Heimskringla and historicity

May 8, 2008 | 47 comments
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There’s a reasonable chance that all efforts to situate the Book of Mormon over the last 180 years, geographically, culturally, and chronologically, are based on the Nephite version of the Donation of Constantine. But first, let’s talk about Odin.

In thirteenth-century Iceland, Snorri Sturlason compiled Heimskringla, an account of known history, and also his Edda, a collection of mythological lore and lyric conventions that every poet needed to know. In the first chapters of Heimskringla and in the preface to the Edda, Snorri addressed the question of where Odin and the other gods came from. Snorri knew the answer: they came from Troy. Connecting a noble family to Trojan ancestors had been a widespread European fashion since the Aeneid, and Snorri regarded Odin, ancestor of the Scandinavian royal houses, as an immigrant:

Near the earth’s centre was made that goodliest of homes and haunts that ever have been, which is called Troy, even that which we call Turkland….Odin had second sight, and his wife also; and from their foreknowledge he found that his name should be exalted in the northern part of the world and glorified above the fame of all other kings. Therefore, he made ready to journey out of Turkland, and was accompanied by a great multitude of people, young folk and old, men and women; and they had with them much goods of great price. And wherever they went over the lands of the earth, many glorious things were spoken of them, so that they were held more like gods than men. They made no end to their journeying till they were come north into the land that is now called Saxland; there Odin tarried for a long space, and took the land into his own hand, far and wide.

Even if there weren’t a mountain of historical evidence telling us otherwise, there would be good reason to be skeptical about the earliest sections of Snorri’s story, however earnestly he meant them at the time. Norway is a long way from the Aegean, and the thirteenth century a long time after the fall of Troy, and origin stories tend to serve contemporary ends. Scholarship on the settlement of Scandinavia does not often look to the Aeneid or Iliad for answers.

Which brings us to Lehi and the story of Nephite origins. Have you ever noticed that the historical thread of the Book of Mormon goes just a bit hazy for the four centuries between Jacob and Mosiah? Enos, Jarom, Omni, Amaron, Chemish, Abinadom, and Amaleki barely make an effort to fill in the gap.

And when history does start to happen again in the book of Mosiah, it doesn’t feel like we’ve rejoined Nephite culture after a long absence. Instead we find a society that seems to be emerging for the first time. Their geographic horizon is limited: there are lands they’ve heard of, but they don’t even know in what direction they lie. Various peoples wander out of the wilderness and join up, inlcuding Mulekites, the people of Limhi, and Alma’s flock. Known Nephite kings reach back all of one generation, from Benjamin to his father Mosiah. Nephite religion is a recent import through Alma, who also represents a tradition reaching back just a single generation, to Abinadi, making it even younger than the order of the priests of Noah. In a hostile environment of religious, political, and linguistic diversity, the Nephites are suffering a crisis of legitimacy.

The Small Plates of Nephi solve all those problems. According to these records, Nephite religion goes back to Nephi, who left Jerusalem centuries ago. The Nephite kings are the successors of Nephi, the first Nephite king. The story of Nephi’s travel in the wilderness also establishes Nephite claims on the land of Nephi, where Lamanites now hold sway. The Mosiah-era Nephites are not competing with diverse neighbors, but only with related descendants of the original colonizers of an empty land. Their preservation of Nephi’s language, lineage, and religion legitimates Nephite preeminence over the other peoples.

The Nephites know all of this, because they have the records, written by Nephi himself, on plates of gold. Isn’t that convenient?

Uh huh. Right.

People who want to take the Book of Mormon seriously as a historical document have to keep in mind the distinction between what a document says, and what actually happened. For 1 and 2 Nephi, there may be a gap between the two big enough to sail a barge through. Rather than conclusively identifying the Nephites as descendants of Semitic people who left Palestine around 587 B.C., “Nephi” may be the origin tale of a people who didn’t actually know all that much about where they came from.

There are advantages to this line of thought. It accords Book of Mormon historicity a similar status as Old Testament historicity (for example, the Exodus, Israel’s formative experience, still wants historical confirmation). Anxiety about DNA diminishes—all that needs to travel to the land of Nephi is not a ship full of immigrants, but a story, a narrative about origins. Post-Exilic thought in the Book of Mormon ceases to be a concern. For the armchair Book of Mormon archeologist, abandoning a commitment to 600 B.C. makes it easier to consider alternate possibilities.

There are disadvantages too, of course. A century of apologetic work on the Semitic roots of the Book of Mormon goes out the window. Because there is no check from additional records or artifacts, the whole thing is liable to slip through your fingers once you start revising Nephite history beyond what the text says. There’s no real method except a gut instinct for what feels like history, and what might be Nephite myth or propaganda, so a lot depends on what assumptions you make about history in general and Nephite history in particular.

Also, people who take the Book of Mormon seriously as history are likely to take it seriously as scripture as well, and there may be some concern that a revisionist Nephite history might lessen the value of the book’s spiritual insights. If we regard the first two books of Nephi as, among other things, a somewhat dubious title of ownership to the land of Nephi, does the Iron Rod turn to silly putty in our hands?

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47 Responses to Heimskringla and historicity

  1. Julie M. Smith on May 8, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    A little more fuel for your fire: we know that later BoM writers had no clue about their own history:

    Oh, that I could have had my days in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem, that I could have joyed with him in the promised land; then were his people easy to be entreated, firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity; and they were quick to hearken unto the words of the Lord— (Hel 7:7)

  2. Mark M on May 8, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Yes, Julie, I’ve laughed at that verse in Helaman myself. But upon further consideration, I’d be complaining too if the rampant organized crime had destroyed and overtaken the government, and the vast majority of Nephites had turned completely away from the faith (so that Lamanite prophets had to be sent to them).

    To the later Nephi (in Helaman), he must have thought, “How I’d love it if I only had to deal with quarrels among my sons, like Lehi did. I could handle their occasional death threats against Nephi!”

  3. Frank McIntyre on May 8, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Jonathan,

    This is interesting, but I don’t think it is really a better fit.

    I agree that there is a disconnect between 2nd Nephi and Mosiah, but since I think Nephi really wrote his testimony I am inclined to see it as a culture that dropped off into something a little over subsistence after Nephi’s day– which is not at all hard to believe. Enos, for example, is a noticeably less polished writer than Nephi. Also, a lot of that newness is because the people had actually just moved to a new land.

    Also, I don’t know that the Nephites had the small plates. They were a side branch, not the main historical record and Mormon talks about them like he just stumbled across them in the big pile.

    On the other hand, I also think Adam is a real man, so I guess that puts me in the wrong camp to appreciate the beauties of mytherating the past.

  4. Julie M. Smith on May 8, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Mark M, that’s a much more charitable reading. :)

  5. Jonathan Green on May 8, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    That’s a perfectly acceptable reading of the text, Frank. But then the question becomes: what do subsistence farmers or hunter/gatherers do with a stack of gold plates for four centuries? How much literacy do they retain, and how much of their own history do they forget? How much of their literate and religious culture can they sustain? We also have to keep in mind that what we read about Nephi is affected not just by what Nephi did, but by whatever is left of the historical tradition after those four centuries of subsistence, AND by what Mormon thinks he knows about Nephi several additional centuries later. (Unless you subscribe to the “Nephi wrote it–I believe it–that settles it” school of Book of Mormon historicity, in which case all your problems are solved.)

  6. Ryan Bell on May 8, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Very interesting post, Jonathan. I’ve always been intrigued by that gap, and agree that there’s a huge tonal shift from Nephi’s plates to the next set.

    It’s also interesting to note that the Lamanites seem to have developed their own narrative of legitimacy, stemming mostly from their claim that Laman was cheated from his rightful place of leadership by the conniving usurper Nephi. This story is very consistent with the story taken as true by the Nephites, though it obviously takes a different perspective. Notably, we see the Lamanites making such claims within the main body of the Book of Mormon, which means that either (1) they believed the founding Nephite narrative as much as the Nephites, (despite having incentives never to go along with such a story unless it were true), or (2) Nephite editors imported their own belief in the founding narrative into the mouths of Lamanite speakers. Given that option 2 is a little more far-fetched, it seems like the Lamanites’s belief in the founding narrative offers some corroboration for its truth.

    But man, I can definitely see how these unlettered wanderers in a strange land would feel a need to trace some heroic roots back to the motherland.

  7. Dave on May 8, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    Jonathan, I like the approach, as it accepts the obvious linkage that if the Book of Mormon is an authentically historical document (bracketing for the moment the translation process) then it should display the same inherent flaws as any other authentically historical document, in particular the sort of flaws that higher criticism has detected in the Bible.

    On the other hand, it is tricky to squeeze those “authentic fallacies” through the traditionally claimed translation process. That process is often held out to be an effective guarantee of truthfulness of the resulting text. If textual fallacies come through the divine translation process, then that process does not, in fact, provide any guarantee of the truthfulness or veracity of the translated text. I’m just not sure the concept of a divine translation process that produces accurate translation of false or misleading text is coherent. It seems inconsistent with the moral context of a divine translation process.

  8. Jamal on May 8, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    The claims of the authors themselves also need to be weighed. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Snorri didn’t claim to be copying the original words written by Odin but to be recording the oral traditions. Mormon however is claiming quite clearly that he’s got a separate original record in the small plates. Thus very clearly explaining why the rest of the Book of Mormon has such a different flavor as he claims to be just the editor, and making a much higher claim to historicity than even the Bible whose authorship is often vague at best.

  9. Bookslinger on May 8, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    I’m confident that we’ll get more of the story when the sealed 2/3rds part is revealed. And then, the whole set of large plates. And at some point, we’ll get to see the records of the other groups that the Lord led away from time to time, as per 2 Nephi 29:12-13

    Jonathan: (#5), When you say “what we read about Nephi”, are you referring to 1st and 2nd Nephi, or a few comments buried within the books after the Words of Mormon? According to Mormon himself, 1st Nephi through Omni are not abridged. Mormon included those plates as is.

    As to Nephi’s historicity, didn’t Joseph Smith also claim to have been visited by Nephi?

    But anyway, count me in the “Nephi wrote it-I believe it-that settles it” group.

  10. Frank McIntyre on May 8, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    “Correct me if I’m wrong, but Snorri didn’t claim to be copying the original words written by Odin but to be recording the oral traditions. ”

    indeed. The small plates purport to be the words of Nephi and Jacob, written by them. That answers a lot of questions if you accept it. If you don’t then you are in something of a mess.

  11. Jon W on May 8, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Interesting discussion. Certainly one gets a slant to the book based on Mormon’s selections. One does have to wonder however if the 116 pages would have given a different perspective on this issue, as that was using the larger plates.

  12. Last Lemming on May 8, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    I’ve heard and am sympathetic with Card’s theory that the Mulekites were not really Semitic, but I had never considered the same about the Nephites. How, if they had no Semitic roots, did they even know about Jerusalem to insert it into their origin myth? From the Mulekites?

  13. JWL on May 8, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    I am not clear what you are suggesting. If you are contending that the story of the Lehite migration is entirely fictional, how would MesoAmericans in the 2nd C BCE konw anything about Jerusalem, the history or law of Moses, etc. (in contrast to an educated medieval European who would have well had access to the basics of classical literature)? If you are contending that the Lehite migration was real but that Mosiah I or some collaborator wrote the books of Nephi and Jacob based on oral traditions, how would you explain the extensive Isaiah quotations or other elements showing fairly detailed familiarity with a 6th C BCE context? I think the stronger position is that the books of Nephi and Jacob are at least based on an original written source. I do believe that it is possible that they were revised in the course of being recopied (even metal plates are not going to last a thousand years).

    However I do agree that there is a disconnect between the Nephite societies described in Nephi/Jacob and the one in Mormon’s account. A lot of that disconnect can be ascribed to the passage of four centuries. However, I think the more salient point is the one made in comment #3. The later Nephite religious leaders do not seem to have been familiar with the small plates. I too get the impression that Mormon just stumbles across them in the library and includes them because to his surprise they jive with his authorial objective of recounting his people’s Christian history. Note also that the prophets of the later period never quote Nephi and Jacob, although they clearly cite pre-emigration prophets (Alma 34:7) to teach of Christ. Given their zeal to testify of Christ it is hard to believe that they would not have cited their civilization’s founding fathers’ powerful Christian witness if they had known of it. Their failure to do so strongly suggests that they were unfamiliar with the small plates, which probably laid unnoticed in a single copy in an ancient tongue buried with numerous other records carefully guarded by the scribal line so carefully described in the BoM.

  14. Bookslinger on May 8, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    It’s my understanding that the Small Plates of Nephi, were not “copied” into the Plates of the Book of Mormon. The Small Plates of Nephi were physically added to the stack that Mormon was writing. Presumably they were the same size, or close enough.

    Also, my understanding is that Mosiah doesn’t start exactly where the 116 translated pages leave off. That after losing the 116 pages of paper, Joseph was instructed to “skip ahead” to where the Small Plates were inserted because that is where the Small Plates “hook back up” into (the abridgement of) the Larger Plates.

    In other words, Joseph was instructed to “pick back up” farther down the time-line than the last sentence on the lost 116 pages of manuscript. Is that correct? Do we know that, or do we assume that, or am I remembering something wrong?

  15. Sterling on May 8, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Jonathan,

    Have you tried putting yourself in the shoes of the Nephites? Some of them felt like they were being to accept on faith the whole story of their ancestors coming from some far-away place called Jerusalem. What proof could their prophets offer that their people really came from another continent across the sea? Surely these questions crossed the mind of the rising generation of Nephites who were too young to remember or to have heard King Benjamin’s speech. Even Korihor ridiculed the foolish traditions of the Nephites and said they had no proof for their tales.

    And yet they had the brass plates. Certain Nephites had access to these ancient plates and saw their ancient writing with their own eyes. Zeniff was allowed to copy at least a portion of the plates when he led an expedition into the wilderness. Some Nephite defectors and dissenters took copies of the brass plates with them when they went to live among the Lamanites. So there was tangible proof for these people that the ancient stories about Israel and Jerusalem were true.

    But still there were doubters. When Jacob preached about the Messiah, Sherem challenged him. This apostate argued that Christ was not part of the brass plates religion. Nephite dissenters challenged the gospel of Christ preached by Nephite missionaries. Sometimes these Nephite missionaries were chased out of towns that were under the sway of Nephite apostates (like the Zoramites) who embraced parts of the brass plate religion but refused to recognize those who added to the scriptures.

    So did the Nephites doubt the historicity of the brass plates? Or did even their enemies the Lamanites concede that the origin story of coming from Jerusalem was true? If there were accusations that the Nephite religious leaders were making up myths, wasn’t it the prophecies of a future Jesus that troubled the dissenters and doubters in the Nephite and Lamanite societies?

  16. Sterling on May 8, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Julie and Frank,

    Have you thought of interpreting Hel 7:7 as a reflection on the amazing number of conversions that must have taken place in the New World between the time of Lehi’s landing and Sherem’s decision to meet Jacob for the first time and challenge his doctrine? Remember, during those years, the Nephite society is growing so much that Jacob is preaching against riches in the Nephite society, Nephi is serving as a king, and their society can afford to lose men in the wars they are fighting.

  17. XiGauss on May 8, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    I’ve wondered about the gap in the records as well.

    In Nephi’s record, he dates everything from the year they left Jerusalem. There is a noticeable lack of dates in the book of Mosiah (just Mosiah 6:4, 476 years after Lehi left), until the establishment of the reign of the judges in Mosiah 29, which then becomes the default year from which all other dates are calculated. I’ve wondered whether the Nephite civilization somehow forgot what year it was, somewhere during the hazy times of the book of Omni. This could partially explain the lack of dates in Mosiah.

    However, we do have Mormon’s 476 After Lehi date in Mosiah 6:4 to deal with, which can be done in the following way: Nephi prophesied of the Messiah’s birth coming six hundred years from when Lehi left Jerusalem (1 Ne 10:4, 19:8, 2 Ne 25:19). However, Alma the younger, who kept the records, didn’t know when it would be (“we know not how soon”, Alma 13:25). This could be read as Alma not knowing what year it was (or as Alma not knowing about these prophecies of Nephi, if nobody found and read the small plates in the big pile of records, as referenced above). Mormon refers to six hundred years after Lehi in 3 Ne 1:1, obviously referring to Nephi’s prophecies, so his dates in Mosiah could have been calculated by counting backward from here. (I’ve also wondered whether “six hundred” was meant as an exact number, or just as an estimate. But that’s another question.)

    It’s probably a rather unlikely theory, but I found it interesting.

  18. Clair on May 9, 2008 at 12:05 am

    #9. “As to Nephi’s historicity, didn’t Joseph Smith also claim to have been visited by Nephi?”

    From the Smith family stories, Joseph was familiar with details of the Nephite culture even before he received the plates. With visits from Nephi and inspiration through the seer stone during the translation process, Joseph could have gotten 1 & 2 Nephi directly from the author.

  19. Rick Grunder on May 9, 2008 at 12:19 am

    The Book of Mormon dictation (to Oliver Cowdery and others, April-May 1829, after the loss of the 116 pages) began with Mosiah. Then, after Joseph and Oliver moved from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, to the Whitmer cabin in Fayette, New York, the lingering problem of filling in the missing portion was addressed, meaning that 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon was dictated last (June 1829). The short portions, Enos, Jarom and Omni would thus appear to be last-minute fill-ins, and the Words of Mormon, a final, brief conjunction.

    See:

    —Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), 99, 223.

    —Milton V. Backman, “Book of Mormon, translation of,” in Dennis L. Largey, ed. Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003), 159

    —Brent Lee Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis,” in Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon; Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 395-444.

    —Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), various discussions.

    — I assume that when the relevant Volume 3 of The Critical Text of the Book of Mormon series (to discuss The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon) is published, Royal Skousen will concur with this dictation chronology, which is held generally by a number of important contributors from both faithful and critical camps.

  20. Jonathan Green on May 9, 2008 at 2:07 am

    Thanks for the comments. To respond to a few of them:

    Ryan, that’s a good point about Lamanite acceptance of the Nephite origin story. On the other hand, your option 2, that Nephite editors are putting words into their mouths, is not unknown in other literatures. In stories written by medieval Christians, you can find Jewish and Muslim characters who appear to accept the basics of Christian belief. (I don’t have time to look up an example now, so don’t take my word for it.)

    Dave, yes, a divine translation of historical fallacies is a bit of a pickle. But could they fit within the “errors of men” mentioned by the title page? I don’t get the sense from the Bible that accuracy of historical narrative is one of God’s overriding concerns in giving us scripture, even for such a central event as the Exodus.

    Last Lemming also brings up a good point. What reason would the Nephites have to call themselves Jews? I think that the least unlikely explanation for most historical records is that the events described, you know, actually happened, although a certain skeptical reserve is always in order. With origin tales, I’d say that the due amount of skepticism goes up a bit (see, for example, British Semiticism). A story of Palestinian origins makes sense for Semitic colonists, or for Christian Nephites. The latter does not necessarily require the former, however. In that case, you only need people willing to accept a story about themselves.

    JWL, I would not go so far as to contend anything. I make no assumptions about Mesoamerica and the second century B.C., although I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, either. You make a very interesting point concerning later Nephite failure to cite the text of Nephi and Lehi. One interpretation is, as you say, that the records were ignored and forgotten (but, you know, also written on gold). Another possibility is that they hadn’t been written yet. (One interesting question would be what exactly later writers think about Nephi. Can we find any disconnects between the Small and Large Plates? There’s probably evidence there for both sides of the question.)

    About the point that Bookslinger and others have made, that Mormon says he did not copy the Small Plates, but merely inserted them physically: remember, the choice to include them is already an editorial decision. Mormon includes them because they confirm his perspective of Nephite history.

    Sterling: It’s interesting how important the artifacts of Nephi are to the Nephites–the Brass Plates, the Liahona, the Sword of Laban. (So why did they overlook the Small Plates? Hmmm.) Artifacts as historical witnesses aren’t that unusual; that’s partly what the regalia of royalty was about. On the other hand, such monuments of collective memory aren’t beyond manipulation, either.

    XiGauss, your observation about dating is the same kind of thing that struck me about the Nephite uncertainty concerning geography. How do we explain that kind of loss of bearings between Nephi and Mosiah? I think we could assume at least a long period of subsistence, according to Frank’s suggestion, although that also has implications about how we think about Nephite culture.

    Rick, thanks much for the bibliography. I keep looking for a good source that would explain the relationship between the physical composition of the plates (or as much as we know about it), the translation process (or as much as we know about it), and the printed English text.

    One last point: the same kind of question might be raised about the Jaredites. Does Ether confirm the historical accuracy of the Tower of Babel as recorded in Genesis, or has that story come to serve as an origin narrative for a people who are not necessarily connected to it?

  21. Frank McIntyre on May 9, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Sterling, I wasn’t really part of the Hel 7:7 discussion above. But I think that is a good point. (Also, the fact that King Benjamin reports having the brass plates- written in Egyptian no less). I take the Jacob/Sherem thing as likely evidence that the Nephites were integrating natives (leftover Jaredites or whoever else God had brought here) into their culture even in those days.

  22. XiGauss on May 9, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Mormon pointed out his own questions about the accuracy of the plates he was working from in 3 Ne 8:1-2, where he gives a date of 33 years after the sign of Christ’s birth, but then adds a caveat that perhaps the good man who kept the records could have made a mistake in counting years.

  23. Karl on May 9, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    I went through a time when I was agnostic regarding the historicity of the BofM, but became absolutely convinced of the historical reality of Nephi, Lehi, etc. when some of the (to my eyes) marvelous historical evidences started coming out around Lehi\’s journey in the Arabian peninsula. I\’ve also been very impressed by the Hebraisms in the BofM and by the internal consistencies of the book. Finally, the textual analyses (particularly by Skousen) is very convincing (to me) in support of different authors\’ voices.

    In order to see BofM-pre-Mosiah as an origin myth, what do I do with these cherished ideas?

  24. Jonathan Green on May 10, 2008 at 1:49 am

    Karl, the easiest solution is to decide my interpretation is nonsense. Weigh the evidence and go with the one that makes most sense to you.

  25. Ugly Mahana on May 10, 2008 at 9:22 am

    I read the post as saying that even if the small plates are an accurate record, the conection between Lehi/Nephi culture/civilization and Mosiah’s culture may be mythical. Like Karl, I prefer to think that the small plates are authentic, but still find quite interesting the idea that this connection may be tenuous.

  26. Ugly Mahana on May 10, 2008 at 9:22 am

    I read the post as saying that even if the small plates are an accurate record, the conection between Lehi/Nephi culture/civilization and Mosiah’s culture may be mythical. Like Karl, I prefer to think that the small plates are authentic, but still find quite interesting the idea that this connection may be tenuous.

  27. Hans Hansen on May 10, 2008 at 9:55 am

    Let’s hear it for Snorri and his Heimskringla. The names he comes up with for some of the legendary Norwegian kings are much more interesting than the BOM. My personal favorite? Halfdan the Generous with Money but Stingy with Food!

  28. JWL on May 10, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    One doesn’t have to go so far as to say that the connection of the 2nd C BCE “Nephites” to the original Lehites is “mythical” to find some valuable insight in Jonathan’s suggestion. Even if the small plates were real and the family of Mosiah I possessed them in the 2nd C BCE (along with other historical artifacts such as the sword of Laban and the Liahona, see Mosiah 1:16-17), one can still argue that the connection was tenuous, diluted by migration, time and extensive intermixture with other peoples. This can explain a number of interesting points, such as the one I made above about the apparent lack of detailed familiarity with the small plates and the constant internal divisions and the clear presence of other ideological traditions in the later Nephite society. Perhaps another helpful analogy would not be an obviously invented and impossible descent of Scandinavians from ancient Trojans but rather the the modern United States, which traces a direct ideological and cultural line back to England even though a majority of Americans don’t have a single ancestor from old Albion and there are obviously many other influences which have formed modern America. Instead of the Heimskringla, perhaps Mormon’s book might be compared to a highly Anglo-centric history of the United States.

  29. Ardis Parshall on May 10, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    The president of a private school in Salt Lake City claims that his school isn’t violating trademarks of UCLA, including its Trojan mascot, because said president belives he is related to the Trojan king Priam. “I’d be happy to give you that lineage,” Jones said. “I’ve got a nice little chart going all the way back.”

    I do believe that 1 and 2 Nephi are historical [insert tongue in cheek] and only in part because I find it hard to believe that anybody inventing a fictional heroic founder would design the humorless and unlikeable Nephi personality as a founder [remove tongue from cheek]. Still, positing the later Nephites’ unfamiliarity with their origins due to the difficulties of wilderness survival, including a falling off of education — and it need be only a widespread unfamiliarity, not the non-recording, of their origins historical, political and religious — goes a long way to explain the disconnects.

  30. California Condor on May 10, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Wow… this is like Advanced Placement / Honors Sunday School. This theory is radical… and renegade… but I like it.

    Here’s more fuel to the fire: Enos– Nephi I’s nephew– uses language implying that the Nephites were a huge population (Enos 1:22). This doesn’t seem plausible after just 2-3 generations.

    Plus, Enos died about 169 years after his dad was born. That means Jacob would have been an old man when he fathered Enos, or Enos lived to an implausible age a la the Old Testament.

  31. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 10, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    There are a combination of tight links between the Small Plates–such as the verbatim quote by Alma the younger in Alma 36 of Nephi’s description of Lehi’s throne theophany in 1 Nephi 1–and apparent widespread ignorance by later Nephites of specific things Nephi prophesied, such as the night without darkness and Christ’s actual visit to the Nephites, which were the subject of Samuel the Lamanite’s sermon on the wall. This seems to indicate that the Small Plates were not in fact widely read among the Zarahemla Nephites, which I think undercuts the notion that they were some kind of national mythos, and in any way invented for that purpose.

  32. California Condor on May 10, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Raymond Takashi Swenson,

    Why would the Alma 36 “numberless concourses of angels” quote weaken the mythical Lehi theory?

    Why couldn’t the Zarahemlans have let the myth fall by the wayside?

  33. Hans Hansen on May 10, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    #29. “The president of a private school in Salt Lake City claims that his school isn’t violating trademarks of UCLA, including its Trojan mascot, because said president belives he is related to the Trojan king Priam. “I’d be happy to give you that lineage,” Jones said. “I’ve got a nice little chart going all the way back.”

    Them be fighting words, lady. Speaking as a loyal alumnus of the UCLA BRUINS, it’s “that other school across town” that I WILL NOT name, that claims the Trojans, for Pete’s sake! It also means that the school president is a total idiot!

  34. Ardis Parshall on May 10, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Eeek, Hans! The school president may be a near-total idiot, but the horrible, heinous, and unforgiveable error in #29 was mine, not his. Of course you’re right — it’s the unnamed school which poached the initials of the University of South Carolina that chose as a mascot the LOSING side in the Greeks’ war with Troy. My head hangs in shame.

    Go, Bruins.

  35. Chris Grant on May 11, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    People who want to take the Book of Mormon seriously as a historical document have to keep in mind the distinction between what a document says, and what actually happened.

    Sorry for being dense, but I don’t get this. Why is it necessary to doubt something in order to take it seriously?

  36. anon on May 11, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    Any account of an event is biased, even if the author is as open minded as humanly possible. Most accounts are very one-sided, as is 1&2 Nephi and virtually the entire OT. Also, much is lost in any account, as an account can only convey an aspect of what actually happened. Hence why I think the concept that some have commented on here that such \”errors\” would be cleaned up during JS\’s translation process is rather silly, particularly because it is unlikely Moroni et al have any better understanding of the events chronicled than when they were alive. I\’ll add that such a clean-up would render the book less credible, not more. I think this is why witnesses come in twos and threes. Anyone citing one BofM scripture w/o further back-up, as many Mormons love to do, is usually full of it.

  37. JWL on May 11, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Re: #35

    Chris –

    I believe the point Jonathan is trying to make is that any record made by humans, even inspired humans, is going to reflect their best, but limited and human, understanding of what they are writing about. This means that they will have limited factual information (especially when they are writing about events second-hand such as history from before their time), certain biases and prejudices (even the best of us), and will necessarily make editorial choices based on their objectives in producing the work at hand. Readers alert to these factors and familiar with how they have played out in other ancient historical writing can see these same factors at work in the BoM. The presence of these elements in the BoM actually attests to its authenticity as an ancient document with complex and multivariate origins as opposed to coming from a single modern author. Note that the aspects of the BoM which give rise to this view (such as Jonathan’s example in the original post) have to do with the historical, literary and social parts of the Book. Nothing in this approach detracts from the doctrinal messages. In fact it affirms the authenticity of their ancient origins.

  38. Hans Hansen on May 12, 2008 at 2:35 am

    Apology accepted, Ardis. Of course over in Europe I was asked what my Yew-cla tee-shirt stood for!

  39. Chris Grant on May 12, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Are either of the following what was intended by the sentence I quoted in #35?

    (1) “People who want to take principles of historical skepticism seriously with respect to the Book of Mormon have to keep in mind the distinction between what a document says, and what actually happened.”
    (2) “People who want to consider the Book of Mormon skeptically as a historical document have to keep in mind the distinction between what a document says, and what actually happened.”

    Leaders of the Church seem to want us to “take the Book of Mormon seriously as a historical document”, but I sense little encouragement from them to engage in skeptical speculation about how it might incorporate forgeries on the order of the Donation of Constantine. Those who, because of profession or hobby, are inclined to treat the Book of Mormon this way are, of course, welcome to do so, but it cannot reasonably be maintained that such treatment is what seriousness demands.

  40. Stirling on May 12, 2008 at 11:01 am

    I wouldn’t be too hard on the Jones referred to in 29,33,34, as in at least the 1920s and 30s many Mormon believed that their family tree included both Priam, King of Troy, and the Norse god Odin. This belief appears to have been based on church-published lesson manuals that repeated folkore pubished in contemporary “Anglo Israelism/British Israelism” publications.

  41. Dave on May 12, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Uhh, I don\’t have any experience with Mormonism from the 1920s, granted. But, Priam, Odin? Do you have any cites?

  42. JWL on May 12, 2008 at 11:17 am

    Chris –

    You are the one inserting the words “skeptically” and “skepticism” into the discussion. People who suggest underlying complexities in the BoM as a historical document are not being skeptical in the same way that biblical critics are because these folks accept the BoM as an authentically historical document. Doing so requires them to accept its miraculous (and therefore divine) origins which sets them wholly apart from the biblical critics.

  43. Stirling on May 12, 2008 at 11:27 am

    See, for example, the book Seeking after Our Dead: Our Greatest Responsibility – a Course of Lessons for Study in Classes in Genealogy, Section III, “Where we must seek,” subsection “Ancient Genealogies,” published by the Church’s Genealogical Society of Utah.
    More accessibly, the last several paragraphs of this bycommonconsent.compost on British Israelism within Mormonism discuss this.

  44. Jonathan Green on May 12, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Chris, what I meant by the sentence is pretty much what JWL has said. Taking the Book of Mormon seriously as history means treating it as one would treat any other primary source, as a document reflecting particular perspectives rather than the final word (on historical questions, at least).

    It’s entirely possible not to take that step, either from a faithful or a skeptical perspective. The skeptic would say that the book is fraud to begin with, and so it makes no sense to treat it as a historical document. The faithful perspective is similar to Dave’s objection above, namely that the nature of Joseph Smith’s translation doesn’t permit the text to be as fallible as other historical documents. We can still interpret the text theologically or as literature, but we can’t use it to do history.

  45. John C. on May 13, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Jonathan,
    I haven’t read the comments carefully, but my question is that if Mosiah or Mormon “created” this history, how did they know so much about Jerusalem? Why would they situate themselves in Jerusalem? Can you have this history without some knowledge of the Ancient Near East? If you don’t have anyone actually coming from the old world to the new, why or how do they spontaneously create links to it?

  46. queuno on June 1, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Southern California, not South Carolina, unless Ardis is *really* tweaking Hans now… ;)

  47. Ardis Parshall on June 1, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    (g) The school-that-must-not-be-named *is* in southern California, queuno, but, going along with Hans’s low opinion of that California school, I note that it is so unoriginal that it can’t even come up with its own initials, but uses those of the school in South Carolina.

    Lars Glenson would have been much clearer, I’m sure.