Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. V.The permissibility and utility of philology for studying the Book of Mormon

With these notes, I’m saying that making deductions about Nephite history and culture while ignoring philology and textual history is like an astronomer using the Hubble telescope to study Mars and describing in great detail its numerous moons, swirling atmosphere and resplendent ring system. The precision is stunning, but the telescope is pointed in the wrong direction. What we have instead for observing Mars is a homemade telescope with a six inch mirror. Through it, Mars usually appears as a reddish blob, with occasional traces of something that looks like canals. The loss of precision is disappointing, but at least we’re observing the right planet.

With the Book of Mormon, it’s tempting to think we’re reading the very words of Nephi, or the discourses of Alma as by Mormon, but we can’t verify that Mormon attached Nephi’s original small plates rather than a copy produced centuries later, still proclaiming that I, Nephi, made these plates, despite centuries of intervening textual development. And we can’t assume that Mormon himself constructed Mosiah-Helaman/3 Nephi 7, and in fact it seems likely to me that he adapted the work of an earlier editor or editors, although this too is not verifiable. Is this kind of philological deliberation useful? Is it even permitted?


Va. The permissibility of philology

There are a number of possible objections not just to the particular points I’ve made so far (any or all of which are more likely wrong than right), but to the basic concept of applying philological experience to the Book of Mormon.

One type of objection is religious: Doesn’t this line of inquiry undermine the status of the Book of Mormon as scripture? I don’t think so. Much of what now constitutes the Book of Mormon began as a record of mundane history, so we can believe the text and at the same time think about the processes that affect the writing of history. Thinking about Mormon’s sources, how they were created, and what Mormon made of them doesn’t change how we approach the Book of Mormon in devotional practice or as a source of doctrine. Mormon was a prophet with an urgent message for us, and so we should read his message and earnestly ponder it. We canonize the Book of Mormon as scripture, not Nephite history as we imagine it may have happened. I have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, but I don’t have a testimony of Mormon’s editorial and historiographic skill.

Does it make sense to wonder about the accuracy of Mormon’s narrative of history, especially the location and continuity of 3 Nephi 8-28:16, when Mormon talked face to face with several of the key participants? I think so. Mormon doesn’t describe the Three Nephites as historical informants, and divine beings have in any case shown little willingness so far to do other people’s history assignments or text-historical homework for them.

Philological inquiry does involve accepting some parts of the text while critically examining others, but the decision of what to accept and what to question is not arbitrary. The questions focus on the creation and transmission of texts based on patterns that can be observed in other acts of textual creation and transmission. Like any analytic tool, it must be applied with caution to avoid hammering any feature of the text into submission through philological speculation. (“Cureloms and cumoms? Must be a borrowing from the Zoramite records. Case closed!”)

Others will take offense at the idea of applying concepts of academic philology to a revealed text like the Book of Mormon, insisting that the entire book must be treated either with secular skepticism or, if accepted as scripture, then as inerrant. But I don’t believe those who make this argument are primarily concerned for the quality of my devotional reading. If I accept that the Book of Mormon is and was a real book, I’ll bring everything I know about books and their histories to my study of the Book of Mormon, and allow others to read it how they may. It’s reasonable to point out potential devotional challenges, but I reject the idea that reading the Book of Mormon must be either skeptical or inerrantist.


Vb. The utility of philology

Mentally disassembling the Book of Mormon nevertheless seems like a strange way to read scripture. Is it useful for anything? Possibly.

1. Useful cautions

Taking philological considerations into account can help us confront the Book of Mormon with humility and an awareness of how much we don’t know. It’s a useful reminder to avoid sweeping generalizations about linguistic, religious, or cultural context. The cultural context at any given point in the text is primarily what can be reasonably documented at or near that point, with an uncertain relationship to what may be documented a hundred pages earlier or later, or in Exodus. We can’t assume that the cultural context of one section of the Book of Mormon is identical to other sections, especially sections outside the same narrative core. What we think of as “Nephite culture” in 1 Nephi may be only distantly related—culturally, linguistically, or religiously—to what we find in Alma or Mormon. The Book of Mormon describes events spread out over centuries, in an uncertain geography, and subject to unknowable external influences, so the assumption of persistent and stable Semitic culture, Jewish or Christian religion, or Hebrew language is not self-explanatory, and each assumption introduces some degree of uncertainty. In each section, the question always has to be asked: How did these actors understand their own identity? How widely shared was this understanding? The Book of Mormon teaches some doctrines very clearly, but it gives us a fuzzy lens for observing Nephite culture, so doctrinal arguments based on cultural context can be advanced only tentatively.

We also have to recognize that the chronology of Nephite history is less stable, and anchored to mundane chronology much less firmly, than we would like. We have some grounds to trust the sequence of chronology within a narrative core, but a smaller basis for trust in dating outside or across them. The span of years from Lehi to Jacob seems measurable, while the centuries from Jacob to Mosiah are more fluid. Mosiah to 3 Nephi 7 seems chronologically stable, but even Mormon isn’t entirely sure about the centuries prior to his own time. And chronologically speaking, Ether is a world unto itself.

* * *

Blah blah blah… I think I’m repeating myself at this point. Is this series ever going to go anywhere? It’s time to wrap things up with some specific cases where a philological approach might be useful.


I.The philological instinct

II. What did Mormon know?

III. Mormon’s sources
IIIa. Nephite literacy
IIIb. The material culture of Nephite literacy
IIIb note 1. A note on the uniformity of the Golden Plates
IIIc. The source structure of the Book of Mormon

IV. The puzzle of 3 Nephi

V. The permissibility and utility of philology for studying the Book of Mormon
Va. The permissibility of philology
Vb. The utility of philology
Vb1. Useful cautions
Vb2. What did the Nephites know about Nephi?
Vb3. The overdetermination of Nephite origins
Vb4. Jacob and Sherem

4 comments for “Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. V.The permissibility and utility of philology for studying the Book of Mormon

  1. Doesn’t this line of inquiry undermine the status of the Book of Mormon as scripture?

    For me it doesn’t undermine it at all. It makes it even less probable that Joseph Smith made the whole thing up. Because if the Book of Mormon was a work of fiction, I don’t think that there would be any material with which to even have lines of inquiry. But there multiple, and I find it fascinating and informative.
    In addition, I have found it very helpful to have it change the definition of scripture for me. While I technically knew that scriptures weren’t dictations from the mouth of God, it was easy to treat it that way growing up. But as I’ve been reading Times and Seasons and related sites for 15 years now, it’s really helped me understand what scriptures actually are.
    So please, proceed with your series.

  2. Definitely an interesting thought experiment, but it lacks weight overall.

    “we can’t assume…”

    While technically true, you’re over thinking it. I’m sure as you’ve anticipated the typical responses…. God may allow some mistakes of me to flow through, but surely we can assume that he wouldn’t allow an unscrupulous prophet historian to deceive later generations who are expected to take it on faith — if you accept the paradigm that the BoM is what it says it is. That’s why the book is so crucial, and one of the ways it’s a stumbling block. You ultimately run right back to the fact that every word “translated” out of it, was done so by the power of God. You have to accept that Joseph, who had frequent visitations from angels from the BoM times never once got an addendum that said, “this part needs to be fixed because Mormon went a little too far…”

    If you don’t accept that paradigm, then maybe the Mormon was just doing the work of the devil and he was really the last racist survivor of a decaying culture that had finally been eliminated by non-racist native Americans, but Mormon wove the whole story together, hoping someone would find it many years later. And a non-racist God just let that story survive, even though the peaceful “Lamanites” were the true heroes because he wanted to test our modern self aware generation a few hundred years after it’s discovery.

    We can insert all kinds of assumptions of course, right back to the pious fraud theory. I realize that you’re using a particular lens. But the reality is the Book itself spells out the own lens you should use. If you reject that lens, that’s fine, but you might as well reject the whole purpose of the book.

    Now, as a “literary work” you can use whatever lens you want. It would be akin to reading Shakespeare’s works as a manual for astronauts lost in space. You might glean something from the exercise, but it wouldn’t be conducive to purpose of work though.

    The end result is we know far more than we don’t know as a result of the BoM. And it helps us to know the unknowns we didn’t know we lacked. And the unknowns that are still left for us after reading the book are far less consequential to what we need to know and act on than what’s in it. So any focus on the unknowns is missing the forest for the trees.

  3. Sute, you bring up a good point. I’ve been trying to be agnostic about theories of translation, and I think I’m still firmly within the Book of Mormon’s paradigm. I wouldn’t say Mormon was unscrupulous or acted in bad faith or even made mistakes, just that he was a pre-modern writer trying to create an abridgement of Nephite history based on the records he had and as circumstances permitted. I think that perspective fits with what else we can see, where prophets have revealed great things and done many good things to the best of their abilities, but also with God permitting them to act as they thought best in many ways.

    But this view works a lot better with some ideas about translation than with others, as you point out. It works just fine with a loose translation, or with a closely-controlled letter-by-letter translation of the Book of Mormon, but it may not work with a view of translation that sees every word as the truest possible word that could have been chosen.

    I won’t tell you that view of Joseph Smith’s translation is wrong, although I don’t think the text or a faithful understanding of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith as translator demands it. I’m also hesitant to accept it because it sets up a brittle system of belief that would seem to have difficulty accounting for the findings of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, for example. But there may be possibilities that I’m not seeing.

  4. Philology is a Pharisee’s pursuit. Careful not to waste scholarship with Jesuit-like logic.

    The value of philology in LDS discourse isn’t about what is in the text. Derrida teaches us that the text itself is unreliable the moment we consider it reliable—and that those things omitted are really what give context to text.

    Like a musical score—the notes are read, but the pauses and breaks between the notes are what really gives melody to sound. The pauses between the notes are arguably more important than the musical notes themselves.

    What are the pauses in the text? What might be left out, omitted, redacted, in the translation of the Book of Mormon?

    There was controversy at one time among saints who were loyal to the original text of the Book of Mormon, and who apostasized when the institution changed the text. It would be interesting to revisit and compare the versions philologically.

    I find it interesting that some jackass had the audacity to publish a new “modern” translation for the Book of Mormon. For what purpose? He must believe that the text is deficient or inaccessible. What word or sequence of words does he feel will unlock spiritual understanding?

    I recommend Derrida’s “Gift of Death,” and Uzdavinys’ “Philosophy of Theurgy” if you really want to integrate a philological lens to Book of Mormon studies.

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