Holy scripture, holy myth (part II- the Book of Mormon)

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.


4 thoughts on “Holy scripture, holy myth (part II- the Book of Mormon)

  1. Thanks for this series of posts. For what it’s worth, I didn’t think Part I was too long.I think most Latter-day Saints could reconcile their faith with a non-literal Exodus or worldwide flood, although the proposition does raise some questions (for instance, why would God refer to Moses parting the Red Sea in D&C 8 if it didn’t actually happen?).But what about when it comes to, say, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Although we’re not exactly unaccustomed to viewing that story in a symbolic sense, part of our theology seemingly rests on the fall of a literal Adam and Eve in a literal Garden of Eden (think 2 Nephi 2).I think this is what scares people about scriptural non-literalism–it feels like a slippery slope.Personally, I’m not much of a literalist. But I must admit that trying to separate myth from history is messy business. I think a lot of people would rather avoid that mess and err on the side of literalism.

  2. Posts reconciling traditional LDS positions with modern biblical studies are always good reading. It’s strange that the traditional LDS position clearly rejects inerrancy yet endorses strict literalism in many cases where biblical scholars and even middle-of-the-road Christians prefer a figurative or mythical reading.But even CES, the source and support for the hyperliteralist reading that pervades LDS curriculum materials, is willing to depict the story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as figurative (see the OT student manual, section 6-8, p. 76). So everyone holds some textual accounts to be literal and some to be figurative or mythical. Tough to find definitive LDS statements on the issue.

  3. I agree that it is messy. There are tons of stories that we could throw out tomorrow with little or no consequences. Others present a more difficult issue- like Adam and Eve that you mention.As far as God using these stories in subsequent revelation, I can see it as just another example of God speaking to mankind in their language. These stories have acquired moral and spiritual legitimacy for us and he is just using a shortcut in guiding us to more truth. It would probably really throw the whole Gospel project for a loop if he set us straight on all the historical issues.A useful analogy to keep in mind would be that 1st Presidency statement from back in the 1970s, which talked about how all great world religious leaders (Muhammed, Confucius, etc.) had been given some portion of the light of truth. The fact that God did not give them the full Gospel does not make him a liar, just a strategist.

  4. Adam,I totally agree with what you’re saying. Many scriptural stories that might not be historical are still valuable, and I can see why God would want to use them in teaching us. But I can also understand literalists’ anxiety; the line between myth and history is pretty fuzzy.I think that adopting even a moderately non-literalist approach provides for a lot of flexibility. Brigham Young and others have thought that our religion embraces all truth (including science). We don’t subscribe to formal creeds, and we have an open canon of revelation. At least on paper, this makes for a pretty dynamic religion.But strict literalism may make it difficult to accommodate new ideas. Often, the result is that new truths are simply discarded. I mean, even though scientists have thoroughly refuted the notion of a “young earth,” many biblical literalists persist in believing that God created this planet 6,000 years ago.

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