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The Figurative Bible and the Literal Book of Mormon

On another thread, BCC contributor and Sunstone editor managing editor John Hatch makes a very interesting observation. He writes:

I’ve spoken to plenty of Church members who are more than willing to accept the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor. I recently spoke to a friend who is a bishop who told me he loved Abraham, even though he may not have existed, and if he did exist, the stories the Bible attributes to him most likely didn’t happen. Yet I suspect my friend would be most uncomfortable saying the same thing about Nephi, or Alma, for example.

Indeed, there is a lot about the Bible that people may view as figurative. The extreme ages of Methusalah and his kin, the flood, Jonah, Balaam, and other stories are often viewed as figurative or allegorical rather than literal.

John raises an interesting point. Why are we so willing to accept the idea of Biblical allegory, but unlikely to do so for the Book of Mormon? For example, I have a hard time imagining someone saying, “I like the Nephi story as a metaphor. I don’t think he really existed, but the story makes several good points.” (Of course, there are also many church members who believe that the Bible is generally a literal, inerrant text. This view is easier to reconcile with the idea of literality in the Book of Mormon).

I can’t pretend I know the answer to this question. I did have a few thoughts about it:

1. The Book of Mormon’s veracity depends much more strongly on the literal nature of its underlying facts. For example, if Abraham did not exist, we still can construct a coherent narrative for the existence of the Bible itself; it may have been written by Jewish priests who used the idea of Abraham as a metaphor. On the other hand, if Nephi didn’t exist, how the heck did the Book of Mormon come into being?

2. The Book of Mormon is, for believing members, of more recent and more trustworthy vintage than the Bible. It is the most correct of any book. That idea may be hard to reconcile with the thought that much of it is allegory.

3. The Book of Mormon translation story is itself evidence of miracle. If we’re willing to accept the one, it seems more natural to accept others. I.e., it is an unusual combination to posit that

“the characters of Nephi, Alma, and Captain Moroni were composite mythical figures used by Nephite priests. King Benjamin himself was a good historical man, but not really a prophet as later generations may have believed. Oh, and the whole bundle was miraculously translated by Joseph Smith.”

4. Finally, the Book of Mormon has not been subjected to the types of critiques the Bible has. It has generally been subjected to “it’s false!” or “it’s true!” sorts of arguments. It has also been around for a much shorter period of time. Perhaps more time and scholarship will allow for development of middle-of-the-road ideas like non-literal nature of some of its characters.

Anyway, those were some preliminary thoughts on my part. But I think this is a very interesting question, and illustrates some of the important differences in how church members view the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

Posted by on May 2, 2004.

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Categories: Scriptures

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Times and Seasons has been the premier source for Mormon blogging since its inception late 2003. The blog was founded by four LDS attorneys (Matt Evans, Adam Greenwood, Nathan Oman, and Kaimipono Wenger) after a series of e-mail discussions, at a time when the LDS blog world consisted of a few solo blogs and one […]more →