The Scriptures: an Anthology; or, Why Jonah and the Book of Mormon Have No Bearing On Each Other

When I teach Sunday School or Priesthood, I naturally draw on my experiences and knowledge in preparing the lesson. This means I tend to express my opinions (clearly labeled as such), which strike most people as novel and, put kindly, “interesting.” A ward member sent me an email after I taught one such lesson, and the conversation turned first towards questions of genre and historicity in the Old Testament, and then towards the historicity of the Book of Mormon. After hearing my view that the Old Testament includes non-historical stories (for example, I see Jonah as a satirical parable, not as a historical account), his immediate question was, “so, do you think the Book of Mormon isn’t historical?”

Many LDS and non-LDS make incorrect and potentially harmful categorical assumptions about both “scripture’ and “history.” For one, “true” is commonly equated with “historical” (see this post for discussion). Obvious scriptural examples to the contrary such as Jesus’  parables, I think most LDS approach scripture assuming that it is all historical in nature, and that “historical narrative” is the primary way  God speaks to us.  The  reality is that scripture is not at all homogeneous, or all the same kind of thing. Our scriptures are a collection, an anthology, a library.

Most libraries contain different kinds of books, divided into general sections such as fiction and non-fiction. We can further break these down into broader or narrower categories of like: reference books, cook books, history, science, culture as well as mystery, sci-fi, historical fiction, fantasy, etc. If I check out several books and put them together on my bookshelf, they do not lose their individual nature.  Each book and section within that book may be a different genre, and each needs to be examined with an eye for differences that help us understand the books genre. For example, Leviticus is analogous to the Church Handbook of Instructions in a way, and Psalms the Israelite hymnbook.  Jonah may well be an old Testament parable, but just as our home bookshelves contain various kinds of books, non-historical parables can sit on our scriptural shelf, next to the hymnbook and the Church Handbook of Instruction, all bound within one distinct cover.

When I share my views on Jonah (here and here for example), I tend to see the assumption manifested by my ward member, that one’s view of the historicity of Jonah (or the Book of Mormon) is primarily a function of “liberalism” or “disbelief”: if you disbelieve in one, you disbelieve in them all.  There’s an imagined domino effect, that if I allow Jonah to be a satirical parable instead of a documentary history, then obviously I must also reject the historicity of every book of scripture, including the Book of Mormon. It may well be the case that some people reject any history in the scriptures out of a general disbelief in miracles or whatnot, but that approach fails to acknowledge the nuance and complexity of the scriptures.

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