Exploring the Iconic Nature of the Book of Mormon: Part I, Introduction

In his recent book The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, Timothy Beal offers an insightful and timely assessment of what he calls the “the iconic cultural meaning of the Bible.” [1]  Beal proposes two main arguments in his work. First, that “there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular,” [2] and, second, that there is a marked difference between what the Bible actually is and the way in which many have come to view it. This post will serve as an introduction to a series of posts interested in exploring how (if at all) Beal’s ideas regarding the Bible might apply to Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon.

To Beal’s first point, while the Bible is often thought of today as a book (leather bound of course, with your full name on the cover, and, if you are lucky, tabs for better scripture chasing skills and perhaps a sensible tote), in reality, the Bible contains numerous pieces of writing that span nearly 1000 years of history. Not only do these disparate texts each contain their own respective historical, textual, and literary contexts, but they have been edited and copied numerous times. Furthermore, these groups of texts were later translated as well as gathered together in particular collections that would later be canonized and held as authoritative by various religious groups. Many, in responding to such a scenario, have suggested that, “we need to get back to the original.” Beal addresses this by saying: “It’s a reasonable assumption. But it’s nevertheless wrong. There is no single, unadulterated Bible, no pristine original, at the base of this crazy biblical family tree. In fact, the very idea of the bible as a fixed canon of scriptures, not to mention believed by many to be the literal, divinely authored Word of God, would have been completely unfamiliar, indeed inconceivable, not only to Jesus and his disciples but also to the first few centuries of Christians.” [3]  That the Bible did not appear in book format all at once is only one side of Beal’s argument against there being no such thing as the Bible. Even today, a number of factors support Beal’s conclusion that to speak of bibles, in the plural, would be a more accurate descriptor. While many may assume that all bibles contain the same books, there are, in fact, a number of different biblical canons that are actively in use today among different religious groups. [4]  Furthermore, the sheer number of bibles available for public consumption, even among those that contain the same books, is staggering. This abundance is not a recent development. Beal explains that, “even in the early centuries of the print era, after Gutenberg, we find a burgeoning Bible-publishing industry with literally thousands of different editions and versions [of the the Bible].” [5]  Because of an officially endorsed version of the scriptures, Latter-day Saints are generally not accustomed to the extremely wide range of bibles available: everything from the NIV Teen Study Bible from Zondervan, to the fully armored Metal Bible, to Thomas Nelson Publishers’ Shiny Sequin Bible, to the Bride’s Bible. [6]  With such choices, no wonder “the average Christian household owns nine Bibles and purchases at least one new Bible every year.” [7]  Whether one is speaking of how the Bible came to be, the different canons in use among religious groups, or the copious editions and versions of the Bible available for purchase, Beal’s point seems worth noting: it is difficult to speak of the Bible.

Beal’s second argument regarding the way in which many US Christians perceive of the Bible is equally fascinating. While biblical consumerism is at an all-time high, biblical literacy is at an all time low. “Could it be,” Beal asks, “that biblical literacy is being replaced by biblical consumerism?” [8]  Following up on this question, Beal asks what is it that Bible believers do believe about the Bible if biblical literacy is so low but opinions about the Bible remain intact and enthusiastic nonetheless? He suggests that despite not reading and being particularly familiar with the Bible, that many Americans have nevertheless constructed an idea—what he calls an iconic view—about what the Bible is. So for example, while the Bible is made up of a plethora of writings from various authors and editors, Beal suggests that many have nonetheless come to view the Bible as univocal, in that “it speaks for itself in one, unified voice, without contradiction,” or, by way of another example, while there are many issues and questions concerning contemporary ethics and/or morals that receive little or no treatment within the biblical texts, many nevertheless view the Bible as both practical, meaning that it “promises to serve as a reference manual and a dependable guide,” as well as comprehensive, in that it “cover[s] everything human beings may ever possibly need to know.” [9]  Such an iconic view of what people want and/or need the Bible to be, Beal argues, is quickly supplanting what the Bible actually is. For Beal, treating the Bible as a “closed book of answers,” rather than an open “library of questions” is problematic in that “when we try to make a text univocal, ‘one-voiced,’ of one voice with itself, we deprive it of its richness”—or, in Derrida’s words, it becomes subject to “impoverishment by univocality.” [10]

In my next post, I begin to apply these ideas more specifically to Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon and see what happens.

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[1] Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

[2] Beal, The Rise and Fall, 22.

[3] Beal, The Rise and Fall, 85.

[4] For example, the Roman Catholic canon contains books not included in the Protestant canon, the so-called Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (Tobit, Judith, Greek additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ben Sira, Baruch, Greek additions to Daniel, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees). Likewise, additional books are included in canons such as those of the Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Ethiopic traditions.

[5] Beal, The Rise and Fall, 22.

[6] See chapter 3 in Beal’s work, which discusses the “values added” by dozens of different types of Bibles.

[7] Beal, The Rise and Fall, 36.

[8] Beal, The Rise and Fall, 35.

[9] For Beal’s complete list of characteristics (authoritative, univocal, practical, accessible, comprehensive, and exclusive), see Beal, The Rise and Fall, 4.

[10] As quoted in Beal, The Rise and Fall, 148-49.

  • RT

    Well done, MormonDeadhead! Looking forward to the next post.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor The Yellow Dart

    Looking forward to the series!

  • g.wesley

    Great intro., MDH.

    Have you come across arguments that there were no original manuscripts of biblical texts? As I understand it, at least one of the arguments goes like this: there was no one author of any of the gospels; the culture was primarily oral rather than scribal; and so the text-critical quest to get at the written words of a single autograph (or near there anyway) is a wild goose chase.

    Does Beal go that far when he says there is no going back the original?

  • David

    How about the issue of there being more than one edition of the Book of Mormon? More than one translation? How many times have you seen/heard about missionaries coming home from their missions and still reading/quoting the version they used on their missions? How many Mormons are aware of the multiplicity of the Book of Mormon? How do they deal with that issue?

  • MormonDeadhead

    Thank you RT and TYD!

    g.wesley,
    Beal’s work is aimed more at a general audience, so he doesn’t go too far in depth on any given issue. Re the argument you referenced, let me make sure I understand: is this an argument being made by people as a way of trying to salvage their particular translation in the face of text critical scholarship? Something like: “don’t worry about bothering with mss and text criticism and all that—there’s no original anyways. The Bible as we have it (e.g. the KJV) is as good as any so don’t waste your time.”

    David,
    Thank you, yes. In fact, I plan on dealing with the issue of changes to the English text of the Book of Mormon in one of the follow up posts. This is one of the major characteristics about the BoM that caused me to make the connection between Beal’s work and the LDS/BoM situation. I hadn’t planned on treating translations, only because they are all secondary translations from the English (though a Spanish translation from the Reformed Egyptian would be interesting)—pardon if I am misunderstanding what you mean be translation. Thank you for your thoughts!


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