My wife tells me that the previous post was too long and that the lack of comments doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting, only that people were too exhausted by reading to the end in order to comment. So I have chosen to break up the promised Part II into several sub-parts which should appear in the next few days/weeks. For those of you who missed it, in Part I, I discussed how there is a school of OT scholarship that holds that several narratives in the OT are not in fact historical, but rather mythical. I am primarily interested in how this affects LDS and our particular beliefs about these narratives and their value. Now I intend to address how the Book of Mormon might address these issues.
The first thing to point out is that the Nephites obviously believed many of the challenged narratives that I discussed in part I, namely the story of the Exodus and Joseph in Egypt. I guess that it all goes back to exactly what was on the plates that Nephi got from Laban. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble but chances are it was not the OT as we now have it, or even our present OT + a couple of new books like Zenos and Zenock. First of all, many of the later prophets did not even live until during and after the Babylonian Captivity (think Ezra, Ezequiel). Second, even the extant OT “books” would have appeared in some other form at that time. Some of Isaiah might not have existed (Deutero-Isaiah, and the possible Third Isaiah). In the Pentateuch, the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) sources would be present, but the Deuteronomist (D) source would be quite recent, and the Priestly (P) source is not composed for another two hundred years after Lehi and his family leave (though the P source contains lots of genealogy and the brass plates evidently had some of that). As a side note, I think that the later “pride cycle” organization of Mormon’s recompilation of the Nephite sources shows familiarity with the Deuteronomistic History, so I think that a good deal of the D source is on the plates. The Joseph novella was its own distinct source and probably was composed early enough to make it onto the plates. So I do not believe that there are any problems believing that the OT stories referred to in the Book of Mormon could have been on the plates at the time that Nephi got them from Laban.
Nephi and Lehi obviously believed these stories, since they are cited extensively as evidence of God’s existence, his power, and his concern for the people of Israel. The Exodus, and particularly God’s mighty acts in delivering captive Israel from Egypt and bringing them into Canaan, are frequently used in this way. Joseph’s prophecies (later received by Joseph Smith alongside the materials that would become the Book of Abraham) are said by Lehi to be among the greatest ever. However, just because Lehi and Nephi believed that these events occurred is not irrefutable evidence of their historicity. Neither would have lived until at least 600-1000 years after either event, and the narratives and their place in Jewish lore would be well established and settled by the time Lehi and Nephi came about. To paraphrase another blogger, just because Pres. Monson tells a story about Jean Valjean in conference does not mean that Jean Valjean really existed. As I alluded to in my previous post, I don’t think that this fact either destroys the OT or the BoM as a useful source to gain knowledge about the Gospel or our Heavenly Father. These possibly mythical narratives arise as a method to teach deeply-held spiritual values, and they do that just as well as myth as if they were historical. Incidentally, if Lehi and Nephi believed that the narratives were true and taught them as such, it goes without saying that succeeding generations (i.e. Alma) would feel free to quote them as such.