Asking Questions About the Book of Mormon

A central question about the Book of Mormon that has been asked over and over again is whether it is an ancient document or a modern one. Despite being asked and answered by so many people, that question is still being argued and fought over and probably will be indefinitely. But what other questions are being asked about the Book of Mormon? In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Joe Spencer and Nick Frederick talked about some of those questions in a discussion about the field of Book of Mormon studies. What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion.

In the interview, Joe Spencer and Nick Frederick talked about why it may prove to be more productive to look at other questions about the Book of Mormon.

For the longest time Book of Mormon studies was largely dedicated to either proving or disproving the historicity of the text. Those on the side of historicity focused on cultural or linguistic elements that would point toward an ancient origin of the book. Those on the side of disproving historicity worked to identify themes or ideas from the 19th century that would point to Joseph Smith as the primary source.

Beginning in early years of the 21st century scholars both inside and outside the Latter-day Saint tradition began to study the book as a book, focusing more on what the Book of Mormon has to say to its audience than on the question of whether or not its historicity can be proven or disproven.

Obviously for many believers the issue of the Book of Mormon’s divine origins is a significant one, and we should strive to reinforce that principle in our own study of text, but we can also be open to bringing different lenses to bear in our reading of the Book of Mormon as well.

They listed a few of those different lenses:

  • The literary study of the Book of Mormon as well as its reception over the past two centuries or so.

  • We’re still in the early phases of doing serious theological work on the Book of Mormon (see the recent Brief Theological Introductions published by the Maxwell Institute).

  • The Book of Mormon’s relationship with the Bible, the way the Book of Mormon sort of deconstructs and reconstructs biblical language and narrative is an important one for us personally.

  • Studies of the Book of Mormon from the perspective of gender or ethics have been picking up steam in recent years.

So, there are a few areas of promising developments in Book of Mormon studies aides from ongoing discussions of historicity.

Delving deeper on the topic of reception history, they wrote:

The study of a text—especially of a well-loved text—is built on the challenging work of trying to see something familiar in new ways. Reception history helps to reveal just how differently certain passages have been read in the past, often in startling and deeply interesting ways.

Further, though, doing reception history helps amplify quieter voices in the Restoration’s history, those who have read and thought about the text of the Book of Mormon in contexts that seldom receive a great deal of attention.

We get a clearer picture of the Saints as we look at how they’ve read their beloved scriptures.

By studying how the Book of Mormon has been read and used in the past helps us both understand the earlier members of the Church and to see other ways that we can understand the scriptures as well.

Another approach that sidesteps the question of historicity while still engaging the text is to look at how it is put together, including looking at how it incorporates other texts:

If readers approach the presence of biblical language in the Book of Mormon simply in terms of “Does it belong” we will lose sight of the meaning. Language from Isaiah and John the Beloved are a clear part of the translated record–that language is in the text of the Book of Mormon for a reason.

If we as students of the Book of Mormon are to take it seriously, we need to be asking “Why is it there” just as much as we’re asking “How is it there.”

For example, Let’s say we’d finally settled, to everyone’s satisfaction, that there’s no reason for anyone to be concerned about the presence of all the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. Would we then be done responding to what the Book of Mormon itself claims was said by the resurrected Jesus—namely, that Isaiah needs to be studied? It seems to us that we’d finally be ready to start to fulfill that injunction.

Some recent scholarship has essentially said, “Well, the historians will be fighting about this for a long time to come, but I want to move on to that other set of questions: What are we to learn from Isaiah in the book?”

There’s a lot of good work that hasn’t yet been done in trying to answer that kind of question.

Joseph Spencer himself has authored some important work in that area, such as The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record. (That’s a fantastic book, by the Way.) Asking that type of question is useful for anyone wanting to engage with understanding the Book of Mormon.

For more on developments in Book of Mormon studies, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Joe Spencer and Nick Frederick.

8 comments for “Asking Questions About the Book of Mormon

  1. Is it even possible to sidestep historicity when considering verses such as these:

    8 And it came to pass, as they understood they cast their eyes up again towards heaven; and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven; and he was clothed in a white robe; and he came down and stood in the midst of them; and the eyes of the whole multitude were turned upon him, and they durst not open their mouths, even one to another, and wist not what it meant, for they thought it was an angel that had appeared unto them.

    9 And it came to pass that he stretched forth his hand and spake unto the people, saying:

    10 Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.

  2. @Jack, of course it is. You ponder things like “how does Jesus Christ appearing to the Lehites in a human body function in the overall narrative of the text?” Or “how have Latter-day Saints used and understood these verses over time?” Or “how is this account of Jesus’s resurrection similar to and different from accounts in the New Testament?” rather than feeling so anxious about whether the Book of Mormon is what Joseph Smith said it is or not that you spend all your time and energy in studying the book on trying to find arguments to force the point on that one, single question.

  3. I’ve never been a super fan of the BOM or cared if it was historical, or fiction with a spiritual message. After studying the history of the Bible and how it came to be, the need for the BOM and how it came to be makes so much sense. I think the Bible will get “cancelled” by culture soon and then the BOM will get the attention it was intended for. Never expected that studying the history of the bible would increase my understanding of the BOM.

    The 4 Gospels written by “we dont know” makes the most read/overlooked words of “I Nephi” two of the most important words in the BOM.

    Metal vs papyri….human care vs angel care of the writings…thousands of copies vs one copy…one man translating vs who knows.

    I would hate it if my testimony was based on the BOM being “true” or not. God told me this was His gospel for me. That’s all I need.

  4. Thanks for this interview.

    I understand why many people are excited about the idea that the Book of Mormon is historically accurate. I’m not interested in debunking the Book of Mormon’s historicity. I am interested in pointing out that other things about the book are at least as interesting as historicity.

    From the standpoint of a practical, resilient faith, it is useful to know that there are many ways for the Book of Mormon to be sacred and valuable that are entirely unrelated to whether it is historically accurate. A concern about historicity can become a distraction from finding the Book of Mormon’s meaning and value. When Moroni invites us to learn that the Book of Mormon is true, he says nothing about learning that the book is historically accurate. Equating truth with historicity, or making historicity a prerequisite in a standard of truth, is our own gloss on the text. I think it’s an unnecessary gloss. In my experience, when I have considered the text more deeply on its own terms, questions of historicity have become less important.

  5. Chad,

    Those are all really good questions–and I’m all for studying the Book of Mormon on many different fronts. Even so, I’m not convinced that the historicity of such an event as the appearance of the Savior to the Nephites can easily be passed over. The entire weight of the BoM’s message hangs on the reality of the Lord’s resurrection–and if that event didn’t happen then the BoM loses its strength as a witness of the Savior.

    I agree that we don’t have to be overly anxious about proving the Book of Mormon’s historicity. But if we don’t accept the book on its own terms then we will–more likely than not–find ourselves circumnavigating its central message which is “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”

  6. While I agree that the question of historicity is important in getting the full effect of the Book of Mormon, my point in sharing the parts of the interview that I have is that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing gatekeeping proposition of insisting that you have to believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon to study and discuss it. It doesn’t need to be the only discussion that is ever had about the Book of Mormon with people of differing beliefs.

    Jack, you’re a believer and I am a believer. But how can we encourage someone who is not a believer and who has no interest in trying to become a believer to engage in the text in a productive way? How can we embrace members of the Church who want to remain but who do not accept the Book of Mormon as a historical document? My experience is that constantly bashing them over the head with the question of historicity isn’t a terribly productive route. So, the proposition here is that there are other discussions that can be had.

  7. Chad, I’m happy for people to have a positive experience with the Book of Mormon for the best reason they can come up with. And I certainly believe that living by its precepts is more important than establishing its historicity. So you’ll get no argument from me there.

    The point I’m trying to make is that the BoM doesn’t leave the reader with much wiggle room with regard to what it claims itself to be. If someone is going to suggest that those 2500 people did *not* in fact see the Savior and feel his wounds then they’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.

    That said, I understand that there’s been a push to toward an apologetic of richness–and I’m all for discovering the depth and richness of the Book of Mormon’s text. Even so I fear that if we become overly concerned about not offending people — by pulling the reins back too hard on historicity — we run the risk of chopping the legs out from under the BoM’s primary message–which (IMO) calls the reader to consider the witnesses of real people who lived in real times and places and experienced real events.

    That (and that) said, I agree that we don’t want to bash people over the head with historicity. But on the other hand, I don’t think its wrong to defend the BoM’s claims about itself. With all of the wonderous treasures that the text has to offer– and all of the scholarly approaches that might be employed to uncover those treasures — we need to make sure that, in our zeal to do good, we don’t get in the way of the Book of Mormon doing its own talking.

  8. I’m glad to see fewer scholarly arguments about Book of Mormon historicity just because they accomplish so little. If the Lord wanted it to be possible to prove that the Book of Mormon is true intellectually, he’d have let Joseph Smith keep the plates and make them available to scholars. Meanwhile, Book of Mormon opponents are basically trying to prove a negative. So you get lots of smart people spending lots of time generating lots of arguments that seem very convincing to the people who already agree with them thanks to confirmation bias, but rarely convince anyone to change their mind. (Even enemies of the Church seem to have mostly moved on to the Book of Abraham or polygamy.) I don’t want to see Book of Mormon apologists completely quit the field, because there are times when someone is starting to feel the influence of the Spirit and their mind is telling them “Yeah, but the Book of Mormon is crazy.” Then hearing about chiasmus or Nahom or whatever is just enough to open their mind and let the Spirit in. But I’m happy to see more focus on the content of the book.

    Besides, if you do read something like the Brief Theological Introductions, you’ll probably come away more convinced than ever that there’s no way an uneducated farm hand in his early 20s could have written something with such richness, depth, and complexity. I’m sure the Lord planned that the best evidence for the Book of Mormon can only be found by studying what it has to say.

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