As it Should Be?: Historicity and Scripture

As it Should Be?: Historicity and Scripture January 7, 2015

The question of historicity, meaning the actuality of persons and events verified through historical inquiry, is a central concern for many contemporary readers of sacred texts. Ancient authors, however, did not typically share this interest.

Biblical authors were not historians, at least not in the modern sense of the term. They were storytellers. Their accounts were certainly sacred, but they were also entertaining, and sometimes even political and crude. Biblical stories tell us something about the way their respective authors understood the past, but they don’t always tell us something about “the” past. The original authors who produced the Bible created stories about prophets, kings, and heroic warriors that were carefully crafted to teach valuable ideas concerning divinity and its relationship to humanity, especially the family of Israel.

It’s important for modern readers of the Bible to recognize that biblical historians were not motivated to write their accounts out of antiquarian interest. The past was far too important a tool for these authors to simply recount what really happened. Instead, biblical authors used history as a tool to covey themes concerning the God of Israel and his relationship to his chosen people.

Moving from ancient perspectives to a contemporary LDS or Mormon view of scripture, we often encounter considerable emphasis given the topic of historicity. As an illustration, we can turn to BYU Religion professor Paul Hoskisson who writes:

“A small group of critics maintain, contrary to Latter-day Saint belief, that it is not necessary to believe in the historicity of central events in order to have scriptural faith. In some extreme cases they also maintain that clinging to the historicity of certain events impedes understanding and development of scriptural faith. . .

“As Latter-day Saints, we must reject this insidious view of scripture and scriptural faith. In fact, most Latter-day Saints intuit the strong bond that exists between our faith and historical events. Without reservation we acknowledge, as G. Ernest Wright stated for traditional Christianity, that in scriptural faith ‘everything depends upon whether the central events actually occurred.’ As faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we declare that in our faith everything depends upon the historicity of what Elder Bruce R. McConkie called the three pillars of eternity—the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement.

“In addition to the three pillars of eternity, I believe there are other key scriptural events that require historicity in order to give substance to our faith, including among others, the Flood; the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham; Moses’ call to be a prophet; the reign of King David; Lehi’s journey to the promised land; the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ; His visit to the more righteous remnant in the land of Bountiful; the First Vision of Joseph Smith; the return of Moroni; the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon; and the restoration of the priesthood, the gospel, and the Church in these the latter days, just to name a few. As Latter-day Saints we know, at least through intuition, that our faith rests on the historicity of these events.” Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Need for Historicity: Why Banishing God from History Removes Historical Obligation, in Historicity and the Latter-day Saints (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2001), 99-100.

For Hoskisson, if the scriptures do not present true history, they have little value as a religious force. Whether right or wrong, this view is difficult to reconcile with the way ancient authors traditionally viewed “scripture.”

More recently, some Latter-day Saint scholars have begun to approach the topic of historicity and scripture from a different perspective. Philosopher Joseph Spencer, for example, has argued that the Book of Mormon transcends questions of historicity. Spencer, who on many occasions has clarified that he believes that Book of Mormon characters are real figures from the past, argues that approaching the text in terms of its historicity can distract from the book’s religious agenda:

“The Book of Mormon must be regarded as neither historical nor unhistorical, but as non-historical. This is not to suggest that the events it records did not happen. On the contrary, it is to claim that it must be subtracted from the dichotomy of the historical/unhistorical because the faithful reader testifies that the events— rather than the history— recorded in the book not only took place, but are of infinite, typological importance. Any enclosure of the Book of Mormon within a totalized world history amounts to a denial of the book’s unique claim on the attention of the whole world. In the end, then, to take the Book of Mormon as either historical or unhistorical may be to miss the nature of the book entirely. Both positions in the debate about Book of Mormon historicity—whether critical or apologetic—are founded on a common, backwards belief. The historicity of the Book of Mormon is not in question. Rather. . . it is the Book of Mormon that calls the historicity of the individual into question.” Joseph Spencer, An Other Testament: On Typology (Salt Press, 2012), 28.

For Spencer, rather than “history,” the Book of Mormon should primarily be read as a dynamic religious text that allows readers to access divinity.

Approaching the topic of historicity from a similar angle, LDS philosopher Adam Miller has argued that the Book of Mormon is anachronistic. And for Miller, as a religious text, that is precisely the way it should be:

“Early Christian history is haunted by anachrony. More than a hundred years of biblical scholarship has shown that most New Testament Christology comes late and is discontinuous with the historical Jesus. While Jesus appears to be properly historical, Christ does not. His messianicity appears anachronistic. Mormon history is vexed by the same ghosts. Historical incongruities are abundant in the Book of Mormon. . . Page after page, its pre-advent Christian message typifies these kinds of anachronism. Its anachrony is manifest both in terms of the details it gives about future events in the life of Christ and in terms of the highly developed Christian vocabulary its sermons use. It is my argument that this anachrony is neither accidental nor debilitating. Rather, this anachrony is essential because the messianic, as messianic, is what retroactively reconfigures history itself.” Adam Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Kofford Books, 2012), 21.

For Miller, the anachronistic nature of the Book of Mormon “reveals the whole world and its history as meaning something radically different from what had been supposed.” He adds, “it is through this gate of anachrony that the Messiah enters, and in this respect the Book of Mormon is, perhaps, as it should be.”

Taking into consideration the arguments of Hoskisson, Spencer, and Miller, we find two very different approaches to scripture. Yet whichever philosophical camp one may connect with, it’s essential that readers not misrepresent the approach that Spencer and Miller offer. Theirs is not a “secular” reading of the Book of Mormon. In fact, if properly understood, their approach offers the exact opposite. If historicity is the process of using secular (I prefer the term “academic”) tools to evaluate the authenticity of a narrative concerning the past, then what Spencer and Miller present is a “spiritualization” of the text that ultimately transcends the historicity of men mingled with scripture.

From this vantage point, as “scripture,” the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a dynamic tool that allows readers to step outside the natural world and transcend to greater spiritual heights. It may tell us something about the past, but more importantly, scripture tells us something about ourselves.

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