Some Problems with Book of Mormon Historicity

I was recently perusing the latest publications of NAMI and happened on an article in the Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture that caused me to reflect more deeply on LDS attitudes toward Book of Mormon historicity. The article, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” was originally a paper presented by Elder Dallin H. Oaks at the 1993 FARMS Annual Dinner, but was subsequently published in the volume Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (2001), edited by Paul Hoskisson. The fact that the editor chose to re-publish the paper suggests that he thought it had something important to say in the climate of current discussions about the origin of the Book of Mormon.

The editorial summary that precedes the article accurately describes its main points:

“The issue of the historicity of the Book of Mormon highlights the difference between those who rely solely on scholarship and those who rely on scholarship as a complement to revelation and faith. Those who rely on that faithful combination can see and understand the complex issues of the Book of Mormon record and answer the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, those who rely solely on scholarship and reject revelation can only focus on a limited number of issues, neither proving nor disproving the authenticity of the Book of Mormon with secular evidence and methods.”

Suffice it to say, I was discouraged by the article, not only because of the content itself but because its recycling suggests that the scholarship most closely associated with the institutional culture of the church is still locked into a mindset that precludes it from producing the kind of rigorous, honest, and methodologically sensitive historical analysis found regularly in contemporary academia.

Elder Oaks sets in sharp opposition “the prophets” and “so-called higher criticism” and suggests that those who have serious doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon are a type of intellectual that “rejects revelation”, relies exclusively on secular learning, and even lacks faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the ideal Latter-day Saint scholar is said to rely on a combination of scholarship, faith, and revelation, which leads him to be open to all of the relevant evidence and in that sense truly critical. Whereas the anti-historicist critics are said to focus on a relatively narrow range of issues, none of which are decisive in themselves, the spiritually-informed scholar is able to grasp the complex and multifarious forms of evidence in favor of historicity.

I find this portrayal of scholars dealing with the question of Book of Mormon historicity to be divisive and grossly oversimplified. Not all LDS intellectuals who doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon reject “revelation” in principle and nor do they desire to rely exclusively on secular scholarship as the alpha and omega for understanding the meaning of scripture. I have had some personal experience with these people and in my view they are often deeply spiritual human beings who want to find some way of synthesizing their secular learning with their LDS spiritual understandings and identity. If by rejecting “revelation”, Oaks is referring to statements and teachings by general authorities or prophets of the church about the historical truth of the Book of Mormon, then his representation of these scholars is somewhat more accurate. But even then, use of the word rejection is overly strong and only contributes to a polarization of the debate. I don’t think LDS intellectuals who doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon would see themselves as necessarily rejecting the previous views of church leaders, but merely viewing them as historically contingent and based on the limited light and knowledge that was available to them at the time.

Furthermore, I am unaware of orthodox LDS, institution-affiliated scholars who fit Oaks’ description of someone who relies on a combination of scholarship, faith, and revelation and is truly open to examining the question of Book of Mormon historicity in its totality, that is, being “willing to look at the entire spectrum of issues—the content as well as the vocabulary, the revelation as well as the excavation.” At least when it comes to scholarship, what I see is generally a superficial treatment or evasion of the evidence arguing against historicity and sometimes a more sophisticated treatment of aspects of the Book of Mormon that simply assumes a position of historicity.

This kind of scholarship of the Book of Mormon may be what some people want, but whatever it is, it is not good scholarship. To count as good scholarship one has to explain the content of the Book of Mormon using all of the available evidence bearing on the question of historicity. In addition to speculation about how the Book of Mormon may possibly fit the historical contexts it purports to derive from, alternative historical scenarios must be fully entertained and explored. Arguments against historicity must be given their due.

Oak’s portrayal of the ideal LDS scholar as one who privileges “faith and revelation” and is willing to “endure ridicule” for assuming the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is clearly intended to signal appropriate LDS scholarly behavior. And from the context in which he argues it is difficult not to agree with him that “we must not be so committed to scholarship that we close our eyes and ears and hearts to what cannot be demonstrated by scholarship or defended according to physical proofs and intellectual reasoning.”

However, I think there is also great danger in according methodological primacy to “faith and revelation” in LDS scholarly inquiry into the historicity of the Book of Mormon, since this has the potential of encouraging the exact reverse of what Oaks fears with regard to the anti-historicist critics, that is, subordinating open-minded rigorous study on a question that is fundamentally historical in nature to religious assumptions that have not been unambiguously confirmed by revelation.

At times Elder Oaks’ language seems to imply that we as a church have received revelation on the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, as his major point is that LDS scholars should rely on faith and personal revelation in their investigations of the subject. Yet is a spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon the same thing as knowledge of its historicity?

For myself, I have genuine concerns about the appropriateness of making spiritual forms of knowledge determinative for how one comes down on the question of Book of Mormon historicity. I can remember a time when I would have had no problem with using a witness of the Spirit as the principle epistemological basis for giving credence to the Book of Mormon’s historical claims, but as I have grown older I have become increasingly skeptical of the ability of these subjective and socially-dependent experiences to resolve questions that are better seen as empirical in nature. This is not to say that spiritual experiences are not relevant at all, just that they are so easily misinterpreted. When I examine and meditate on the spiritual experiences that I have had while engaging the Book of Mormon and am completely honest with myself, I personally do not feel that God has communicated to me that the events and people described in it must have been objectively real. The inspiration that I have felt was generally of a different order and had to do with my personal connection to deity and the goodness and truth found in Book of Mormon teachings.

To be clear, I am not saying that people have not had profound and real spiritual experiences as a result of heartfelt engagement with the Book of Mormon. I’m just wondering how the spiritual knowledge derived from these experiences should be understood and whether they necessarily entail that the Book of Mormon must be historical.

In addition to Oaks’ argument that “faith and revelation” should remain prominent in LDS scholarly inquiry of the Book of Mormon, he also makes a number of other factual and methodological claims whose intent is to undercut the anti-historicist position.

First, he claims that “practitioners of the anti-historicist approach typically focus on a limited number of issues, like geography, horses, angelic delivery, or nineteenth-century language patterns.” In my view, this characterization of anti-historicist critics is not only inaccurate but unfair. The argument against Book of Mormon historicity is actually based on a whole constellation of historical, cultural, linguistic, ideational, and textual issues. Although the tendency to myopically focus on a few obvious anachronisms and historical inconcinnities may well apply to some disaffected LDS and anti-Mormon treatments of the subject, recent critical discussion has become highly sophisticated and methodologically rigorous. Moreover, it hardly seems fair to accuse anti-historicist scholars of being limited in methodological scope, since proponents of Book of Mormon historicity have often tended to concentrate on a relatively narrow range of issues in their analysis of the text (e.g. chiasmus).

Second, he asserts that “secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” If Oaks is referring to the spiritual authenticity of the Book of Mormon here, then I would completely agree. However, if he is referring to its historical referentiality then I find it more difficult to concur. While it is true that barring discovery of ancient or modern autographs historical analysis will never allow us to definitively “prove” or “disprove” that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient text stemming from a quasi-Judaic culture that lived somewhere in the American continents two millennia ago, it is nevertheless possible that historical criteria could make the argument for historicity very difficult to maintain. Because the nature of the historical method is to evaluate the plausibility of certain historical claims based on probabilistic interpretations of the available evidence, the more that evidence accumulates to the effect that the Book of Mormon has an ideological and literary profile that fits poorly into the ancient Israelite/biblical world that it purports to derive from and in fact aligns much better with the early nineteenth century the more confident we can be that the Book of Mormon is something other than a factually based historical narrative.

Third, Oaks argues that it is impractical and even somewhat dishonest to accept the moral and religious content of a book “while rejecting the truthfulness of an author’s declarations, predictions, and statements.” I personally don’t find this claim convincing at all. I know of many ancient religious texts whose interaction with religious ideas and existential themes is deeply moving and inspiring and yet I do not feel a need to take that extra step of accepting the specific historical claims made to explain their origins (e.g. the angel Gabriel with regard to the Qur’an). The main problem with this conventional argument against more historically-informed appropriations of traditional religious texts is that we as readers separated from the original ideological and cultural contexts that gave birth to them (whether by centuries or millennia), often take their declarations, predictions, and statements in ways quite different from what their authors originally intended. For example, in Second Isaiah there is an unusual amount of rhetoric about there being no other gods beside the Israelite deity (43:10-11; 44:6, 8; 45:5-7, 14, 18; 21; 46:9), which could easily lead a modern reader to assume that the author is making categorical monotheistic statements about the non-existence of all other deities. Yet close examination of the text and its rhetorical subtleties suggests that this assumption is incorrect and that the author was portraying the Israelite deity as incomparable for ideological reasons particular to his historical context.

Finally, Elder Oaks gives the impression that there is so much evidence in support of the theory that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that it would be impossible for an honest investigator “to resolve the question against its authenticity.” However, I don’t think the case for Book of Mormon historicity is as nearly as strong as he suggests. He mentions the incredible complexity and detail of the Book of Mormon narrative, which previous critics have tended to ignore and gloss over. Yet in my mind high literary skill and narrative complexity do not in themselves necessitate that we take the Book of Mormon’s historical claims at face value. I can acknowledge that the Book of Mormon has a degree of verisimilitude, intricacy, and detail that is truly remarkable, such as its consistent use of ancient narrators to organize and move the larger narrative forward, its incorporation of multiple literary genres into a relatively seamless whole, and the many intratextual allusions and thematic and rhetorical motifs that bind the text together. However, it is important to remember that these elements in themselves do not tell us when the Book of Mormon was written. They may be inexplicable in our minds and may even suggest that Joseph Smith was not capable of writing the Book of Mormon himself, but historical claims need to be evaluated by historical criteria. Theoretically, these aspects of the text could have arisen in a historical and cultural setting of more recent date that is presently unknown to us (or known).

If we concentrate solely on historical criteria, then the Book of Mormon’s claim to be a translation of an ancient text deriving from the intellectual and cultural matrix of the Israelite/biblical world looks increasingly untenable. So much of what we could call the ideological core of the Book of Mormon, such as its theology, eschatology, and interpretation of biblical narrative, seems to me to be out of place and anachronistic.

I do not have the space or time to substantiate this claim here, but I thought I may briefly provide an example of a more critical approach to Book of Mormon historicity with reference to one particular chapter: the first chapter of the first book of Nephi.

I have read this chapter so many times (as I’m sure others have) that it has come to be a personal favorite. Its words have gradually become so assimilated to my religious consciousness that it is quite easy for me to recall many of its verses and to imagine myself in the position of Nephi or Lehi, as the fortunate and chosen receptacle of God’s secret knowledge.

Yet when I approach the text as a student of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israelite history and culture, I see various elements that fall on a spectrum from “could reflect the historical reality of ancient Israel-Judah, but need not necessarily support the assumption of historicity” to “historically suspicious” and finally to “historically unlikely.” Most of the elements fall into the “historically suspicious” and “historically unlikely” categories.

“therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days” (“historically unlikely”)
The problem with this statement is that Nephi’s composition of a personal narrative history is without comparison in the biblical world of this period. Literacy was highly restricted in the cultures of the ancient Near East and the kind of literacy necessary to compose extended narratives even more rare (see e.g. Rollston, 2010). Furthermore, Nephi does not seem to be self-conscious of his unique scribal abilities in the way that we would expect him to be.

“which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (“historically unlikely”)
As the FARMS crowd have been wont to emphasize, the idea that Egyptian characters could have been used to write Hebrew is not in itself implausible. We have a few examples of this kind of linguistic and cultural bricolage from close to the time period that Nephi was allegedly writing and much comparative material from other times and places. Yet we should also note that the available examples of the phenomenon occur in places where intercultural exchange and influence makes the use of a new/foreign script understandable in context. It is difficult if not impossible to see how the cultural context of late monarchic Judah would have necessitated the writing of extended narrative documents in any form of Egyptian.

“in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” (“historically suspicious”)
This concise and irenic reference to the political state of affairs seems to be unaware that Judah had already been under Babylonian vassalage for several years. Jehoiachin had been taken into exile and Zedekiah had been appointed by the Babylonians as governor. The latter was not a king in the traditional sense (see e.g. Römer, 2007).

“and in that year came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent”  (“historically suspicious”)
This portrayal of Judahite prophets descending on Jerusalem seems to reflect much later post-biblical ideas about the nature of the prophetic institution. In monarchic era Judah-Israel prophets were likely a form of priest connected in some way to temple and other cultic complexes (see e.g. Edelman, 2009). They were not a homogeneous group, they worked in different social contexts as a mode of employment, and responded to specific inquiries about particular problems.

“he thought he saw God … surrounded with numberless concourses of angels …singing and praising their God” (“historically suspicious”)
This picture of the heavenly choirs has much in common with late Jewish and Christian understandings of the heavenly host. Although it is not impossible that earlier Judahites may have believed something similar, the fact remains that we have no clear attestations of this concept in pre-exilic texts. The available evidence would suggest that it is a late development.

“One descending out of the midst of heaven… hist luster was above that of the sun at noon-day”
(“could reflect the historical reality of ancient Israel-Judah, but need not necessarily support the assumption of historicity”)
The astral character of pre-exilic Israelite religion has recently come into focus (see e.g. Smith, 2003), so the presentation of astral figures descending from heaven seems to fit the historical and cultural context well in that respect. Nevertheless, astral symbolism is also prominent in some canonical biblical texts and it is possible that they were the source of inspiration for this narrative depiction.

“Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations… many should be carried away captive into Babylon” (“historically unlikely”)
This prophecy presumes the biblical narrative of exile and return, which was constructed in a post-monarchic context, probably the Persian period. According to the biblical authors, pre-exilic Judah and Israel were unrelentingly evil and devoted to false cult, which led to their eventual subjugation and destruction at the hands of Assyria and Babylon. But scholars are in agreement that this is a later ideological construction invented to explain why these events had occurred in the first place. Furthermore, the fact that the specific sins of the Jews are never specified or detailed is highly suggestive.

“thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth” (“historically suspicious”)
Lehi seems to be referring to a geographically expansive and cosmic concept of the earth here. But this kind of universalism is not attested in Iron Age Syro-Palestinian texts. Deities were typically circumscribed in their authority and bound to local territory.

“manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah” (“historically unlikely”)
There is no evidence that any part of the people of ancient Judah believed in a coming divine Messiah or Savior. The evidence actually strongly suggests that the concept of a future Messiah arose in the post-exilic period as a result of the demise of the monarchy and its lingering effects on those attempting to re-establish and consolidate a Jewish polity in Persian-controlled Yehud (see e.g. Collins, 2008).

“even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out” (“historically unlikely”)
This presentation of the Jews again reflects traditional notions dependent on the canonical biblical text and a long process of religious development. It is highly unlikely that in monarchic Israel-Judah that prophets had been a focus of popular resentment.


John Collins and Adela Yarbro Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Eerdmans, 2008)

Diana Edelman, “From Prophets to Prophetic Books: The Fixing of the Divine Word” in Diana Edelman and Ehud Ben Zvi (eds), The Production of Prophecy (Equinox Publishing, 2009)

Christopher Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL, 2010)

Thomas Römer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical, and Literary Introduction (T&T Clark, 2007)

Mark Smith, “Astral Religion and the Representation of Divinity: The Cases of Ugarit and Judah” in Scott Noegel et al, Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World (Pennsylvania State Press, 2003)

  • Dave

    Nice discussion, RT, but given the way the Church and CES have doubled down on historicity over the last two or three generations, I don’t think there is at present any inclination within the Church or its affiliated institutions to treat historicity as an open question, regardless of the open-sounding rhetoric employed by Elder Oaks or others. For many non-LDS as well, scholars or not, it is not a live question, the default assumption being non-historicity rather than, as within LDS circles, historicity. These incommensurable presumptions then act to limit most conversation on the issue between the two groups.

    Biblical scholarship you are citing that places many biblical themes within a post-Exilic context raises similar issues for conservative Christians, who seem to sidestep or simply ignore such scholarship in much the same way that LDS simply ignore evidence against historicity. The idea that religious beliefs and practices develop over time just runs counter to the traditional view of all-at-once revelation still accepted by many (think “original autographs”). So it’s a broader issue than just the narrow LDS question of Book of Mormon historicity.

  • Jack

    I’m not a scholar, but I’d like to challenge some of your thoughts on 1Ne. First off, could it be that — not unlike what occurred during the apostasy of the first centuries AD — many of the plain truths didn’t make it through the diabolical editing process? Also, I don’t think the wicked masses considered the prophets to be “prophets.” They probably viewed them more like heretics, political obtructionists and whatnot. If so, isn’t it possible there might be a “twist” in the historical record’s point of view regarding the gospel?

    Next, don’t you think the Jews’ over-wrought national theology might account for their maintaining Zedekiah as their rightful king? Regardless of the fact that he was installed as a puppet by the Babylonians?

    Re: Egyptian writing — All I have is logic on this one. Even if there’s not enough evidence to establish a pattern among the Jews generally it’s still quite possible that Nephi’s training in Egyptian would become a great blessing to him and his successors as record keepers, what with metal plates and all. And if so, that would be a “sizzling” point of Joseph Smith.

  • Jack

    “… for Joseph Smith.”

  • Jrs

    Do you have any recommendations for further reading on this topic that would be intelligible to somebody in a completely unrelated discipline? I’m always hearing about these kinds of “historicity issues” but I don’t have the background to have an opinion. Is there a good place to start reading?

  • secco

    Very thoughtful post, RT. A few comments:

    - I agree that it is reasonable to ask what can be known simply from the rigorous application of modern historical tools. The fact that even the most anti-Christian writers agree that from a strictly academic, historical point of view, there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth is meaningful to me. The points you raise seem worth further exploration.

    - Without dodging the issues, it can be useful to remember that new information can resolve problems that seem intractable. I’m thinking of the decades of scholarly discussion in the first half of the 20th century about how the dualistic nature of much of the Fourth Gospel could only be explained via Hellenistic influence. This conclusion, well accepted among historians, had uncomfortable implications for traditionalists — until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls showed that a fully Jewish community wrote using the same dualistic light/dark, good/evil, above/below terminology. All of a sudden, what looked like an essential need for Johannine dependence on Hellenistic culture simply disappeared. Of course, this can too easily be used as a cop-out, but still, it is worth remembering that massive shifts do occur.

    - Historians are (presumably) willing to completely change their thinking in light of new discoveries, and see no problem with the resulting tentative attitude that must result from being always willing to revise in the face of new information. Such tentativeness, though, can for some people lead to different decisions than complete confidence. I’m thinking of very substantive decisions, such as to go on a mission — if one is only tentatively sure about something, one might choose differently than if one is fully confident.

    - Wouldn’t it be unfortunate to let what appear to be challenging historical questions — which might someday be resolved by another find by bedouins, or something else unpredictable — to outweigh spiritual experiences? Maybe this the core of what Elder Oaks intends to be arguing.

    Perhaps one solution is to encourage more discussion of the sorts of questions you are pointing out here, so that spiritual experiences are based on authentic foundations. Whether or not the Flood literally covered the entire earth, all 25,000 miles around of it, doesn’t need to impact whether or not I have my prayers heard. I think I hear you saying that the historicity of the Book of Mormon shouldn’t be made a false foundation, one that might not hold up to further scrutiny. This seems like good advice.

  • secco

    As a side note, in Elder Oaks’ paper, he references a letter to the editor that Jacob Neusner wrote in Sunstone discussing a historical-critical approach Sunstone article that David P Wright wrote in 1992. In that letter to the editor, Neusner suggests that Van Harvey’s, “The Historian and Believer” would be a useful read in looking at this conflict. Has anyone here read it or found it useful?

  • RT

    Jack: I didn’t understand several of your questions. What “plain truths” are you referring to? Why do you think that ancient Israelites viewed prophets as heretics? What do you mean by the “Jews’ over-wrought national theology”? Why should we assume that Nephi had scribal training in Egyptian? He does not present himself as a scribe and as a non-elite there is little reason to think that he would have had training in the royal bureaucracy.

    Jrs: Thanks for the question. Are you referring to historicity issues with regard to the Book of Mormon or the Old Testament? For the BoM, I think some of the contributions to _New Approaches to the Book of Mormon_, Brent Lee Metcalfe (ed), are very good (e.g., .Anthony Hutchinson and David Wright). The field of OT study is very large and complex. What are your interests? Are you looking for an introduction to some of the basic issues? As far as intros, I like Marc Brettler’s _How to Read the Jewish Bible_ and James Kugel, _How to Read the Bible_. For books dealing more directly with issues of historicity, check out Philip Davies, _Memories of Ancient Israel_ and John Collins, _The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age.

    secco: Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Your final statement perfectly encapsulates what I was trying to communicate: “I think I hear you saying that the historicity of the Book of Mormon shouldn’t be made a false foundation, one that might not hold up to further scrutiny.” Thank you so much for taking the time to understand accurately what I was saying.

    Your analogy to the dualism of the Fourth Gospel is interesting. I agree wholeheartedly that new information can sometimes dramatically change our perspective on how to interpret certain historical issues, so you are quite correct that historians should try as best they can to allow for this in their probablistic interpretations of the available evidence. However, in the case of Book of Mormon historicity, in my opinion the evidence against historicity is so strong that we need to try and move away from a theology that absolutely depends on historicity to survive. That is to say, the argument against BoM historicity relies on multiple independent strands of evidence; even if one or two of these strands were eventually proved to be faulty the overall argument remains very compelling.

    “Wouldn’t it be unfortunate to let what appear to be challenging historical questions… to outweigh spiritual experiences?” I can fully sympathize with the sentiment behind this question. Yet as I noted in the post, I am very skeptical of the use of spiritual experiences to resolve questions that are better seen as historical in nature. Members of other religious traditions do the same types of things. Fundamentalist Christians believe that the creation as described in Genesis is a historical depiction because of their religious experiences. The question is at what point do we permit the truths found through science and historical investigation to influence our understanding of scripture and our religious conceptions? For example, should we ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence in support of biological evolution and rather continue to view Adam and Eve as historical persons? That’s what I grew up believing was real.

    I really don’t think a theology that relies less on the factual historical reality of certain scriptural depictions would have much a negative impact on the lived religious experience of most LDS. In fact, I think it would enrich our theology and cause it to come to full fruition because we would then actually start to try and develop our individual and collective spiritual intuitions. People wouldn’t be more tentative; I think they would actually be less because they would be engaging in religious behavior because they chose to and felt it to be right, not merely out of normative religious pressures or socially dependent emotional convictions.

  • JohnH

    “This prophecy presumes the biblical narrative of exile and return, which was constructed in a post-monarchic context, probably the Persian period.”

    Your problem seems to be taking Biblical criticism at face value. Perhaps if you realized that the assumption that there was no and can be no actual prophecy is the primary thing which leads to these types of statements then you would have an easier time sorting out both Biblical and Book of Mormon criticism. If one starts from the position that there is no such thing as prophecy pre-event then of course one has to post-date the books of the bible thus making them not really prophecies, but that isn’t good scholarship as it assumes the conclusion.

  • RT

    JohnH: Contrary to what you may think, I am not averse to believing in some form of predictive prophecy. But that’s not really the point. If you want to understand why biblical scholars of so many different ideological and religious stripes have come to similar conclusions about the nature of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings), I would encourage you to read some of their material. Scholars have spent years exploring these questions and they almost never simply assume a conclusion.

  • JohnH

    I have read many such material and they all have at some level that base assumption or are building off of others work who also have that base assumption.

  • Chris H.

    “…they all…”

    Oh, really. Way to confront supposed assumptions with sweeping, and false, assumptions of your own.

  • Jack

    Chris H., I think when John H. says “they all” he’s talking about the authors he’s read.

    RT, I’m not very good at asking questions sometimes. I’m just saying that perhaps an apostasy of sorts had an effect upon the record.

  • Chris H.

    Yeah, I got that. However, including items in a literature review does not mean that an argument is based on said items. It is just providing context about the larger debates.

  • RT

    “I have read many such material and they all have at some level that base assumption or are building off of others work who also have that base assumption.”
    That’s a copout JohnH. You are trying to avoid the difficult issues that biblical scholars raise by misrepresenting what they do. Try reading some of the literature that I mentioned above without looking for hidden assumptions.
    Jack: Ok, maybe there was an apostasy that left out some things from the biblical record. But even if that were the case, we still need to try and make sense of the biblical texts as they stand. Are they coherent? Can we discern the aims and purposes of their authors? Are they trying to represent the real historical past or are there other ideological agendas at play? Before we jump to conclusions about a hypothetical apostasy, we need to try and assess the historical value of the biblical texts.

  • secco

    >>“Wouldn’t it be unfortunate to let what appear to be challenging historical questions… to outweigh spiritual experiences?” … I am very skeptical of the use of spiritual experiences to resolve questions that are better seen as historical in nature.

    I think we are in agreement, and trying to say the same thing — I didn’t mean to imply that spiritual experience should be used to query historical topics. “By study and also by faith” suggests that study — including serious, rigorous, academic work — comes first in the recommended priority for learning (at least per D&C 88). So I’m agreeing that historical analysis can be used to analyze historical questions. Spiritual experiences can and should still be valuable, though, just as you also seem to endorse. I was trying to say I wouldn’t want to see someone’s faith punctured and past spiritual interactions somehow discarded if/when someone discovers historicity might be an issue — and so I concur that bringing these questions to the fore, at least as questions to be considered, is probably wise. Though I’d probably wait until after Primary years, but before a mission.

    That being said, I do have some sympathy for Neusner’s broader point (cited at length in the Elder Oaks article) that at least when it comes to Historical Jesus questing, frequently the questions that are being asked are actually theological. I’m not expert enough to parse how that point might apply to the questions you pose about 1 Nephi 1 historicity. And while I disagree with Neusner’s assessment of the value of some of the Historical Jesus efforts (I really treasure Meier’s works), I don’t have the bad taste in my mouth that he had from the “Jesus the Magician” scandal.

  • RT

    Secco: If I understand Neusner correctly, he seems to be saying that certain supernatural claims are not really verifiable, and so historical analysis that aims to answer the question of what these claims mean can only be “theology masquerading as critical history.” Practicioners of the supposed historical method are actually making statements about the nature of God and his involvement in the mundane world.

    This is obviously a complicated subject that deserves more thorough attention. On the one hand, I feel that Neusner’s critical appraisal of certain forms of historical inquiry is legitimate and helpful. No doubt he is correct that Historical Jesus questing has all too often been a venue for engaging in theological controversy and speculation. Yet on the other hand it feels to me that as a religious traditionalist (at some level) he is trying to insulate certain (foundational) supernatural claims from any sort of historical examination. He argues that it is not really possible to identify a historical method capable of determining “whether someone really rose from the dead, or what God said to the prophet on Sinai”. I think this goes too far. Supernatural claims can be investigated within their historical context and these efforts should not simply be reduced to a theology parading itself as critical history.

    There are all sorts of supernatural claims made in the OT that are in some sense impossible to verify historically, e.g. the creation, flood, God’s judgement on Egypt, the parting of the red sea, the gift of the law on Sinai, conquest of Canaan, the destruction of the Assyrian army in the days of Hezekiah etc. Yet much can be learned about these claims by exploring what we know about the literary context in which they appear and by comparison with other historical documents from the ancient Near East. Contrary to what Neusner suggests, I believe that it is possible to have a pretty good idea about the historicity of these events.

    Neusner’s metaphorical description of secular dissection of the sacred portrays historical inquiry as inherently injurious to faith. And to some extent I think that he is right. Historical inquiry into scriptural and religious narratives poses real challenges to traditional forms of faith. But on the whole I feel it can be a good thing, perhaps even necessary at times for real faith to continue, comparable somewhat to the idea of Adam and Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden in Mormon theology. It is an initiation to a spiritual journey, and only by getting outside of our comfort zone can we really grow and progress.

  • secco

    RT, thanks for the thoughtful summary of Neusner’s arguments and some of their weaknesses. You make many valid points and there’s plenty to ponder.

    To the extent that Mormons use these same arguments as Neusner is proposing to deflect any historical-critical inquiry about the Book of Mormon, they may be inadvertently weakening what is one of our greatest strengths: that, as Richard Bushman puts it, “Mormonism today presents the perplexing contradiction of a miracle-based religion founded in the age of the printing press surviving the onslaught of modern skepticism.”

    That is, we claim that God is still acting, and that among other visible proofs is the foundational experiences of the First Vision, as well as the coming forth of the Book of Mormon itself, and other specific activities that can be closely examined with all the historical tools at our disposal. Witness the Joseph Smith Papers project that essentially says, “come and see,” take a look at the documentary evidence.

    Why church leadership and members, including BYU faculty and the editors of the JBMRS wouldn’t allow or even encourage this same set of tools to be applied to the Book of Mormon is not clear to me. Perhaps this inconsistency will work itself out over time.

  • jrs

    RT – thanks for the book recommendations. I was thinking primarily of issues regarding the BOM, but of course understanding these may require delving into issues of Biblical criticism/interpretation. Basically I’m dissatisfied with “studying the scriptures” in a very cursory, non-academic way and would like to figure out what is really going on, rather than just assuming (as we often do in e.g. Gospel Doctrine class) that everything written therein is literal.

  • RT

    jrs: I’m glad that you’re interested in studying the scriptures at a deeper and more rigorous level. I think you will find it to be very rewarding. Let me know if I can help you with any of your questions, or we could discuss topics of interest to you here on FPR.

  • Ben McGuire

    A bit late to the discussion, this blog was just referred to me this morning.

    I think its easy to miss the forest for the trees. One thing I have seen (especially in Jonathon Smith’s discussions of comparative religion) is that there is a tendency to blur the lines between the ontological claims of gospel (and in this case The Book of Mormon) and the historical claims about them. I see this with some regularity when its asserted that you cannot have a testimony without believing in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Such a position (right or wrong) also blurs that line. And that blurring can create significant barriers to testimony down the road. Does the fact that any text comes about through a definable historical process indicate that it cannot also be revealed?

    Historicity is itself a problematic topic. Which is patently less true? A work of fiction written as history that has all the right names and places and events, or an actual historical account, written by an eyewitness that fails to record important and significant things that can help verify the text (or even gets them wrong)? We often talk about historicity, but what we are really talking about is verisimilitude. And that’s a bit more of a messy topic isn’t it? And these issues are never really black and white. The Book of Mormon itself is a complex text with an apparently complex history, and yet our model of trying to understand it often reduces it to very simple issues and terms – and this reduction, when it creates this illicit movement from historical to ontological and back can be very damaging to faith. It is this movement that both creates and is created by articles like the Oaks article.

    So, I agree – we need to back the faith and revelation out of the scholarly work that deals with critical inquiry into the text (issues related to the text and related to its historicity) and we need to put back barriers separating questions of historicity with questions of truth. Otherwise, we end up with a problem that a number of non-LDS scholars have recognized in studies of their own faith traditions – this illicit shift from an historical inquiries back onto an ontological belief. Within aplogetics, this shows up pretty clearly. If we argue that faith and revelation are just as important if not more important than scholarly inquiry in discussing the historicity of the text, we wind up faced with a crisis when scholarly inquiry can show (whether accurately or not) that the text has problems with its historicity. This is used then not so much as way to look at the text but as a blunt instrument in the other discussion – the discussion of truth – if the book isn’t historical in some sense, then all of the revelation and faith that we used to back up its historicity must also be wrong. We create a situation where the gospel’s truth hinges on the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the same way that we suggest that the historicity of the Book of Mormon may hinge on the truth of the gospel.

    This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t on some level believe that these issues are connected. But, the position of the essentialness of Book of Mormon historicity is itself a problem that is not usually addressed in any meaningful fashion.

    Both ontological questions and historical questions are important. Exploring both is important. Allowing them to meet and to diverge creates knowledge for us that otherwise gets lost (it is at the points of greatest conflict that we can learn the most). What we need to remember as apologists and scholars is that while we can let our beliefs direct our investigations, they cannot become substitutes for them, and we cannot let them dictate the outcomes of our investigations. And I think in doing this we help encourage a more mature sort of belief in the long run.

  • RT

    Ben: Thanks for the comment. I really like your last point, “What we need to remember as apologists and scholars is that while we can let our beliefs direct our investigations, they cannot become substitutes for them, and we cannot let them dictate the outcomes of our investigations. And I think in doing this we help encourage a more mature sort of belief in the long run.”