In his recent Oxford University Press study, Dr. David F. Holland shares a profound observation concerning the great scriptural paradox within the Book of Mormon:
“The Book of Mormon itself reinforces the message that when heavenly light mixes with human messengers, God’s treasure is to be found in earthly vessels. It repeatedly warns its readers not to discard the things of God because of the flaws of men (Mormon 9:31)… The notion that later generations may improve upon the scriptural text—even be ‘wiser’ than its inspired authors—brings the Book of Mormon closer to the most radical elements of American’s emerging culture of biblical criticism than to its long tradition of biblical conservatism.
“And yet, in contrast to the critical approach, the Mormons’ canonical culture did not invite individuals to try to separate the wheat from the chaff, to personally determine what had to be obeyed from what might be discarded. Scripture was to be engaged holistically. The same Book of Mormon prophet who offered three statements of the book’s flaws also insisted that ‘God will shew unto you, that that which I have written is true.’ The foundational documents of Mormonism taught that God could reveal the divine authority of both flawed men and imperfect scripture.”
David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 155-56.
This is a significant observation. Yet after discussing the matter with both family and friends, I have come to the conclusion that I would probably take the same observation Dr. Holland makes in a different direction. It seems to me that the Book of Mormon literally begs its readers to adopt a critical approach to scripture by separating the “wheat from the chaff.” True, the text should be taken “holistically” as the inspired word of God, but I believe that readers are being invited to judge those words and determine what is divine and what is flesh.
Joseph Smith himself models this approach when on the one hand, he identifies the Bible as the “word of God,” yet on the other, he states that the Song of Solomon is “not inspired.”
From another more simplistic angle, this observation relates directly to some of the recent essays I’ve posted concerning the lack of historicity in the Bible. The Book of Mormon repeatedly warns its readers that scripture should not be interpreted unintelligently. Amongst other points, to me, this means that there is simply no need within Mormonism to adopt an anti-intellectual approach to questions of historicity. To quote LDS Apostle Elder Russell M. Nelson, when it comes to the Book of Mormon (and no doubt the same could be said for the Bible) “historical aspects of the book assume secondary significance” (General Conference, Oct. 1999). They should not distract from the book’s spiritual message.
This view accords with the way ancient biblical authors viewed sacred literature, a point that has been well-articulated by Dr. Marc Brettler, a critical Bible scholar deeply committed to his religious community. Dr. Brettler writes:
“Historical traditions , namely , narratives that depict a past, were often treated in the biblical period as ‘clay in the hands of the potter’ (Jer 18: 4, 6). The book of Chronicles is a creative revision of Genesis-Kings, especially Samuel to Kings, and Deuteronomy often revises narratives found in earlier sources in the Torah. This suggests that the earlier historical sources were seen as flexible rather than absolutely true. Similarly, the fact that non-Torah texts disagree with historical traditions found in the Torah— for example, the many disagreements between the plague narrative in Exodus and in Psalms 78 and 105— implies a malleable view of history.
“This is because in ancient Israel, as in other premodern societies, the facts themselves or the historical events were not primary— what could be learned from the stories was primary. This explains, in part, why the classical rabbis were so playful in their engagement with the biblical text, rewriting it so extensively and creatively. Even more drastically, this focus on lessons rather than facts may suggest that Job was a character in a parable (mashal) rather than a historical figure— as a narrative of the actual past the text was not paramount.”
Marc Zvi Brettler, “My Bible: A Jewish Perspective,” in The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously (eds. Marc Zvi Brettler; Peter Enns; Daniel J. Harrington; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 52).
This perspective, that the Bible lacks “historicity,” is not a problem within Judaism, and it should never be an issue for Latter-day Saints.
From start to finish, the Book of Mormon presents readers with a fascinating paradox. On the one hand, the book itself is a miracle and is defined by Joseph Smith as “the most correct” book ever written, since a person can get closer to divinity by abiding by its precepts more so than any other book. And yet, Book of Mormon authors constantly refer to the text’s inherent weakness. It is as if the Book of Mormon personifies John’s New Testament depiction of the Word of God, which is both divine and made flesh.The Book of Mormon, therefore, presents a profound theological construct concerning scripture and the nature of revelatory text. Human beings have always had an influence on the development of sacred literature. Hence, allowing for human agency in the production of scripture creates an analogy with Jesus Christ himself—i.e. the “Word of God”:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1,14)
Like Jesus himself, the Book of Mormon seems to teach that scripture is a divine word made flesh among us. Evangelical scholar Peter Enns expresses the analogy this way:
“As Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible. In other words, we are to think of the Bible in the same way that Christians think about Jesus. Christians confess that Jesus is both God and human at the same time. He is not half-God and half-human. He is not sometimes one and other times the other. He is not essentially one and only apparently the other. . . . Jesus is 100 percent God and 100 percent human—at the same time. This way of thinking of Christ is analogous to thinking about the Bible. In the same way that Jesus is—must be—both God and human the Bible is also a divine and human book.”
Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Maker Academic, 2005), 17-18.
The traditional LDS understanding of the Bible and scripture takes the metaphor of divine word being made flesh even further. As Joseph Smith once explained, Mormons “believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” (A of F 8). Implicit with the belief that the Bible contains errors introduced by humans, is the belief that there are portions of the Bible that are fully human and cannot be said to be divine. There is error; there is weakness; there is flesh. Historical Criticism allows Latter-day Saint readers to identify both attributes in the written word. Sacred words must pass through a human filter; there is therefore no such thing as the pure, unadulterated word of God. It is always both human and divine, and this point seems to be one that the Book of Mormon itself practically begs its readers to recognize.
Book of Mormon narrators constantly attest to the fact that they struggled to put into words their spiritual feelings. Moroni refers to this matter through the expression “my weakness in writing” (Ether 12:23, 25, 40). Moreover, fully aware that revelatory insights must always pass through imperfect human vessels, Nephi informs his readers,
“I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself.” (1 Ne. 19:6)
At the conclusion of his record, Nephi returned to this same theme, testifying that despite the weakness of his written record, Christ approved his words:
“And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal. . . And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.” (2 Ne. 33:4, 11).
Revelatory insights, no matter how inspired, must always pass through weak human vessels. In this process, mistakes are inevitably made, notwithstanding the sacred nature of religious texts. For this reason, in the title page of the Book of Mormon, Moroni explicitly recognized the possibility of error:
“And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”
As Latter-day Saints, we must allow room for such error as we seek to expand our understanding through revelatory and scholarly insights. I can see no reason, therefore, that a Latter-day Saint should ever adopt an anti-intellectual approach to the topic of “historicity” and the Bible. In fact, from my perspective, the Book of Mormon begs us not to.
We must read scripture critically, evaluating questions of historicity with the tools of academic inquiry. And in the process, as we use this material to access divinity, we should learn to separate the wheat from the chaff as part of that religious quest. In fact, according to the Book of Mormon, that may very well be the key to spiritual growth.