The Book of Mormon poses a thorny problem for assumptions about the history of scriptural texts, especially if it isn’t true.
The Book of Mormon claims to be just what textual scholarship says the Old Testament and New Testament are: a compilation of writings from diverse sources that reached its final form through a long process of accretion and assimilation. The Book of Alma claims to have as many or more authors as has been argued for the Book of Isaiah. For Mormon devotional scripture study, this might suggest a degree of openness towards the documentary hypothesis and other critical work in biblical studies. However, the idea that the project of critical textual inquiry finds support in a book written on golden plates and revealed by an angel to a New England farm boy is more than a little weird.
Take away the golden plates and the angel, though, and the problem just gets worse. In that case, we’re left with the product of a few months of human creativity that mimics a thousand years of editorial intervention. The Old Testament and the New Testament feel like texts with long and complicated histories to me, with gaps and seams where the parts donâ€™t match up perfectly. When I read the Book of Mormon, I find a similarly complex texture, with places where the contradictions havenâ€™t been entirely smoothed out. But if Joseph Smith could simulate a complex textual history, why not Moses or Matthew?
My sympathies lie with the textual critics, but I have no good answer to the questions raised by the prophetic career of Joseph Smith. Does positing a multitude of authors for Isaiah and sources for the Pentateuch needlessly multiply explanations, when all that is necessary is one ambitious author? When we do historical criticism, are we peering back in time into the prehistory of the text, or only into the mind of a creative author? And can we reliably tell the difference? Are our sacred texts the products of complicated histories, like Mormonâ€™s editorial work would suggest, or are they outbursts of (to use a neutral term) inspiration, like Joseph Smithâ€™s work of spring 1829 would imply?