Sorting voices from the dust

November 19, 2007 | 17 comments
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When we read the Book of Mormon, whose voice do we think we are hearing? Trying to answer that question, I think, is one of the essential moves in a Mormon mode of interpretation.

Consider, for example, 2 Nephi 2:17, where Lehi pauses to speculate on Lucifer’s origins:

And I, Lehi, according to the things which I have read, must needs suppose that an angel of God, according to that which is written, had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God.

On the face of it, it’s an interesting case of Lehi creating scripture by reading, contemplating, and reasoning in order to fill gaps in existing scripture. Remarkably, the story inside the text creates a mirror image of the story outside the text, as observed by a skeptic: Inside the text, Lehi reads and contemplates scriptural writings, and produces his own expansion on them (which, we can assume, receives God’s sanction and itself becomes scripture). The skeptical observer of history sees Joseph Smith contemplating the Bible and producing an expansion on the biblical text (which a proponent of the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction might regard as also having received God’s sanction).

So when we read 2 Nephi 2:17, whose voice do we hear?
God?
The prophets whose writings appeared on the Brass Plates?
Lehi, reading the Brass Plates and expanding on them?
Nephi, recording his father’s words to his brother Jacob?
Mormon, redacting the writings of Nephi?
Some scribe or editor in between Nephi and Mormon?
Joseph Smith, translating?
Oliver Cowdery or one of the other scribes who aided Joseph Smith?
Biblical or other religious writings that shaped Joseph Smith’s worldview?

Like any interesting question, the answer isn’t obvious.

Reading the Book of Mormon fundamentally differs from reading the Bible in that devotional practice requires the reader to find unity in the Bible and its books, but multiplicity in the Book of Mormon. The Documentary Hypothesis and text-critical approaches to Old Testament prophets and Pauline epistles are perceived as threatening because they cast doubt on traditions of Mosaic or Isaiahn or Pauline unitary authorship. For the Book of Mormon, however, detecting a multitude of authors is the stuff of apologetics. Whether or not the methodology is convincing, word-print studies are founding documents of LDS interpretive criticism.

Separating out the voices we hear in the Book of Mormon is an interpretive instinct that can be brought to bear on secular literature. If you have spent any time watching an author at work, it should be clear that writing is not a monologue, but rather a process of ongoing conversation with numerous other people. We usually, mistakenly, think of writing as the product of a single mind, but language is communal, and, more importantly, the enterprise of publication is too expensive to leave to the taste of a single person. Authors write, but published authors draft and revise their work based on input from friends, family, critique group members, agents, editors, marketing vice presidents, and any number of other people. Our current notions of authorship and intellectual property do not do justice to the complex conversations that comprise a published book. Who knows if any kind of interpretive method could isolate the interlocutors and analyze the multiple textual layers in any but a narrow text-critical sense–but reading the Book of Mormon is a good way to start thinking about it.

And thus concludes the paper I won’t be giving at the next conference of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities.

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17 Responses to Sorting voices from the dust

  1. LDS Anarchist on November 17, 2007 at 2:15 am

    When I read 2 Ne. 2: 17, I hear Lehi\’s voice crying from the dust.

  2. Ray on November 19, 2007 at 1:39 am

    Fwiw, please don’t respond to #2. It’s not worth it.

  3. Ardis Parshall on November 19, 2007 at 1:45 am

    Former #2 has been removed not because of its content but because the address left behind the scenes is a forgery.

  4. Ardis Parshall on November 19, 2007 at 1:50 am

    Fascinating, Jonathan. You listed far more layers than I jotted down before reading your list.

    Another element of the “complex conversations” in secular literature occurs to me as I write footnotes tonight for one of my projects: An author often responds to previous writers on a topic, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not. And he may also “respond” before-the-fact to criticism or arguments he anticipates receiving after a work is read.

    This is a fun idea to think about, Jonathan. Thanks.

  5. Jacob J on November 19, 2007 at 2:07 am

    Nice post Jonathan. I think you are right that coming to grips with this question is fundamental to how we interpret the BofM. It is interesting that in the text, Lehi puts this forward as a novel interpretation. Blake Ostler discusses this passage briefly in his Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion paper (here is a link bottom of pg 85 and onto 86) and points out that the ideas of the devil as a fallen angel and also as the serpent in the Garden of Eden (next verse) are both novel interpretations which would not have been familiar to pre-exilic Hebrews.

    You raise an interesting question. How do you answer it for yourself?

  6. Ray on November 19, 2007 at 2:26 am

    Frankly, Jacob, that is one of the reasons I have a hard time rejecting that passage as coming from Lehi. Positioning it as a unique and new understanding makes very little sense coming from Joseph Smith, since it is highly unlikely that he would have known that it would not have been familiar. The more obvious construct would have been to assert both concepts as common knowledge – “as past prophets clearly taught.” There are so many of these little examples, that I hear the voices of the prophets who we are told wrote them.

  7. Ty on November 19, 2007 at 3:26 am

    I always hear Lloyd Newell\’s voice when I read the scriptures…

  8. john f. on November 19, 2007 at 6:41 am

    Great post Jonathan. I particularly enjoyed the irony you highlighted that whereas certain approaches to the Bible attempt to emphasize a fleeting unity of origin despite such messy possibilities such as the Documentary Hypothesis, enthusiasts for the Book of Mormon actively search for evidence of multiple authorship rather than a unity of origin because the existence of multiple authors weighs against authorship by Joseph Smith.

  9. Loyd on November 19, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    When I read aloud (or in my head), I usually hear my voice.

    With that said, I think another layer is the one which I create as my own experiences and inspiration influence that which I read. For example, my interest in liberation theology and a theology of community cause me to see scripture much differently than most my peers in sunday school.

  10. BHodges on November 19, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    I think Givens explores this slightly in By the Hand of Mormon. Nice post.

  11. Jonathan Green on November 19, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Good catch, Loyd. The voice of the reader belongs in there too, somewhere.

  12. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) on November 19, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    There’s also a theory (attempting to explain the English language pecularities of the Book of Mormon and also account for apparent “tight control” of the translation) that between Moroni and Joseph Smith there may have been someone else involved. So there’s another possible layer to add. :-)

  13. Jacob M on November 20, 2007 at 7:04 pm

    9 – My internal voice sounds nothing like my external voice, so that’s even another voice.

    Intriguing post is all I can say for now.

  14. Lazarus on November 20, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    Intriguing, Christopher B. I’ve never heard of that one. Can you tell us more about it?

  15. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) on November 21, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    I don’t have the references handy, but the gist of it is this: Royal Skousen has been working on the critical edition of the Book of Mormon and believes he has found evidence of two intriguing things: 1) There was substantial “tight control” of the translation; in other words, Joseph was essentially given word by word what to dictate to the scribe; and 2) The English language of the Book of Mormon, while we typically call it King James English, actually may be pre-KJV English. Someone (sorry, can’t recall who at this point) developed a theory that there was actually another translator (a translated or resurrected being) who learned English pre-KJV and translated the Reformed Egyptian into pre-KJV English, and that this translated text was what Joseph read from the stone he looked into while translating.

    This seems a bit far-fetched to me, but the point is that there is enough complexity in the authorial layers of the Book of Mormon that we really don’t know whether there might be more layers somewhere else…

  16. Mark Ashurst-McGee on November 21, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    I hear it in cadence, as punctuated by Grandin pressman John H. Gilbert and as edited in 1837 and again in 1840 by Joseph Smith.

    I would like to hear it in Egyptian or even better in Lehite Hebrew. Unfortunately, I hear it in English instead. Fortunately, I hear it in English instead of any translation from English.

    Is there any evidence of Mormon or Moroni editing the small plates?

  17. Jonathan Green on November 21, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    Mark, I was wondering if anyone was going to notice that. It’s true, I shoehorned them into the example when they technically don’t belong.