Relics

December 9, 2008 | 17 comments
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The Book of Mormon is a reliquary in prose. In some extensive sections and at some critical moments, what drives the narrative is the question: how did a set of golden plates, a steel sword, a ball of curious workmanship, a breastplate, and two translucent stones end up inside a stone box buried in a hill in the state of New York? For a religion that attaches little to no significance to relics, it’s striking that large sections of our distinctive book of scripture are concerned with the provenance—the origin and the later cultural significance—of a particular set of holy artifacts. (I’m taking the inventory from D&C 17:1, although other sources differ on the precise contents.)

To consider a typical example of a late medieval relic description, we might consider the 1487 Most Worthy and Imperial Relic in Nuremberg. The tract describes both relics associated with Christ and various saints as well as objects associated with Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, who brought the majesty of empire from Italy and Constantinople to the Germans, and the tract also describes how both secular and religious society attend the annual veneration of the relics. That is, the tract aimed both to describe the relics, their origin, and the manner of their arrival in Nuremberg, as well as to support the legitimacy of the relics and the social order in which their veneration took place. But relics could also inspire more imaginative writing as well. The presence in Trier of Christ’s seamless coat for which Roman soldiers cast lots at the Crucifixion is first documented in the year 1196, nearly simultaneous with the writing of the minor medieval German epic Orendel which provides a more imaginative account of the Holy Robe’s route to Trier. While the Robe had particular significance for the sociopolitical status of medieval Trier, and the epic legitimates the bishopric and its prize relic, the narrative is quite a bit more extensive than a mere relic description.

We can also find relic description in the Book of Mormon. The book of 1 Nephi spends some time on visions and moral teaching, but it interrupts the migration out of Jerusalem with lengthy narrative excurses to explain the provenance of four objects: a set of brass plates, a steel sword, a wooden bow, and the ball or directors known as the Liahona. After telling these stories about objects, we hear no more about the bow (if the story was not actually intended to explain the absence of a steel bow in the first place). The Brass Plates, which also don’t make it to Cumorah, are nevertheless the central exhibit in 2 Nephi and are described even hundreds of years later in the Nephite narrative as valuable records whose transmission is watched over by prophets and kings. The brass plates provide the pattern for other Nephite records and the foundation of Nephite literacy. The sword of Laban and the Liahona, far from passing into the depths of history, are similarly emphasized much later in Nephite civilization, and they are among the last artifacts that Moroni consigns to the earth. Laban’s sword, wielded by their kings and the basis on which other weapons are patterned, seems to be some kind of insignia of rulership, and the other artifacts, including the Brass Plates, the Liahona, and the stones set in a bow, are tokens of religious legitimacy.

The most interesting case is the Urim and Thummim, the stones set in a bow. The sole narrative accomplishment of the Book of Ether is to explain their provenance. Ether has always been something of a puzzle, because the Book of Mormon would be much simpler without it. Nephi takes pains to claim that the Promised Land is empty; Ether says it was teeming with millions. Interaction between Jaredites and Nephites seems either minimal or minimized, and overall Ether adds very little to the story that the Book of Mormon is trying to tell. If space on the plates is limited (and space on gold plates is always limited), it would have been much easier to omit it entirely. (Or, if Joseph Smith was inventing the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth, why complicate matters by introducing a prior civilization partially coexistent with the Nephites, which requires curious explanations for why the two never meet?) But we need Ether to explain where the Urim and Thummin came from, and we need to know where they come from because the Urim and Thummim were part of the Nephite time capsule that Joseph Smith dug up.

If we recognize that these sections of the Book of Mormon are primarily stories about the provenance of particular artifacts, there are some interpretive consequences. If 1 Ne. 3-4 is a story about the provenance of a sword and some inscribed plates that held special significance for the Nephites, then we’re probably mistaken to read the story for insights into Nephi’s psychology, or for general principles concerning the treatment of drunken enemies. The story legitimates Nephite ownership of the Sword of Laban and the Brass Plates, and their central significance in Nephite society, and also explains their presence in the aforementioned stone box.

Critics often find the golden plates and the magic spectacles to be the most ridiculous of Joseph Smith’s outlandish claims, but paying attention to the significance of relics in the Book of Mormon shows that those ridiculous objects are really one of the thorniest problems for skeptics and require some explanation. Why would Joseph Smith spend so much narrative energy to explain the origin of an object that doesn’t actually exist? It would have been easier for him to claim merely to have taken dictation directly from Moroni. The various relic chapters of the Book of Mormon reinforce the solidity of the plates as a physical object. Whatever their source or content, Joseph Smith had something shiny and metallic, and he was confident that he could show it, and its companion objects, to others if allowed. I think we can move the leftward goalpost down the field a bit, from regarding the Book of Mormon as a pious fraud or inspired fiction, to regarding it at a minimum as pious archeology, or an inspired artifact appraisal.

The relics in the Book of Mormon might also provide a way for us to make peace with peep stones. It’s disconcerting to think of Joseph Smith using a stone as some kind of magical linguistic telescope for translating the plates, when we’d prefer a prophet to use the Urim and Thummim as a holy linguistic telescope for the same thing. Perhaps the mistake lies in thinking of Joseph Smith looking through the stone at undecipherable writing as if through a kaleidoscope, when we should think of Joseph Smith only looking through the stone, or at the stone. If Joseph Smith’s seer stone was a Native American gorget or some other treasure yielded up by the earth, then there is perhaps no essential difference between looking at a seer stone, and looking at a set of golden plates, and finding inspiration for writing the religious history of the people who produced them, and of the lands they inhabited. The seer stone was in this sense the same kind of sacred relic in search of a history as the Sword of Laban, the Liahona, or the Urim and Thummim were.

In any case, in faith traditions where relics play a greater role, the technical term for moving a holy object from one place to another, appropriately enough for the prophetic career of Joseph Smith, is ‘translation.’

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17 Responses to Relics

  1. Ray on December 10, 2008 at 1:01 am

    Fascinating, Jonathan. Truly fascinating.

  2. Rob Perkins on December 10, 2008 at 3:33 am

    I’ve read the Book of Mormon many times. What evidence is there from the text that Nephi took pains to point out that the land was empty?

  3. Adam Greenwood on December 10, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Wow. I get the Book of Mormon from another angle now.

    Addendum: maybe we should think of the Book of Mormon not just as another relic, but as something like the Holy Grail. Not everyone can see it, only the pure in heart. Literally, in the case of the 3 witnesses, metaphorically in the case of we moderns, who have a true vision of the Book obscured by their will to disbelieve. Also, like the grail, its a receptacle of Christ. Obviously you know more about grail legends than I do, but I thought it was interesting to compare your ordinary relic, which can be paraded through the streets from time to time, with the plates and the other artifacts, the sight of which is the reward of the wise and the pure.

    Arguably in Mormonism, both in the temple and in what we think of as the central passages of the book of Mormon, Christ’s visit to the America, the reward and the desire of all the wise and pure is to see Christ and press his wounds.

  4. john f. on December 10, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Great stuff — thanks for this post. Particularly the U&T and seer stone are important relics for the Joseph Smith context. The role of seer is something that has special significance in the Mormon religion and is indeed tied to such artifacts.

    It’s always been curious to me why the thought of Joseph Smith peering into a seer stone in a hat causes embarassment to Mormons whereas the thought of him peering into two chrystals set in bows does not. Perhaps the relic angle is the explanation: the U&T are holy relics with a provenance that Mormons feel they can vouch for whereas the seer stone was found by Jospeh Smith while digging a well and was used for treasure seeking purposes before being used as a translation/revelation aide. Thus, in the Joseph Smith context it is just an ordinary item whereas the U&T is the ancient and holy relic. (Of course, ironically, for us 21st century Mormons that seer stone might be the ultimate relic, as we understand it still exists somewhere instead of being taken back up into heaven by Moroni.)

    On the Ether angle, however, I must say that in our current reading of the Book of Mormon, I have noticed a lot of significance in the position and content of the Book of Ether — and the Urim and Thummim are only peripheral to the book’s purpose. Ether is a microcosm of the Nephite civilization’s decline and downfall. Moroni’s inclusion of it reinforces what could be considered the thesis of the Book of Mormon: “For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 4:4; cf 1 Nephi 2:20). It stands as a second witness that the behavior of individuals, aggregated, can cause widespread societal consequences and that, as uncomfortable as it sounds, God calls whole societies to account in a type of corporate accounting that runs against the grain of current individualistic American notions of autonomous cause and effect.

  5. Ida Tarbell on December 10, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Jonathan:

    Fascinating insights, but I think you push your interpretation too far:

    “If we recognize that these sections of the Book of Mormon are primarily stories about the provenance of particular artifacts, there are some interpretive consequences. If 1 Ne. 3-4 is a story about the provenance of a sword and some inscribed plates that held special significance for the Nephites, then we’re probably mistaken to read the story for insights into Nephi’s psychology, or for general principles concerning the treatment of drunken enemies.”

    Really? I’m pretty sure you learned about overdetermination in graduate school, so I’m having trouble understanding your shift from “primarily…about” to “probably mistaken.” Why can’t a narrative that was intended by its author to be primarily about provenance also comment on the psychology of that author or the social mores that author observed? Especially when that author isn’t exactly writing in the kind of deliberately dispassionate and self-consciously clear prose that, say, Chevrolet would direct its technical communicators to use when describing how to buckle a seatbelt. Yes, I’m being anachronistic here, but only to further my point: religious texts are poetic because they need to bear the weight of multiple meanings for multiple audiences, not because they attempt to communicate a singular meaning that cannot be misunderstood.

  6. Jonathan Green on December 10, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Rob Perkins, where does 1 or 2 Nephi mention any of the other people the first Nephites ran into in the New World? That the early books of the Book of Mormon write other peoples out of the story, or incorporate other peoples into the Nephite-Lamanite duality, are only two of several other possibilities, but they strike me as more likely than the alternatives. What scenario do you have in mind?

    John, thanks for your comment. Certainly Ether is fascinating, and I understand its significance as a second witness, but aren’t second witnesses also by definition redundant? The Jaredite microcosm of Nephite history just doesn’t advance the narrative much, which is surprising for a book that feels so foreign, so very different from the rest of the Book of Mormon.

    Ida Tarbell, actually, pushing my interpretation too far was what I learned in grad school.

  7. Steve on December 10, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    “It’s always been curious to me why the thought of Joseph Smith peering into a seer stone in a hat causes embarassment to Mormons whereas the thought of him peering into two chrystals set in bows does not.”

    I think that the difference is this: the U/T were used (we don’t know how) for the translation of an ancient record. The peeping into a hat was used, at least on several occasions I understand, in an attempt to find hidden treasure. So the difference is the purpose, and not the act itself. One can be seen as inspired, while the other either silly or greedy.

  8. john f. on December 10, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Steve, the seer stone in the hat was used to translate most of what we now have as the Book of Mormon (the U&T was used to translate the 116 lost pages but Joseph Smith didn’t use them after that, to our knowledge). This is uncontroversial and corroborated by statements by Emma Smith and David Whitmer and others. I alluded to the provenance issue in my comment and your point about the treasure seeking falls into that category.

  9. Rob Perkins on December 10, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Jonathan, it’s an absence-of-evidence thing. 1 and 2 Nephi is replete enough with references to larger plates upon which “the history of my people” is more fully written; the focus in the small plates is entirely on the christian prophecy, with only enough story there to set things in context and explain why Nephi became the prophet and leader of his people.

    I don’t have any particular scenario in mind, just that I don’t read absence of an accounting of indigenous Americans meeting the Nephites as evidence of their absence. And it seems to me that the narrative is better served by a context in which Laman and Lemuel’s families were absorbed or integrated into a larger indigenous population.

    Some of Orson Scott Card’s speculation on the matter (http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-bookofmormon.html, see the sections on Zarahemla, ‘instant cities’, more than halfway down) informs my willingness to set these kinds of things in abeyance, and not assume that the land was empty.

    It’s also conceivable that the Nephites could have lived in isolation, but that Lamanites did not. That conception easily accounts for the greater Lamanite numbers later on (that is, before the designations become useless in Helaman and 3 Nephi as tracers back to the founding Nephite and Lamanite families.)

    I also bristle a bit at the context you’re providing, though I don’t think my objection erases your main point. Using the word “Narrative” for a text which putatively has more than five authors seems like a mismatch, especially considering the number of times “the hundredth part” could not be written.

    As to the Book of Mormon as a pointer to a reliquary, or itself a reliquary “in prose”, I’m completely untroubled, and actually kind of excited about the idea. But my lack of trouble comes from the fact that I assume that God has a much higher technology than I do, and I know my great-grandfather would stare in awe at the way I’m sharing ideas with others, using this computer gizmo. “Indistinguishable from magic,” as Clarke would have put it.

  10. Steve on December 10, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    john: Isn’t it also true that Joseph also used a seer stone to hunt for treasure before the BofM translation? Again, its this treasure seeking which makes people uncomfortable.

  11. Bookslinger on December 10, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    “Nephi takes pains to claim that the Promised Land is empty;”

    I’m with Bob Perkins on this one. I think Nephi takes pains to _avoid_ mentioning whether or not there were others in the land when they arrived.

    This curiosity may be explained in the missing 116 pages. 1 Nephi through Omni are not redactions by Mormon, but are a different sent of plates, written directly by the hand of Nephi, that were physically adjoined to the plates upon which Mormon wrote.

    One hint that there might have been others is the account in Jacob 7, “there came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem.” That could be read that he grew up among them, or that he came to them from outside the group. If he came from outside the group, either he was a Lamanite (but he was not described as a Lamanite) or he was from a third party.

  12. Ray on December 10, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    Jonathan, I’m curious about your thoughts on something. What do you think of the argument that the Jaredites were an Asiatic people – probably dispersed widely over such a long time period?

  13. Jonathan Green on December 11, 2008 at 12:18 am

    Rob, I think of narrative as a pretty innocuous word, more or less a synonym of ‘story,’ and that no conscious authorship is necessary to invoke it–like rocks telling the story of the geological record. In this case, I think I’m safe talking about a single narrative because even if we posit many authors, the Book of Mormon claims to have a single editor, and that on a couple of different levels: what Mormon compiled, or what Joseph Smith translated. Also, a book that we read as a coherent whole (like the Book of Mormon) will end up with some kind of unifying narrative, whether the author intended it or not. But, if you would, could you explain what you mean by a context that makes you bristle? I may have been unclear about something.

    Ray, if we assume a historical basis and a New World setting for the Book of Mormon that is mostly compatible with what we understand about pre-Columbian history, we probably have to think more or less along those lines. If we treat the first chapter of Ether as history, then we want to find Jaredite origins in the ancient Near East. But if we think of it as ethnography, then it becomes a statement about relationships. Whatever their histories, the Nephites thought of the Mulekites as familiar and compatible, and hence with similar origins; in pre-modern ethnographic terms, if you have to go as far back as Babel to find a common ancestral event, it means that there’s no almost no degree of kinship, since the descendants of Adam and Noah were often thought to have all been living together until Babel.

  14. Bookslinger on December 11, 2008 at 2:12 am

    Jonathan Green:

    “… since the descendants of Adam and Noah were often thought to have all been living together until Babel.”

    Or since Peleg, in whose days the earth was divided, if you take it to mean political divisions.

    “In this case, I think I’m safe talking about a single narrative because even if we posit many authors, the Book of Mormon claims to have a single editor, and that on a couple of different levels: what Mormon compiled, or what Joseph Smith translated.”

    It is my understanding that Mormon did not edit 1st Nephi, 2nd Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom and Omni, but rather joined those “Small Plates of Nephi” with his own without alteration or copying onto his plates.

  15. Rob Perkins on December 11, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Jonathan, more mainstream thinkers work from the premise that the Book of Mormon is not true, and they will interpret your words in the context of “fictional narrative” rather than “historical narrative” or “internal narrative”. Since I usually try to frame my arguments in a larger context, I took it that way, in spite of my deep Mormon convictions.

    (#11: Please don’t call me “Bob”)

    Another thought about the seer stones is that if Smith used them (I find no reason to fault him if he did), the stone itself could have been no more than a focusing point for him, useful in precisely the same way as I use closed eyes when I pray or give blessings in the course of priesthood duties: to avoid distractions while attempting to reach a certain state of mind. It could be no holier or more complex than that.

  16. john f. on December 11, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Steve, exactly: provenance.

  17. Trevor on December 16, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    I think Jonathan is on to something really rich here. He should continue to pursue this line of inquiry. As for the significance of a textual reliquary that speaks so much of relics, one might think in terms of the Masonic Grand Key Word. When you reach down to the remains of Hiram Abiff seeking for it and pull up a bone with marrow in it, the bone becomes the substitute for the Grand Key Word. Tokens of this type are common in the Mysteries, but the act of substitution is really fascinating.