It’s been a busy week. I capped off the semester by editing an 11,000 word chapter of mine for a new Old Testament series out of BYU, then writing 13,000+words for my classes, and then a fellowship application due later today. So below is an intro, and I’ll try to add more details later. I want to plug Book of Mormon Central for collating published scholarship on lessons- See here for today’s links and summaries. What they have is partly based on my own old work.
Most of today’s chapters involve Abinadi, his preaching, his words. We tend to read our scriptures without regard for where they came from, or how we got them, but that kind of context is often important. We tend to read speech (as Abinadi gives) as verbatim records, but should we?
So let’s ask the question, how did we get Abinadi’s words? Often with the Bible, we have to look at very subtle evidence and work backwards to answer this question, but in this case, the Book of Mormon tells us. Abinadi did not write his chapters in Mosiah. As far as know Abinadi didn’t write anything. Prophecy appears to have been primarily oral and aural, not written.
Rather, we know that Abinadi was brought before a hostile group of Noah’s priests, who were hardly disposed to listen to, let alone memorize his words. However, one of them was moved enough to argue with Noah for Abinadi’s life, which causes him to fall out of favor. He flees for his life, and while on the run, several weeks later (Mosiah 174:), writes down Abinadi’s words. So, try this exercise. Spend several hours listening to politician you are predisposed to dislike (there are so many to choose from)! Then, abandon your home and makeshift-camp for several weeks in the woods. Then, from memory, try to reconstruct everything the politician said. Not so easy, is it? This, however, is why “verbatim” conversations in scripture and ancient history are not. Abinadi’s words have been heavily filtered through Alma’s memory.
Writing the History of the Peloponnesian War (1:22), Thucydides says,
Some speeches I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.
Or, put otherwise,
I put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments appropriate for the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them, while at the same time I endeavored, as nearly as I could, to give the general purpose of what was actually said.
When we hear Abinadi’s words, do we hear them in Alma’s voice?
Steve Mason writes in Josephus and the New Testament (my emphasis)
the challenge of the Hellenistic historian was to create speeches that, on the one hand, were appropriate to the speaker and occasion and, on the other hand, served to advance the author’s own narrative aims. Ancient readers knew this, and were not expected to believe that such speeches were merely reproductions of what was really said on a given occasion.
Thucydides was pretty explicit about his methodology, but I’m not sure Biblical authors were that self-aware. In his Art of Biblical Narrative (33), Robert Alter writes of the Old Testament stories of Saul, David, and Solomon, that these are
the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters. He feels entirely free, one should remember, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention, or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays. Shakespeare was obviously not free to have Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt, or to allow someone else to lead the English forces there, but, working from the hints of historical tradition, he could invent a kind of Bildungsroman for the young Prince Hal; surround him with invented characters that would serve as foils, mirrors, obstacles, aids in his development; create a language and a psychology for the king which are the writer’s own achievement, making out of the stuff of history a powerful projection of human possibility. That is essentially what the author of the David cycle does for David, Saul, Abner, Joab, Jonathon, Absalom, Michal, Abigail, and a host of other characters. (My emphasis.)
Recognizing this is not a liberal or disbelieving thing. (Even the conservative evangelical NIV Study Bible said of the speeches in Acts “The speeches are obviously not verbatim reports.”) It’s simply the nature of the ancient world, which lacked microphones, recorders, and the expectation of verbatim reports.
That Alma may not have “accurately” captured all of Abinadi’s words doesn’t necessarily invalidate the principle that such passages in scripture are inspired… unless you believe that we cannot rely upon the scriptures unless they are 100% accurate in all they say, as generally expressed in the following selections from letters to Biblical Archaeology Review.
if the account… is not just as the Bible says it was, then the writer of the Book of Joshua was misleading, deceptive and void of any inspiration from God.
BAR 11:04 (July/Aug 1985).
Either a person believes the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of the Living God, or it is the work of man and of no value or help in anyone’s life!
BAR 12:01 (Jan/Feb 1986).
I’m glad that LDS are not doctrinally bound to such un-meetable criteria of inspiration in the scriptures or to the false dichotomy expressed above.
More to come.
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