fictional genres? If Jonah was intended as a satirical parable, are those who zealously defend it as history the ones “wresting the scriptures”?

  25. Ben S., from what I can tell, usually people stuff like Job/Jonah in one silo and Jesus’ miracles in another separate silo, and I find the inconsistency a little frustrating.

    If Jesus can wither a fig tree, why not a gourd?
    If he can raise the dead, then why not Jonah in a whale?
    If he can calm a storm, then why not make it flood?

    I’m open to such stories being parables, but a key difference for me is that Jesus’ parables don’t have proper names of people in them, and rarely of real cities, and only then to use culture as a teaching tool.

    It’s possible that people embellished the OT stories, but it seems silly to believe in one category and remain so skeptical of the other. Personally, I think people overestimate the degree of our understanding of the natural world a lot, and they need to review the definition of ‘miracle.’

  26. “I think people overestimate the degree of our understanding of the natural world a lot…”

    That’s a common feeling from people who haven’t made an in-depth study of science and the natural world. I find the exact opposite to be true.

  27. +1 Tim (#27). That’s my experience as well.

    Someone engaged in learning about the natural world might say something like this: “This world is absolutely stunning. There is so much we don’t yet know. There is so much we can yet discover. Science is a wonderful way to approach the natural world. How exciting is the mystery of life!”

    Someone interested in validating his or her own faith says it quite differently: “I believe x, y, and z about the natural world because of my faith. Yes, there is scientific evidence at odds with my faith. But, I think people overestimate the degree of our understanding of the natural world a lot. Therefore I’ll continue believing x, y, and z.”

  28. A full account of the 1911 controversy is available online as Chapter 3 of Sessions and Oberg’s book The Search for Harmony (Signature Books, 1993). Link: http://signaturebookslibrary.org/the-1911-evolution-controversy-at-brigham-young-university/

    Ben S., the 1911 episode is generally painted as a faith-and-evolution conflict, but your post brings out the higher criticism aspect of the case as well. As you note, here we are a hundred years later and the Church (and even BYU religion) hasn’t move much beyond Horace Cumming’s approach to reading and interpreting the Bible. Ironically, evolution is now firmly ensconced in the BYU educational curriculum, but higher criticism is still too hot to handle.

  29. Great post, Ben. Looking forward to seeing your manuscript when it comes in!

  30. Josh, I think that can be true. Some people seek inquiry and other people prefer stasis. Inquiry is never at odds with faith IMO. Many people simply don’t want to inquire about why they believe something. Of course this doesn’t just affect the believer – the skeptic often cuts off inquiry about revelation or simply discounts that people may have reasons for their beliefs.

  31. Josh Smith, it’s not the backwards conservatives saying the debate is over.
    It’s not the traditionalists who ever so shortsightedly suggest it shows a lack of progress and quite frankly respect for our predecessors that were still grappling with the same questions 100 years later. Hey, many of the arguments I see play out in the bloggernacle similar in principle to arguments and questions over 1000years ago.

    It’s clearly not a deep question to humanity if you can answer it and presume society to move on in a generation or two. 100(0) year questions don’t reveal a lack of progress but point to the human condition itself.

    There is a lot of immaturity masquerading as intelligentsia, when it really just smacks of a teenager whining about how their curfew shows a lack of trust rather than reflects the wisdom of experience regardless of individual capability.

  32. DQ, I’m not sure what you’re saying. I went back and read my comment in #28 and it does sound a wee bit smug on my part. I could certainly phrase it differently if that’s what you’re getting at. I’ll respond to your comment if I understand what you’re saying.

    Brad L, I’m interested in the link but it didn’t work.

    Clark, I’d rather not frame the discussion in terms of “believer” and “skeptic.” I don’t think those labels are particularly helpful.

    My understanding of religious belief is that it accepts some sources of authority as legitimate sources of truth. In the LDS context this includes living and dead church leaders and scriptures. These sources are interpreted as revelations from God. There’s some nuance in how the sources are interpreted, and I see plenty of good people reflecting on these sources and wrestling with these sources, but ultimately religious belief rests on claims from authority. This prophet or this scripture says _______ so _______ is true about the world. One has faith in the authoritative source. One has a belief about the veracity of the authoritative source. That’s why it’s called a “belief.” One “believes” in the authoritative source.

    It is a fundamentally different way to approach the world observing a phenomenon and then letting conclusions (if any) follow from what one observes.

    It is my experience that the LDS faith is not structured to encourage an inquiry-based approach to understanding the world. For example, when the LDS church teaches that one should pray to know the truth of something, it is unacceptable to come back with the answer, “the prophet was wrong” or “the book of scripture didn’t actually happen.” Heaven knows I would love to be shown otherwise on this topic.

  33. Ben S, bounded, structuralist views of genre (which seem to be what you are referring to), unravel somewhat when one finds rhetorical devices such as ‘narration’ and ‘figurality’ occurring across a range of text types. The issue for me is whether or not any ‘genre’ can be defined as having a sole overriding function and intention such as often attributed to myth or history or drama, or scriptural block etc. Am I misreading your orientation to genre?

  34. I’m using genre very broadly. I’m not a literary scholar, but after Gunkel, virtually every discussion of Genesis (especially at the popular level) raises the general question of what *kind* of thing the text represents, without pigeonholing it into one of any dozen narrow definitions of this or that genre.

  35. CG #5

    “I know that you pointed out that the Book of Mormon is a different situation for a number of reasons, but I think our approach to scripture is too often a “package deal” as well, and the Book of Mormon itself compounds the possible problems you point out. . . . I would argue there are no examples of the “myth” genre in the entire book.”

    Joel #10, 17

    “I would say that not only does the Book of Mormon train us to read all scriptures historically, it also treats the Bible as historical as well.”

    Great insights and arguments. Mormons are spoiled with our multiple books of scripture (and gratefully so). And we do treat them as if they are all one kind of text, or genre, as Ben frequently implies. It is wrong to do so. While the Book of Mormon is an Old Testament-style text, the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon are two completely different kind of texts.

    Sometime around the 12th century BCE various cultural transformations were occurring throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East; what Jaspers calls the Axial Age. These transformations would culminate in the 6th century BCE with the invention of Greek philosophy and science, the renaissance of religion with the development of Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and the Israelite reforms of Isaiah and Jeremiah. This is also the time of Lehi and Nephi.

    Must we invoke some spirit of the age to explain all these transformations? Perhaps, but one chief change in culture occurred by the 6th century and was deeply rooted in Classical Greece: Literacy! While writing had been around for millennia, fully literate consciousness is deeply rooted within this era, and according to many scholars it is literate cognition that is at the root of the so called “birth of reason” in the West.

    Modern history is a fully literate production. Ancient history was not. The Bible begins with oral historical stories that are later rewritten as fully literate models. We have been interpreting them that way ever since. It is wrong to do so. There is not a single oral culture known to exist or to have existed that did not tell their histories using myth. It is our misunderstanding of oral and literate cognitive processes, and our projection of literate viewpoints on all historical data, that continually leads us to the arguments and anxieties addressed in this post.

    An important point to make, though, and one I have not read any LDS scholar make, is that the Book of Mormon, unlike the Bible, begins as a fully literate production. Nephi, like many of the Greek schoolmasters just before and after, is a fully literate person thinking under fully literate noetics. Jacob is the same, and Mormon, the editor, is rewriting all of Nephite history under literate contexts.

    As a result, as CG points out, you will not find any myth in the Book of Mormon, because myth is the product of oral demands and oral history-making. This is correct. And the timing is also perfect (6th century). The Book of Mormon is not predicated on oral models, but only literate ones. But because Mormons are unaware of the differences between oral and literate thinking, all books of scripture are homogenized under literate prejudices. We have forgotten, that in the oral age, myth was the word of God.

  36. From my forthcoming book, Mythos and Cosmos: Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age, to be published late this summer:

    How much memory can be amassed? Even with the implementations of the cult the oral mind maintains only a few-score layers of vertical memory. Whatever information is kept in the memory theater must deserve its place. This brings up an issue of critical importance: how do oral peoples keep a history within the limitations of oral cognition?

    Literate histories have more than a few-score layers of memory written into them. Good histories, like good modern science, require thousands of layers of information annotated by journals, minutes, events, reports, and charts. Obviously oral peoples do not have these things, and crafting a long and detailed historical exegesis is impossible. On the other hand, oral peoples create lists. They can memorize hundreds and even thousands of names in their genealogies. A list of names, however long and complex, is not a literate history. On this point Eliade observes that the literate reader of history is confronted with a dilemma: “The ahistorical character of popular memory, the inability of collective memory to retain historical events and individuals except insofar as it transforms them into archetypes [. . .] poses a series of new problems” (CH 46). These problems come by way of literate renderings of oral histories. Perhaps there is no better example of this quandary than traditional Biblical interpretation, as English scholar Margaret Barker makes clear, “The death blow to mythology was dealt by those who made the myths into history. We still have problems with Adam and Eve to this day as a result!” (Gate 180).

    In oral societies real and historical details of a person or event lasts in the memory for about a century. A grandfather can tell a grandson about his experiences. The grandson eventually tells his grandson what he has learned. After that, the initial teachings of the first grandfather may degrade. To maintain historical continuity persons or events that must be remembered are placed within a specific memory theater set up for them—myth. Oral peoples have a set of narrative templates. These templates are products of their cult and cosmology; in other words they are associated with the rituals and festivals that are constantly maintained and familiar to everyone. People of renown are placed within these templates and their stories are mythologized so that they can be remembered for generations. This process is reversible, so that when a particular teaching must be transmitted a myth is told rooted in historic fact. Eliade observes, “the historical character of the persons celebrated in epic poetry is not in question. But their historicity does not long resist the [. . .] action of mythicization” (CH 42). Eliade reminds us that myth is not the first stage of the development of oral history, but the last (CH 43).

    Was the Earth literally created in seven days? According to a literal, historical, and most of all literate interpretation of the Bible, the answer is yes. For centuries faithful Christians have advocated the historicity of such absurdities that grow at the turn of every page: Noah really did put two of every animal in the ark; Joshua really did stop the sun in the sky; Samson really did kill a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass; and Jonah really did dwell for three long days in the belly of the whale. In all fairness, this is not a Christian problem, but a literate one. Believing Christians interpret the Bible literally because literate minds conceive history in this way.

    [. . .] The dilemma remains in cognitive systems. Oral peoples mythologize history. Literate people historicize myth. Another way to put this is to realize that in oral societies there really is no such thing as pure history or pure myth; the two are often homogenized into a single cult system of narrative and ritual.

  37. John I’m really sympathetic to this view. (I should note I’m not the CG in #5 in case of any confusion) That said I’m also terribly skeptical of some of the structuralism of myth that Eliadi and others do. At a certain level it’s just not terribly persuasive IMO. There was a reason post-structuralism developed. I think there is a simplification of story towards common structures but I also think differences from those structures matter a lot.

    With regards to the Book of Mormon it is interesting that despite Nephi focusing primarily on written texts of Isaiah there is a deep ambivalence. He himself in his vision sets up an opposition between writing and spoken word in 1 Ne 14:23. (Among several places) But even there we have the complex relationship between mouth and book that doesn’t neatly fit into a structuralist analysis (IMO) Whether Nephi’s eschatological conception bears on myth is interesting. After Nephi’s and Lehi’s visions we don’t have much by way of deeply figurative imagery beyond Jacob 5. It’s not that there aren’t complexities. Just that perhaps Lehi/Nephi could be analyzed in a fashion akin to Jung, Eliadi or the structuralists (despite complexities). After that it’s moot.

    Is Lehi still in that more mythic tradition? Or are he and his sons a kind of transition between what some call the oral/mythic model and the written/narrative model of Alma onward? (Even when the focus is on words later, it’s always words as a kind of prepared text which always makes me wonder how Alma got Mosiah 15 from Abinadi) If it’s a transition then of course passages like 1 Ne 14:23 make more sense. (And perhaps the similar apocalyptic texts of Judaism from the Hellenistic period through the explosion by the Romans)

    I think that the oral type of narrative versus the more written type of narrative is significant. It’s interesting even in the era of memory from late antiquity to the rebirth of the art of memory in the Renaissance the difference. And some might say the Adam plays of the medieval era are closer to what you describe despite being in a largely literate culture for the elites.

    What’s interesting is how Joseph and Brigham transitioned texts like Genesis 1&2 into the endowment in a fashion inspired by masonry but if anything hearkens back to these earlier traditions of the medieval and renaissance art of memory. Further they inject historical figures in a very non-historical way that seems more in keeping with myth but which has some differences. Brigham’s treatment in particular is interesting since he plays up the mythic a lot, emphasizing Adam as symbol. Yet simultaneously he transforms Adam in a literalist way to a degree most of us are uncomfortable with. While we obviously reject a lot Brigham did here (including a lot of de-masonatizing the endowment) I’ve long though that the art of memory and the ritual of the endowment is a better light to understand these scriptures than myth as seen through the structuralist lens.

    That is there is a certain performative aspect which some mythic analysis captures but which I also think makes the structures more complex. Perhaps to the degree that they are no longer really open to a structuralist analysis at all.

  38. I should also add that 1 Ne 14 is a great example of the medieval conception of memory as a metaphor of digesting and regurgitating (like a bird giving food to chicks). The renaissance transformation is probably closer to the poststructuralists than the medieval. It’s interesting that while the midieval elites were literature, the difficulty of writing meant that in many ways it was still much more an oral society.

    Nephi’s vision overall seems much more in keeping with memory of late antiquity though where visual overlays add content detail enabling the mind to store long texts. This type of memory was reborn in the renaissance even as competing more modern style of thinking about memory and texts was also arising. (Think Locke for instance)

  39. There is no myth in the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s reference to the Exodus and Mormon’s reference to the Tower of Babel, however, does not qualify these episodes as being purely historical (aka a literate history) as preserved in the Old Testament text. Every Jew knew the Exodus happened, and that there was a tradition of a great Tower and the division of languages. Their inclusion in the Book of Mormon does not prove anything other than they were acknowledged as part of the national and ethnic history of Israel.

    It should be noted that by the 6th century BCE even the Greeks no longer understood their own myths. They were constantly arguing over what they meant. Plato is quite ambiguous on the subject, kicking the mythologists out of his Republic, but citing them constantly throughout his writings.

    Archaeologically speaking, there is no real proof for the Exodus, as explained in the OT text. The history took on mythic proportions, necessarily, as it was passed down from generation to generation. Margaret Barker suggests that the impulse or context behind the Biblical narrative remains in ancient temple liturgy.

    And that brings up another interesting point: in oral societies myth and history are compliments, and thus so are liturgies and history. This should not surprise us. Just look at the facsimiles in the Pearl of Great Price. Apparently, the history of Abraham was told in a liturgical context. Again, this is not modern, literate history making. I might suggest that half the story of the Exodus is historical and the other half is rooted in temple liturgy and cosmology (aka mythical).

    Actually, as one follows the puzzle pieces, many of our long held and sacred assumptions are given deathblows. But if we are persistent, and let go of our prejudices, we might see that at the end of the road we have even more reasons to believe in the restored gospel.

  40. Clark Goble. Thank you for clarifying. I did not know you were not CG. And so I am dealing with lots of different viewpoints here.

    I am not arguing structuralism per say, though it’s nice to see someone who knows the academic arguments. Ancient oral cult systems were fundamental to mnemonic purposes, but also served to underwrite the ontological sense of a culture. Oral cults are always composed of: 1, myth, 2, ritual, 3, ritual space (aka the templum), and 4, symbol. Myth takes part in a larger complex of culture meaning. Ancient myths were never texts. They were performed, sung, danced, recreated in temple drama and chorus, assigned deities, instruments, masks, and even tattoos. Texts that descend from this kind of cultural complex of oral traditions can be nothing but a caricature of the original intent and meaning.

    I think your observation of a sort of transitional phase between orality and literacy in the BOM text within the small plates is interesting. I would argue that myth has been utterly dropped from Nephi’s consciousness. But the cult to which the myth was once attached is still very much alive. One of the interesting commonalities you read among myths around the world is the myth of the hero taking a celestial journey (Gilgamesh, Herakles, Quetzalcoatl, Jacob). The celestial journey was part of the cult and laid the foundation for one’s authority to rule. Thus, ancient kings often re-enacted the myths, publicly, as a declaration of their celestial mandate.

    A prophet in the Israelite tradition did the exact same thing. Ezekiel is the best example, as his prophethood begins with a tour of the cosmos. But this is not an isolated incident. Isaiah also begins his ministry by seeing god on his heavenly throne in his heavenly throne room. Jacob founds Israel by seeing that heavenly ladder. All these incidents heavily imply a much greater context which has been lost from our written texts, that once included temple liturgy attached to temple cosmology and once handed down with temple myth. It is only our own modern prejudices that completely drop that last part, despite the fact that it has pretty much dropped the first parts as well. Now, it is all literal history, despite the fact that a more mythic reading leads one back to the temple. Ironic, to be sure.

    I believe Nephi’s vision is best explained by the Enoch tradition. Enoch takes a heavenly tour. He learn’s heaven’s secrets, comes to the heavenly throne room, and is shown the tablets of destiny, where he learns the origin and fate of all his people, seeing into their future unto the last generation. This too was part of heiratic culture, where kings in the oral age performed rituals (reenactments of myths) where they also declared that they had received authority from the heavenly throne room (variously called different things and by different names of different gods) while pronouncing the destinies of their nation, including their crops, wars, etc. Astrology is a big part of this.

    Look at Nephi’s vision. It follows the same pattern. Nephi is taken on an otherworldly landscape and finds the Tree of Life (there’s your heavenly throne room). He then is shown several generations of people, from the fate of his own to the rediscovery of the promised land and the coming forth of the plates. This is all well and good, but it is exactly what Enoch has done, and in a different context, what the Babylonian kings did when they declared the yearly destinies. In other words, Nephi’s vision should be read within a liturgical context associated with oral cosmology. It belongs in that world. Of course Lehi had the vision first, but once again he gets his call to the priesthood how? By seeing god on his throne in the heavenly throne room. And so it goes.

    To sum up, the Book of Mormon is being produced as a completely literate text, and there is no myth in it. The fantastic visions of Lehi and Nephi, however, follow an established pattern found throughout the oral age that once was encoded in myth.

  41. I think I was more pointing towards a certain ambiguity in myth that perhaps the structuralists of the early 20th century were loath to allow. That is myth is not univocal in structure. While I didn’t come out and say it, I was playing with the notions of myth in Eliadi’s sense, the art of memory (in any of its three historic phases), ritual in the post-Renaissance esotericism such as masonry, and so forth. The idea that all oral societies have Myth in some univocal sense or that this univocal sense can be purely and absolutely differentiated from the rest seems problematic to me.

    That’s why I bring up 1 & 2 Nephi. It’s fine to say there’s no myth when we’re distinguishing myth from apocalypticism, merkabahism, mystic ascents, visions and so forth. Yet even in the terms of the early structuralists I’m not sure we can maintain that difference. From the structure of Nephi’s narrative onward.

    While we can definitely say and maintain “there is no myth” someone else might say, “there’s myth contaminated with historic narrative.” Indeed the common shot against the structuralists – especially the Joseph Campbell sort – was that they were so focused on getting to the myth that they downplay everything else about the particular narrative in question. That’s definitely true of Eliadi and others of that era. So one can’t help but wonder what they’d do with Nephi in a different context. (And of course if it’s the shifting context that makes the difference that undermines the very structuralist notion)

    We can argue that Lehi’s world is a world in which myth has been lost but trappings remain as traces. But again that requires we first have this myth clear as a counterpoint from which to judge all our other movements. Certainly it’s typical to distinguish the prophetic (whether the “authentic” texts from around the exile era or the later ones of the Hellenistic era or Roman era) from the mythic.

    The question then becomes if Enoch/Lehi/Nephi/Abraham and other apocalypses or merkabahs are to be read liturgically (rather than mystically, psychologically, or so forth) where liturgy is the cult after the loss of myth, what if myth was always lost? What if we presume those earlier had myth yet they too were really missing it or awaiting it.

    What grounds the myth?

  42. I grew up in the home of an archeologist so the archeological “record” mattered a lot to me. As there is only scant archeology to support anything in the biblical or Book of Mormon record, I became comfortable with accepting these stories as inspired allegory, loosely based on some historical events and people, and found a testimony without all of the literalist baggage. (I do choose to believe in a literal resurrection because of what I believe to be personal revelation regarding the atonement)

    I have encountered a lot of latter day saints who disapprove of my non-literalist testimony, over the years. Many seem to feel that it is the wrong kind of testimony with the wrong kind of truth. While I don’t say that I know for certain that Balaam’s donkey didn’t talk or that a dish-shaped boat really could not have crossed the Atlantic, I just don’t find a literal belief in those supernatural events essential to believing that I should love God, my fellow man, have an eternal family, and hope for God’s grace.

  43. I understand the sentiment Mike. However, I think most members detect more baggage with the non-literalist view than the literalist one, for many good intuitive reasons that I happen to agree with. Any perceived baggage with literalism makes so many assumptions about archaeology, geology, history, etc. as to be meaningless.

    Here is just some of the baggage I see with non-literalism:

    Joseph Smith said he saw Moroni and got the plates from him.
    Moroni and Nephi talked about meeting the reader at the judgment bar.
    Nephi writes about plainness.
    Nephi writes about how he writes, what he writes, in what language he writes, what he is writing about, and what he is not writing about.
    Moroni writes about not being a good writer.

    If the Book of Mormon not literal then it fails the own test of its authors as being of God and saying we’ll meet them someday to be accountable for having possessed their scriptures. If it were inspired fiction then all the above asides are completely meaningless as they are not parables or allegories, but mundane specific details about practical challenges of real people. I’ve never read a good fiction book with such boring asides.

    I personally think we should doubt the degree of our current understanding of soft and hard sciences much more quickly than the plain and literal standards the Book of Mormon itself holds itself up to.

  44. In one sense Mike, you’re view of what’s important is completely correct. As I said I think there’s a middle ground of “what could have been but maybe wasn’t” or “inaccuracies in transmission.” That said I suspect the typical lay member is distrustful of allegorical readings because once one makes the allegorical move it’s easy to then discount anything not convenient. That is the type of demand our religion makes on us is lost because it’s easy to self-justify by allegorizing away the inconvenient. (I’m not saying you are doing this I hasten to add)

    Given how many of those attempting significant political push of the church also tend to allegorize away a lot of scripture, there’s probably some basis for this type of worry. Even if I suspect people are far too hair trigger on their fears.

    Of course literalists can also use scripture to avoid inconvenience, such as social conservatives in the 60’s working against civil right laws due to appeals to certain readings of scripture. So it’s not as if the allegorizing drive is the only danger here.

  45. I’m having trouble seeing how myth is a “loaded term.” It has one of two definitions: 1) a traditional story about heroes and events often without a determinable basis in fact, or 2) a proposition that is either deliberately made-up or the product of a delusion or misunderstanding of reality, and has no basis in fact. Determining what is true and what isn’t true (or myth) can be difficult, but the definition of myth itself shouldn’t be. I often wonder if some add gratuitous complexity to the definition of myth in order to blindside those making the claims that x story in the Bible is a myth or x claim about history is a myth and cause distortion to such arguments. It is a poor tactic and should be avoided. Instead the actual truthfulness of x proposition should just be confronted head on. If someone says that the story of Jonah in the whale is a myth, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out what it is meant by the term ‘myth.’ It means it isn’t true and it didn’t really happen. There is nothing loaded about that at all. Now, if you want to debate whether or not it was really possible for someone to live inside a whale, that’s is a different question.

  46. Brad, I think the issue is that myth is often a bit more complex than that. It also in some contexts, especially the structuralist project of anthropology, psychoanalysis and even psychology of the first half of the 20th century. (Jung, Freud, Lacan, etc. – although I think psychoanalysis is strongly falsified now but it somehow manages to live on academically long past its expiration date)

    The issue John is getting at is slightly more complex and is an argument about what happens to narratives in a pre-literate society. It sounds to me like it still partakes too much of some of those early 20th century models, although I’ll fully admit I’m not an anthropologist so I don’t know the current models nor the empirical basis (if any) for them. I confess I’m really skeptical of reductive stories about categories like myth which is why it’s a loaded term for me. I think people push texts and people into categories that don’t fully fit.

    For regular lay people it’s loaded both because of the assumption of falsehood, as you noted but also due to assuming if a story is myth there can’t be anything historical too it. I’m not sure Jonah is the best example there but perhaps Christ is. People have long noted the similarities of many near eastern myths and the Christ narrative of the gospels for instance.

    I actually think John’s model provides a bit of an explanation for this. If myths are structures that narratives are fit to in oral societies then it’s hardly surprising that remember a narrative involves fitting it (more or less) into existing structures. Likewise those structures actually become a lens through which narratives are understood. For a more modern example think the classic adventure story structure with its opposition, typically three loose act structure (occasionally four), and a climax at the end where the conflect is resolved in some way with the protagonist. Now think about how true narratives when told even today get cast into those literary structures.

    In scriptures, even ignoring the complexities of myth, that happens even more with what are called type settings. You see it Nephi’s narrative for instance which fits his life into the exodus story, the Noah story, and so forth.

  47. Whoops, deleted the text after the aside in the above. That second sentence should read,

    “It also in some contexts, especially the structuralist project of anthropology, psychoanalysis, and even psychology involves some key claims about the text and often there can’t be any significant historical basis to it.”

    The idea is that whether myth was tied to loose events (say the spring/winter cycle) or even history of particular people (think the Romulus/Remus myth that starts more literate histories of Rome) treating the myth means denying the history. I think Romulus/Remus is a great example without the baggage we bring from the scriptures due to how we value scripture. Romulus/Remus in say the opening of Livy has a similar connection to his more formal history that say the Old Testament does with Gen 1&2 to say 1 & 2 Chronicles. Now the weird thing about Romulus/Remus and the related stories is that they are really weird as a founding myth. (The stories of them being born of a prostitute being a great example of how they are weird – which led to all sorts of issue in Roman self-identity) There’s no agreement on how to take Remus and Romulus and I think it an excellent place to destabilize myth as a structure with great bearing on how we take up Gen 1 & 2.

  48. “I think Romulus/Remus is a great example without the baggage we bring from the scriptures due to how we value scripture.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment, Clark. This entire discussion would probably be more productive if we used other people’s myths. They’re safer, emotionally safer.

    Presumably Ben S., and John Lundwall, and you could express what you’re trying to say about oral and literate peoples and myths using someone else’s myths?

    I’m no expert on myths, but it kind of sounds like you’re expressing some the ideas of Joseph Campbell. Is that about right?

  49. I posted the above comment (51). I think I’m logged into WordPress and it messes with my author name. Sorry.

    –Josh Smith

  50. I think (correct me if I’m wrong John) he’s adopting a view of myth that isn’t quite as tied to the structuralism of Eliade or Campbell. I find Campbell on myth to be particularly problematic because of how much of the myths get left out or forced to fit a small set of structures. Eliade isn’t quite as bad, although he’s still part of the larger movement called Friesianism. Friesian anthropology is very much wrapped up in a particular kind of structuralist project that really arises out of Kant and Kant’s categories. This also tends to lead to a hierarchy of religions depending upon how well structured they are ethically. (I think, although many others might disagree, that the horrible Fowler stages of faith is effectively this same 19th century approach to religions reborn)

  51. There is such an aversion to the word “myth” in literate people considering their sacred texts that it can be quite emotionally upsetting to talk of one’s own tradition as descending from myth. Alas, Brad L. exemplifies that tension in his definitions of myth. I think these are the standard definitions of myth most people believe, despite the fact that most people have no idea. Yet, these definitions remain the modern and colloquial usage of the term.

    These definitions have absolutely nothing to do with how ancient myth was created and modeled.

    In the past two centuries there have been numerous and very smart scholars in different fields trying to wrestle with “myth”: James Frazer, Max Muller, Jane Harrison, Gilburt Murry, Otto Rank, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss, Mircea Eliade, etc. It is a field with rich inquiry and philosophical speculation. Because we are dealing with structures that hale from ancient history and out of an oral age there is no final say; ancient myth is a gordian knot wrapped in a mobius strip. If you would like a more refined treatment in defining ancient myth, abandon your Webster’s Dictionary and pick up, perhaps:

    A Very Short Introduction to Myth, by Robert Segal

    Myth and Meaning, by Claude Levi-Strauss

    Language and Myth, by Enrst Cassirer

    Myth, Its Meaning and Function, by G. S. Kirk

    Cosmos and History, by Mircea Eliade

    In Quest of the Hero, by Rank, Raglan, and Dundes

    Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

    These are basic texts that introduce the complex ideas associated with ancient myth. They are introductory, and good reading for someone just beginning to explore the subject. The very first book is really an overview of the many different theories of ancient myth, and in reading its small and slim pages you can begin to sense just how “loaded” the term myth can be.

    If you are looking for a more LDS oriented discussion of ancient myth and scriptural text, the closest you can come to it is Hugh Nibley’s Old Testament and Related Studies, also a good read, especially for an LDS. However, he does not get into myth, only admits that the Old Testament has mythic structures. Other LDS scholars do not touch the stuff. It will be interesting to see how Ben S. handles it. :)

    I can say that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these theories. Clark is very hesitant, I think, to apply a universal model that each theorist wants to apply to their own version of myth. As for myself, I like Eliade, but disagree with Campbell’s monomyth theory, and by extension the psychological school of myth; though I love reading Jung and Campbell, and they have important contributions to make. Freud is a bore.

    I have a doctorate in this stuff, actually. I give my own theory of myth in my upcoming book, which is a mixture of some of those listed. If you would like to see a small treatment of how oral people’s used myth outside of our tradition, I suggest you watch this 17 minute video I made, based off a presentation I gave at a conference.


    As for you Clark, I see you have put a lot of thought and work into your ideas. I’d love to have lunch with you and pick your brain. I don’t suppose you live in the land of Zion? By which I mean New Jersey. (lol, actually I live in Utah….)

  52. I’m much less interested in defining myth than I am in getting people to think outside the “everything is modern history” box. I don’t have a strong theoretical background in it, and only spend a few paragraphs on it in the book.

  53. Just to add for those interested, Eliade apparently spoke highly of Nibley. I think Nibley, even if he doesn’t adopt the kind of psychologism of the other structuralists, is very much in that structuralist camp. (Like some of the structuralists I think Nibley is basically a platonist even if his platonism is different from the collective unconscious of some) This to my eyes leads Nibley to make a lot of the same mistakes that the other structuralists make.

    John, I am in Provo. I’ve honestly not thought a lot about this stuff in a while. My background is physics and philosophy but I studied a lot of Heidegger and Derrida although my my philosophical interest is Peirce. Thus I end up thinking through a lot of these via semiotics. But I do have views. I think the problem I have with a lot is that psychoanalysis ends up behind a lot of it but most psychoanalysis is just bad pseudo-science. (Why it got kept to be a thread in a lot of semiotics escapes me but I think it’s part and parcel of the structuralist heritage)

    Anyway, a lot of what I think important in texts is what’s there by accident rather than put there by some “essence” behind the texts. While I think the way many used Derrida and postmodernism in the 70’s through early 90’s is horrible (at least as bad as psychoanalysis) there is a point to it. Any given text is under a lot of tensions and to reduce it to a structure is to miss those tensions that form a given text.

  54. I’d add that an other problem with the very notion of myth in scriptures is that the transition point between oral/perfomative and written entails that the writer changes the myth. So whenever we have a written myth it’s likely not the original oral myth but is itself written in a context of power plays. Consider the notion of higher criticism and its source criticism of Genesis. Given that, how can we ever say we have a myth when what gets written is already the appropriation of this earlier “text” with decisions of what gets edited and redacted that make sense only within that setting.

    This is also why I find the “there is no myth in the Book of Mormon” to be problematic. Because what Lehi does in 2 Nephi 2 with Genesis 2 is fundamentally not that different from what people around the same time did when they compiled Genesis 2. The only difference is that the obvious signs of use of the text is missing. In that sense Lehi’s account is just a little more transparent as to what is going on. We don’t know the historic steps when the Torah was compiled into its form, but likely it was done by scribes with political and religious aims at some post-exilic period. It’s not myth at all precisely because it’s been divorced from that (theoretical) originary mythic context and grafted in for an other purpose. Genesis 2’s connection to myth is about on par with with the use of Song of Solomon in D&C 109 and 105. Less is used by Joseph there, but the fundamental relationship is as a kind of tool which is key to grafting of texts in general.

  55. Thanks for clarifying, Ben. That is true that when myth is meant as story, it is not synonymous with fiction, and may very well have elements of truth in it.

  56. All right Ben, and Clark, anyone else who would like to comment:

    Below is an introductory blurb for my discussion of myth in the Old Testament. I would love some feedback. Comments and criticisms are welcome. If not, than ignore this post. (Have I hijacked this thread by now? Sorry Ben. Not my intent.)


    In many circles it is presumed that Israel had no mythology. Myth is believed to be associated with polytheistic systems, according to some academics, or to the pagans, according to some believers. Yet these assessments essentially miss the mark. Myth is associated with oral cultus. Any oral society built around the sacred-ordered space of a templum will have rites and narratives that describe or associate those rites. Israel had a temple tradition for over one thousand years. Myth was part of that tradition.

    Innumerable complications impede any attempt to fully understand the Israelite temple cult. One major problem was its constant cross-germination with surrounding cult systems. There were several periods in its history where the Israelites adopted the gods, myths, and cultus of their polytheistic neighbors. Through the discovery and comparison of the Ras Shamra texts and the Bible, Geo Widengren demonstrates that ancient Israel was profoundly influenced by the Canaanite-Syrian literature and culture (155). The Biblical text makes this very clear. One example is when Manasseh adopts foreign religious constructs wholesale, “For [Manasseh] built up again the high places [. . .] and he reared up altars for Baal, and made a grove, as did Ahab king of Israel; and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord [. . .]. And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord (2 Kings 21.3-5). He was not the first king to do so. A close reading of the Old Testament text shows that all the way up until the Babylonian exile most of the Hebrew people practiced some form of polytheism. There were numerous cult groves built throughout Israel for worshiping various deities. This all becomes very clear during the reforms of Josiah, Manasseh’s grandson. Josiah is said to have found an ancient book in the temple describing the proper rites and laws of the Israelite temple cult. These rites and laws had not been lived for nearly three hundred years. Consequently, Josiah stripped the kingdom of all idolatrous images and creeds, including pagan icons and personnel (2 Kings 22.8-13; 23).

    A second major problem exists in the natural erosive forces of textual transmission. Geo Widengren again reminds us that the Old Testament “as it is handed down to us in the Jewish Canon, is only one part—we do not even know if the greater part—of Israel’s national literature. And, moreover, this preserved part has in many passages quite obviously been exposed to censorship and correspondingly purged” (158). Emanuel Tov also observes, “Most of the [Old Testament] texts—ancient and modern—which have been transmitted from one generation to the next have been corrupted in one way or another” and that “during the textual transmission many complicated changes occurred, making it now almost impossible for us to reconstruct the original form of the text” (8, 177). According to Tov, these “complicated changes” began in the earliest periods of religious writing, where “massive changes [occurred] in the formative stage of the biblical literature” (266).

    While the texts themselves have been modified, the transition from oral cult to written text produces another kind of purging. This transition brings up a third major problem when understanding ancient Israelite religion. The Biblical texts emerge from an oral, cultic, and cosmographic culture. Many of the texts were written by literate scribes numerous centuries after their original creation within the oral cult. Margaret Barker relates that within the non-canonical tradition it is said that an editor named Ezra divided the Jewish scriptures into two parts, the smaller part for public reading while the larger part was to be kept secret and reserved only for those initiated into the temple cultus (Hidden 7-8). Proper understanding of the Hebrew cult came by way of initiatory ritual and not by the reading of words. Like so many other aspects of oral myth and cult, when reading a text that descends from it, we are only getting half of the story and even less of the context.

    The transition from oral rites to literate texts brings us to a fork in the road. On the one hand is the realization that the Old Testament is a late production of a localized tradition centering around the national idea of the Exodus and the Mosaic Law. This entire history and tradition is something different than the history and tradition of the ancient Patriarchs: Adam, Noah, Enoch, and Melchizedek. The Torah is rooted in Mosaic history and law. The older Hebrew religion, birthed in the days of Abraham centuries earlier, was rooted in temple cosmography and cult. This realization makes the reforms of Josiah more complex to interpret. Did he only remove foreign elements from their temple? Or did he remove the more ancient elements of Judaism as well? Or did the book discovered in the temple help restore the older religious practices which had already been lost? If so, what was changed when the older order was re-instituted? How could they fully understand what they were reading when the written text itself must have been something different than the much older oral rites?

    These questions are only part of another curiosity embedded within the Old Testament text—our other fork in the road. From the time of the Israelite kings onward there is no mention of the Mosaic Law. Isaiah does not mention it. There are several allusions within Isaiah which deal with an older tradition rooted in temple cosmography (e.g. chapter 22). Was the Mosaic law itself a product of post-exiled Jews, emerging as an official Israelite code of conduct at the same time of the canonization of the Torah? If this is true, then not only is the Old Testament, as we have it, something entirely different from the earlier forms of worship practiced by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also, it might be an entirely different form of worship than practiced in the days of Moses and Aaron! Of course, there are elements within the law which hale to much older times, but this changes nothing. Martin Luther retained much of the older Christian theology after his schismatic break from Catholicism, but the religion of Luther and Calvin is something entirely different than that of Aquinas and Gregory. This metaphor is apt, as the Mosaic Law and the Old Testament as we have it may represent a sort of “Great Reformation” completely separated from the origins of the religion.

  57. I don’t have much to disagree with there John. I do agree that Josiah is interesting for Mormons even if I’m a bit skeptical of the whole Barker interpretation of Josiah’s reforms. But then I’m far, far from a Biblical scholar so my opinion isn’t worth much there.

    Again, while the Book of Mormon is clearly highly influenced by KJV paraphrases to translate underlying BoM text, it is also interesting how it pushes for this earlier cultic view. (Think Alma 13 among others) I think Lehi’s testament to Jacob in 2 Nephi 2 can also be read in that context. (Especially verse 4 where Lehi alludes to a theophany by Jacob) I’m actually surprised no ones written on similar themes between Alma 13, 2 Ne 2, and Mosiah 15. Abinadi’s exegesis of how the Father is father and son tied to Isaiah 52 seems to me a kind of cultic use. Of course it’s Barker and others who argue these were originally a mythic layer then edited in the second temple period. Mosiah 15’s “sons of men” recalls Psalms 8 and the ties to Genesis 2.

    The problem is that while the written scriptures are dated in various ways to the second temple period or later, they rarely are taken to have all originated there. That is often they are seen as creations inspired by or edited from other writings. Some might have been slightly earlier others much earlier.

    While Mormon use of Barker and the question of the Josiah reforms are interesting. The whole place of cult and the problem of the Book of Mormon quoting passages usually dated as post-exilic is quite interesting. And of course Abinadi’s use of detereo-Isaiah is only one example but interesting due to a plausible merkabah parallel as well as that strange Alma 13 with echoes of Ps 110.

    I’m not sure how to tie all this to myth. If anything I think the dating issues are for more difficult to deal with. But I suspect if there is a resolution it will be due to cultic use of texts in a more oral/performative way.

  58. Whoops. Forgive the typos. Written after going to a scout pack meeting. I’m sure you can all sympathize.

  59. Clark #62
    “But I suspect if there is a resolution it will be due to cultic use of texts in a more oral/performative way.”

    My thoughts exactly. As far as your connections between Alma 13, 2 Ne 2, and Mosiah 15, interesting. When I read these texts I am always reminding myself that I am getting only a fraction of the story and religion that is related from them. “The sacred things of God are not for writing,” wrote Clement of Alexandria, citing a tradition that had gone back centuries. The cult was never written down, and we only get glimpses of it through written texts.

    Alas, Ben does not need to get into any of that in his book. If his audience is the wider Mormon arena, then introducing “genres” in texts is probably a good way to go, knowing full well that there will be a large portion of Mormon’s who will reject the ambiguity such a proposal brings to the text. Ben can take some comfort in the fact that these Mormons will probably not be reading his book.

    My own experience is there are more and more Mormons who are sensing the deep complexities of the scriptural texts. I don’t know if it is a large percentage; it probably is still pretty small. Still, last year when I was asked if the Flood story in Genesis was a myth in SS, my response was an unequivocal “yes,” followed up with “just know, my definition of myth is different than yours, and that at the end of the long and difficult road of the subject, you will find yourself more astonished at the restored gospel.” I was surprised by how many people came up to me during the following week asking for more information. So, people are turning these things around in their heads, even if they do not publicly voice them.

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