Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rethinking Our Assumptions of the Book of Mormon

There are many assumptions about the Book of Mormon that simply aren't supported by the record itself. Unfortunately, many members buy into these assumptions, and some of them were believed by our early leaders. The following are only a few obvious examples:

1) The Book of Mormon itself never claims to be a record of the entire inhabitants of the entire Americas - or, frankly, of even one entire continent. In fact, it mentions multiple times that many others will be led to the Americas by the hand of God - and it never tells when or where those migrations will occur. For all we know, some of them might have been concurrent with the history to which we have access. I have written extensively about the problems with the assumptions that early Mormons made about the Book of Mormon, and Nibley wrote some incredibly compelling analyses of the internal claims. I can’t begin to summarize this in a post here, but I will try to hit a few highlights - again, focusing strictly on what the book actually says, not what others read into it or assumed about it given the general societal assumptions of their day.

2) We have a very spotty record of one family, its descendants and those with whom a portion of that family came in contact. There is almost nothing that gives any information about others who might have lived on the continents - except an even spottier record that followed the Jaredite royal line (or, more probably, those who remained close enough to the “capital” to remain under the control of that royal line). When you read the Book of Ether, it is obvious that it does not even try to keep track of all the descendants of the initial group. It focuses almost exclusively on the kings and what happens to them, only including the people around them as fodder for the tales of warfare and intrigue. In other words, after the initial explanation of the founding journey of Jared and his brother, almost the entire book is a politico-military treatise - not primarily even a religious or spiritual history of an entire people.

3) “All the land” is a common term used in ancient scripture to mean “all the known land” or “all the land under centralized rule”. Noah’s flood is seen by many Biblical scholars as having been a catastrophic local flood that wiped out everyone and everything that inhabited Noah’s world - one that was later generalized to universal status since every culture has a similar flood narrative - since nearly all large civilizations anciently were centered near and around water. (Also, a careful reading of the chapters immediately following the flood make it crystal clear that there were other human survivors of the flood outside the flood area.)

To highlight this tendency, Caesar’s edict that “all the world should be taxed” is obvious hyperbole; it simply meant “all his world” - since he was well aware of areas that were not under his control and, therefore, would not be taxed. Even just the Jaredite descendants who stayed close to the capital city easily could have numbered in the millions; they easily could have had cities that stretched from “sea to sea” (especially if the central government was located somewhere - anywhere - where "sea to sea" could have meant "huge body of water to huge body of water"); and those millions that lived in that area easily could have been rounded up and destroyed in a final, massive battle - all the while not coming close to wiping out every living human on the face of the American continents other than the Nephites and Lamanites and Mulekites of the time.

Again, this is based on what the Book of Mormon actually says about them, not culturally-based assumptions made by those who read it after it was published. Coriantumr easily could have been the sole survivor of that centrally controlled empire, while millions of other descendants of the ancient Jaredite group could have been living outside the control and knowledge of the royal family. Basic population and demographic standards almost dictate that such would have been the case after what probably was well over 2,000 years. [In fact, the incontrovertible fact that the Jaredites were unaware of the Nephite/Lamanite/Mulekite populations living relatively close to them (at least within walking distance for Coriantumr at the time of the great and final battle) argues that they had no clue whatsoever if “all” the people had been gathered, but rather gathered only those of whom they were aware.]

4) If the descendants of Lehi were a localized group, covering a relatively small area (compared to the entire continents), and if the “Lamanites” assimilated other, larger groups not specified in the Book of Mormon - like the Nephites assimilated the more numerous Mulekites (which appears almost certain, given the population descriptions included in the Book of Mormon), then their genetic footprint easily could have been diluted very, very early on.

5) Furthermore, we have no idea whatsoever what the maternal lineage was for Lehi’s children, since we have no idea whatsoever of Sariah’s lineage. Lehi appears to have been a traveling man who was outside the accepted authority structure of Jerusalem. He was not a Jew, but a descendant of Joseph - as was Ishmael. Lehi knew Egyptian fluently. It is doubtful, but Sariah could have been Egyptian - with an Israelite adopted name, as would not have been rare for that time. There is so much ambiguity as to both Lehi’s and Sariah’s origins that there simply is no way to tell what DNA testing would show for the family.

In summary, there are so many assumptions that underlie our beliefs about the Book of Mormon that sorting out what the book actually says from things that simply are assumptions ("incorrect traditions of our fathers") is vitally important in this modern day of discovery. I have found that the more I understand what it actually says, the less I am bothered by new discoveries - and the more I am amazed at the accuracy of the book itself.


Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you've said here. I would also point out that some of the problems (e.g., the flood, the dating of Jaredite civilization, DNA evidence) come from assumptions about the literalness of the Bible that get carried over to our understanding of the BofM.


Anonymous said...

Now I have permission to think my thoughts.I wonder what riches the Book of Mormon will now open to me.Still,I'm going to have to watch out for the smug creeping up on me...

openminded said...

Hi D, I'm going to post your response before I reply to it:

"whereas the standard implied by Moroni is that all of the words are true?"

That's one of the best examples of a mis-reading of the text, open-minded. That statement simply doesn't exist anywhere in the actual book. Sure, many members have taken that stance, but that just twists the Book of Mormon into the inerrant Bible of some Protestants. It just doesn't claim to be that.

openminded said...

I'd like to take a look at Moroni's promise and the context around it so I can get a better understanding of it. I'll go through the relevant verses.

2: And I seal up these records, after I have spoken a few words by way of exhortation unto you.

What records? As described in Mormon 6:6, "therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni."

Does this mean all of the records? That's the impression I got, so please correct me if I'm wrong.

3: Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them...from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

These things, referring to the plates (right?).

4And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

And therefore, we arrive at my interpretation that "these things" are everything in the BoM (because "these things" refer to "these records" which are described in Morm. 6:6).

So how is this interpretation a misreading?

Papa D said...

Thanks for bringing the discussion here, om. I am visiting family this week and am about to leave for the evening with them. I leave to drive 10 hours home tomorrow morning.

I will try to get to an answer ASAP, but I can't guarantee how soon it will be - given the length of what I am going to have to write.

If it gets too long, perhaps I'll just make it a new post - and tell you about it here. *grin*

Papa D said...

OK, here goes:

First, I think it's important to establish that the Book of Mormon itself says explicitly that not everything in it might be correct - that there might be mistakes in it. I don't see it as the Mormon equivalent of the Protestant inerrant Bible, and part of my reason is that the book itself says it isn't. I'll address that general idea in this comment and then write another comment about Moroni 10.

1) The title page, which is attributed to Mormon, includes the following statement:

"And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men;"

This makes it clear right from the beginning that the person who compiled the abridgment didn't view his compilation as inerrant - that he viewed those who wrote the records he abridged and/or himself as fallible and capable of making mistakes in what they wrote.

2) 3 Nephi 8:2 says:

"And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away;"

I know that might sound trivial, but, again, it emphasizes that even in the simple matter of keeping track of time, the people who wrote the records allowed for the possibility of mistakes.

3) SIX times throughout the Book of Mormon, it is stated that what is being written is not even "a hundredth part" of what was written or said. Once, that statement applies only to a span of 25 years - which means that Mormon (and Moroni, in the case of Ether) were abridging records that already had been abridged significantly to fit into a limited space.

Again, that might not seem important to this discussion at first, but it leads toward my next point - which I believe is vitally important.

4) The entire Book of Mormon essentially is constructed by three people: Nephi, who wrote most of the first section (with a little bit added by Jacob's descendants, which is an interesting side discussion, in and of itself); Mormon, who abridged the vast majority of the records over the course of roughly the next 500 years and wrote a little bit about his own life; Moroni, who abridged the record of the Jaredites (The Book of Ether) and added a few things at the end. Therefore, I think it's important to look at the "purpose" of their writings.

Papa D said...

5) The obvious, stated purpose is to convince people that Jesus is the Christ - but, in the case of Mormon and Moroni it is plain that they also intended to highlight what happens to a people who reject and rebel against God.

Mormon was the last great military general of his people, and he led them to their ultimate destruction. Therefore, MUCH of what he chose to include in his abridgment is of a military nature - showing how and why they ended up destroyed.

In other words, it is accurate to say that the Book of Mormon is a "political-religious history" - or, in my own words, a "historical account with a pre-conceived mission". What I mean by that is that Mormon picked and chose the less than "hundredth part" with a fixed goal in mind - convincing others to accept Jesus as the Christ and to avoid the destruction he witnessed first-hand. Moroni finished that work - and undoubtedly abridged Ether with that same goal in mind.

That bias colors almost the entire compilation, in my opinion. I'm NOT saying Mormon lied or altered the records or anything like that, but I do believe what he chose to include had a clear agenda - that it was "propaganda" in a very real sense. Therefore, I am completely open to the inclusion of narrative embellishments (like the account of Ammon cutting off the arms of those with whom he fought and single-handedly beating a large group of bandits - or the description of Captain Moroni [after whom Mormon undoubtedly named his son] in the most glowing terms possible). Likewise, I'm totally open to the idea that if Laman and Lemuel had written the first couple of books the account would have been MUCH different - and, perhaps, not any less "correct".

What I'm saying is that a work like the Book of Mormon, by very nature, almost can't be unbiased and objectively accurate - and the writers make that plain throughout their records with statements about the error that surely existed in their accounts.

Papa D said...

Now, to Moroni 10.

(These comments are going to be long, so I am going to avoid the filter system and post multiple comments. Sorry it has to be that way.)

1) Verse 2 says:

"And I seal up these records, after I have spoken a few words by way of exhortation unto you [the Lamanites]."

You asked:

"Does this mean all of the records? That's the impression I got, so please correct me if I'm wrong."

I read it as the "plates" that Mormon "gave" to Moroni - the record he had compiled from all the other records that he hid after finishing his translation. (It's important to note here that I don't believe the Hill Cumorah mentioned in Mormon 6:6 was the same hill where Joseph claimed to have found the plates. I won't go into detail as to why in this comment, but it just doesn't make sense - for more than one reason.)

So, in a nutshell, the "records" which Moroni "sealed up" appear to have been the plates he received from Mormon - Mormon's record, if you will. After all, those plates are where he had "spoken a few words of exhortation".

Papa D said...

Yes, verse 3 refers to the plates - what became the Book of Mormon.

The difficulty, imo, is when you then equate "these things" in Verse 4 (the plates) with every word in them. For that to be what Moroni meant, it would mean he believed in the infallibility of those who wrote every word in the plates - and that simply isn't the case, based on the multiple statements that say those people were NOT infallible and that the record undoubtedly includes "faults" caused by the "mistakes of men". (and, notice, the word is "men" [numerative plural - literally meaning more than one man] - not "man" [generic term that could mean one man or multiple men]) I included the two most extreme cases (large and small, if you will) in my first comment (the Title Page and the time reference in 3 Nephi), but there are others in the record, as well.

For this reason (that Moroni simply couldn't have meant every single word), "if these things are not true" has to have another meaning. I'll finish that thought in my concluding comment.

Papa D said...

When we read "true" in our modern time, we translate it as "accurate" or "without mistake". That doesn't appear to have been how those who wrote and compiled the Book of Mormon translated it. The following are some examples of why I say that, with ** used to highlight the most important parts:

Mosiah 1:6 says:

"O my sons, I would that ye should remember that these sayings are true, and also that these records are true. And behold, also the plates of Nephi, which contain the records and the sayings of our fathers from the time they left Jerusalem until now, and they are true; **and we can know of their surety because we have them before our eyes**."

Iow, "We can see them; therefore, we know they are true." In the case of Moroni 10:4, this would mean the verse might say, "You can know (through the power of the Holy Ghost) that the words you read actually came from plates you can't see" - or "Even though you can't see the plates like I can, you can know through a spiritual manifestation that those plates and words actually did exist."

1 Nephi 15:15 says:

"Yea, at that day, will they not receive the strength and nourishment from the true vine? Yea, will they not come unto the true fold of God?"

This can't mean "accurate". It must mean "actual" - which is similar but different in an important way. In the case of Moroni 10:4, this would be translated as, "You can know that these words came from actual plates I sealed up."

Papa D said...

1 Nephi 1:13 says:

"And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge."

This is perhaps the most fascinating usage in the entire Book of Mormon, since Nephi says his record is BOTH "true" AND based on his OWN knowledge. In other words, "true" in this case means "without intentional lying or deceit" - or "as accurate as I am able to make it".

Moroni 10:6 also is important to consider, since it follows immediately Moroni 10:4. It says:

"And whatsoever thing is good is just and true."

This means that something can be "true" simply by being "good" - like, for example, myths, parables, allegories, or other things that aren't historically accurate but still are "just and true".

There are multiple dozens of usages of the word "true" in the Book of Mormon, so I will stop with those I've quoted already - but it's important to stress that most of them do NOT mean "accurate in every detail". Given the totality of these usages, I believe when Moroni wrote 10:4 and said those who read "these things" (the plates that eventually became the Book of Mormon) could have the "truth of **IT**" manifested unto them, he meant that those who follow the pattern he laid out in the previous verses could gain a spiritual witness that "it" (the record in its totality as a record of peoples who knew God, rejected Him and were destroyed) was an actual, real account - NOT that every word in it was inerrant.

Papa D said...

Finally, to be crystal clear, I do NOT believe that everyone who reads and prays about the Book of Mormon absolutely will receive that type of witness. I have seen too many people who have done so and NOT had that happen to believe it always happens that way. I believe Laman and Lemuel might have been correct when they said, "The Lord maketh no such thing known unto us." I don't know why some people have that type of experience (even some very skeptical people) and others don't (even some very sincere people), but I suspect Moroni was like lots of other people who simply assume what worked for him would work for everyone.

I just want to make that clear, after writing so much about why I think the Book of Mormon isn't an inerrant record.

openminded said...

Thanks for the response, D! Sorry I've only finally gotten around to reading it, I wasn't checking the right spot on Mormanity for the update (and was a little concerned that my new profile--which is under the same name--wasn't posting comments on his blog, as mine haven't showed up).

I love your approach to this subject, so I'm going to take a little while to absorb it before I reply (a little while, as in probably a day). There's a lot to it anyways!

Just a quick response that was in the back of my mind while I read this: the argument that true = "these things were written on the plates" seems largely out of context with what the church has repeatedly and officially used the promise for. A missionary doesn't say "pray, and you'll know that these things were actually written on the golden plates" which may validate the process Smith went through to translate the BoM, but it makes no claim that any of the words contain any truth whatsoever. But even if the promise says what you say it might, then it’s still extended into “the BoM is true” and what not. I mean, what was your understanding when you first read the prayer? (I’ll move on to other, less personal methods of interpretation in the rest of my response. I just think this line of thinking that truth = “these things were written on the plates” is contrary to everything the church claims the promise is).

I also feel like there’s a disconnect between what “we can know of their surety because we have them before our eyes” means and what you make of it. “because we have them before our eyes” is a qualification standard, and the whole verse really signifies more what I mean by true than what you reasoned from the passage. “you can know…that the words you read actually came from plates you can’t see” has nothing to do with “we [the Nephites?] see these plates, and that just adds to the fact that they’re true”.

Also, I think your use of 1 Nephi 15:15 is a false analogy. The context clues just don’t hold up in comparison to Moroni’s promise. One is talking about the vine of God being the true vine of God, which is different from making a statement that a record is true.

Going on into 1 Nephi 1:13, where he says:

"And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.”

He would then be saying, “And I know the record I make is the actual record” which is saying absolutely nothing at all, unless there were competing records to choose from (which there weren’t, and we have good reason to believe that there weren’t any competing records).

However, I think Moroni saying “whatsoever thing is good is just and true” does show his standards for what true is: anything that seems just and good. This would justify just about anything, but I see your point with it. Honestly, Ether looks more like a record than a proclamation of what’s good and just, however.

So saying this was “an actual, real account” has the weight of saying the Odyssey was an “actual, real account”? I feel like you’re implying that a real account, once stripped of the need to be truthful/accurate, would mean that parts of the BoM can be a collection of fables that didn’t actually happen, but an actual record was made of them anyways. Am I on the right track?

Papa D said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I'll address only those things that jump out at me as I read:

1) "I just think this line of thinking that truth = “these things were written on the plates” is contrary to everything the church claims the promise is)."

Honestly, that's the main point of this post - that there are LOTS of examples of assumptions about the Book of Mormon that aren't consistent with what the Book itself actually says. In this case, I'm not really concerned about what the Church claims about these verses in Moroni; I'm concerned about what I believe the book actually says about what Moroni meant in those verses.

2) "what was your understanding when you first read the prayer?"

In all seriousness, I was a very precocious kid. I first read the Book of Mormon when I was in first grade, and I walked away from that experience with the genesis of this post - that I just wasn't reading in it a lot of things other people believed about it. I loved the book and how I **felt** about it, but I just didn't agree with lots of things others said about it - including my parents, church teachers and Bishop. I still respected them greatly for who they were, and there were LOTS of things about which I did agree - but there were lots of things I viewed as assumptions that just didn't match the text itself.

3) "parts of the BoM can be a collection of fables that didn’t actually happen, but an actual record was made of them anyways. Am I on the right track?"

Yes, that's a good summary. It's the way I view the Bible, as well - a collection of actual, correct history, authorial license, fable, myth, exaggeration, etc. Nearly all "histories" compiled or written after the fact are like that to some degree - and pretty much every description of "WHY" something happened is colored by the biases of the writer. They can be "true" is that means they are not intentionally deceptive, even if they are not totally accurate and objectively Truth.

Papa D said...

Oh, and I totally forgot about the following post I wrote back in April about how I would change the way missionaries and members introduce the promise in Moroni 10:4. Can't believe I didn't think of that in the context of your question:

"We Need to Teach the Actual Promise in Moroni 10:4"


There is some important clarification in the comments, and one aspect relates directly to misinterpreting common scriptures. (Oliver Cowdery's burning in the bosom verse)