Getting over Nibley

February 15, 2009 | 36 comments

Of late I have been thinking of late about how to read Mormon scriptures.  In particular, I have been working on some passages in the Book of Mormon on legal interpretation and thinking about how best to approach these sections.  By and large, it seems to me that there have been three basic models of how to read LDS scriptures.  First, there has been what I think of as an external, sectarian reading.  This consists essentially of proof texting in debates and discussions with Protestant outsiders.  There is a sense in which this is the oldest kind of LDS hermeneutic.  The first Mormons to carefully study the scriptures with Mormon eyes were looking for biblical verses with which to answer Campbellite critics and other Protestant naysayers of the Restoration. 

The second LDS hermeneutic has been internal.  It is aimed not at outsiders but at Latter-day Saints and it has served two purposes.  The first, and  in my opinion overwhelmingly the most important, reading has been homiletic.  We have used the scriptures as a way of motivating ourselves to godly action.  On this view, the successful use of scriptures is measured not by integrity to the text per se but rather by the effectiveness of the reading in leading others to live better lives.  The second part of this internal hermeneutic has been the elaboration of Mormon doctrine as a body of systematic theology using the scriptures as sources.

The third mode of LDS hermeneutic has been an apologetic aimed at the problems of historical consciousness and anxiety about the truth claims of Restoration scripture.  The dominant figure here is Hugh Nibley, although in many ways his work was prefigured by that of B.H. Roberts and Sydney Sperry.  Nibley’s primary goal was to demonstrate the historicity of the Book of Mormon by locating it within an ancient context, showing how external and internal evidences of ancient origins could be marshalled to meet the accusations of critics.  In many ways, the results of this apologetic have been impressive.  It represents the most sophisticated engagement with LDS scriptures to date, and it has certainly deepened our understanding of textual complexities and possible external parallels.

Increasingly, however, I think that we need to get past all three of these modes.  It is not that I think that we should stop bible bashing (with that increasingly limited audience that cares), using scriptures to preach sermons and elaborate doctrine, or seeking to respond to critics of Book of Mormon historicity.  All of these hermeneutics are valuable in different ways, and I don’t foresee that any of them is likely to disappear.  Nor would I want them to.

However, I would like to see an engagement with scripture that is more textual and literary, less doctrinal, homiletic, and apologetic.  In particular, I think that the scriptures reward a very careful, textually sensitive reading, one that seeks to find the strangeness in the text and understand what it is saying.  The best model in Biblical studies for what I would like to see is Robert Alter.  Alter is not trained as a Biblical scholar per se.  Rather, he came out of the literature department at UC Berkeley.  Modern biblical scholarship is largely dominated by source criticism, the desire to unravel the various claims of J, P, E, the Deuteronomist, Q and the rest of the cast of characters that inhabit the Biblical text.  Alter’s work represents not a rejection of source criticism, but a turning away from it.  The Bible, he in effect argued, is a very carefully composed text and even acknowledging its indebtedness to earlier sources needn’t imply the belief that it was assembled thoughtlessly or artlessly.  For example, rather than seeing the repetition of stories as the crude seams between different underlying sources, he suggested that they should be read as commentaries on one another or examples of a type-story that the author is deliberately playing with.  And so on.

It seems that we need something very much like this for LDS scriptural studies.  It is not that I think we should turn to literary readings because the debates over historicity are pointless or unwinnable.  Rather it is that such debates are in some sense a distraction from the real work of reading the text.  Furthermore, without naming names, I think that some of the work coming out of the Nibley tradition, even when it is not self-consciously apologetic, spends too much time with extra-textual parallels that distract from full engagement with the text itself and often have limited hermeneutic (as opposed to apologetic) value.  I am interested in ancient parallels when they are closely enough tied to the text that I am confident that there is some real interpretive pay off to using them.  On the other hand, even when the apologetic payoff may be substantial, I am less interested in parallels when the hermeneutic payoff is meager. 

In the end, I think that far and away the most important outside text for understanding the Book of Mormon is the King James Bible because this is the book toward which the Book of Mormon text that we have now most frequently gestures.  Some LDS scholars are uncomfortable with this fact because they are frightened of playing into the hands of critics who insist that the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a crude re-working of the KJV.  The English text of the Book of Mormon, however, is shot through with biblical references, more over the language of those references is the language of the KJV.  I think that we are justified in embracing this fact.  Doing so does not, I believe, concede the apologetic question, and a careful reading of the Book of Mormon, I am convinced, reveals that it is anything but a crude re-working of the KJV.

36 Responses to Getting over Nibley

  1. Julie Pinkham on February 15, 2009 at 4:52 pm


    This hermeneutic does exist, but maybe not at a consistent academic level, unless I competely misunderstand you. Are you saying that you are looking for study that does not look outside the context of the scriptures (except for historical context where appropriate) but looks at the language and structure of the scriptures themselves?

    Try Richard N. Holzapfel. One of the most helpful things I learned from him was regarding the parables. To understand what a parable is teaching, look backwards in the text for the question that was asked of the Savior, to which the parables are the answer.
    Is that the kind of study you are suggesting?

  2. David G. on February 15, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I can’t agree more, Nate. I really enjoy Alter’s approach, and it seems like a fruitful avenue toward opening up important vistas for the study of the BoM (as well as other Restoration scriptures). I think that Mark Thomas has already started some of this with his work on the BoM, and I’d like to see more of it.

  3. Nate Oman on February 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Julie: I agree that there are examples of the sort of thing that I am interested in; I would just like to see more of it.

    David G.: I have read Thomas’s book (or at least chunks of it) and I think that he is heading in the right direction, although I thought that the asides where he would compare enviromentalist and apologetic accounts of scripture were a distraction. I think that Jim Faulconer and the folks involved in are trying to do the sort of thing that I am interested in. Frankly, a lot people coming out of the Nibley tradition are doing it as well, I just think that at times the concern with ancient origins overwhelms interpretation.

  4. Mark D. on February 15, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Nate, I think you missed an important mode of scriptural analysis, namely the theological mode. What’s the point of studying the scriptures if one doesn’t care about what they say about matters theological, and whether and how and to what degree what they say about such matters is true?

    To the degree that LDS scriptures do not contain comprehensible gospel truths that are not available from other sources, as a differential matter they are approximately worthless. History, homiletics, apologetics are all secondary.

    What difference does it make if Joseph Smith did this or did that, or had this character weakness, or was an inspiring teacher, or was capable of a nice turn of phrase if we don’t care about the validity, meaning, and applicability of what he actually taught?

  5. Jack on February 15, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    You mean, you think we should be more concerned about what Isaiah is *really* saying?

  6. Jack on February 15, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Mark D.,

    I think that’s an important concern. But don’t you think the mere exercise of trying to get to the bottom of the text will help to inform the reader–theologically speaking? Or am I not understanding you?

  7. Dave on February 15, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    Nate, fine thoughts. I read Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon cover to cover the month before I left on my mission. It was very reassuring to see that a defensible argument could be made putting the Book of Mormon in an ancient historical context (not that I articulated historicity as an issue at the time). On the other hand, apart from defending historicity that approach has not made much of an impact on how anyone in the Church (except Nibley and his successors) actually reads Book of Mormon texts.

    I recently read Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah which takes the KJV context (for the text) more seriously and ends up with a lot more to say about how one reads and interprets the text. If Thomas can do that, I’m sure other LDS scholars could do as well or better if they made the attempt. The intriguing finding of Royal Skousen that Book of Mormon language is most closely correlated not with 19th-century English but with 16th century English strengthens the idea that the KJV should be the real focus for a more informed reading Book of Mormon texts.

  8. Keith on February 15, 2009 at 7:31 pm


    I’m a little confused about your mentioning the homiletic view (the view of using scripture to help us live more Christ-like lives) and the importance of it, and then your statement that this is something we need to get beyond along with the proof-text and apologetic modes. You don’t really say why we need to get beyond this one (the post is largely about apologetic approaches) or how your hope that we have better, closer, more engaged readings of the texts of scripture would get along (or not) with the more internal, homiletic approach. What’s the value, what’s the point, of a careful reading of the text if it doesn’t lead to be more Christ-like?

    I’m not so dumb to think you’re advocating that we not become Christ-like, or read and teach with that in mind. The post, however, leaves me a bit puzzled about why you say the homiletic way would be better abandoned.

  9. Julie M. Smith on February 15, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Keith, Nate can speak for himself, but I assume he was dissing acontextual homiletical use, as opposed to devotional use that is the fruit of solid exegesis of some sort.

  10. Nate Oman on February 15, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Mark D.: There is a model of theology implicit in your comment that may or may not be right. It seems to me that you are thinking of theology in terms of a comprehensive and consistent body of doctrine that one can discovers via scripture. Two points. First, I actually did mention briefly this mode in passing. Second, I am not sure that the unstated premise about the proper understanding of theology is correct. I am not a hard core anti-systematic theology guy a law Jim Faulconer, but I am willing to entertain the possibility that it is not all that important.

    Kieth: I am not opposed to being drawn closer to Christ. I am not even opposed to being drawn closer to Christ via “acontextual homiletical use.” Getting beyond doesn’t necessarily mean not doing. I do object to such devotional uses of scripture to the extent that they crowd out, delegitimize or marginalize a more textually based engagement. Such an engagement, incidentally, may itself have lots of homiletic value.

  11. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 15, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    I think that the scriptures reward a very careful, textually sensitive reading, one that seeks to find the strangeness in the text and understand what it is saying.

    Indeed. Seems like you are calling for an Arthur Henry King approach to the scriptures (or at least one similar to what he was doing in the 1970s).

  12. Eric Russell on February 15, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Alter is great. Unfortunate that when he came to BYU to address the student body at the forum – the perfect time to convey his approach to the Bible – he spoke on environmentalism in Dickens.

  13. Dan on February 15, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I’ve only read one Nibley book. The one about Lehi crossing the desert. I thoroughly enjoyed the additional knowledge about the context and environment that Lehi resided in. Does it help enrich my understanding of everything by employing all tools? As I taught seminary this semester, when I taught the students, I think I took it above the usual understanding (certainly above what I was taught in seminary long ago), by going into who the authors were and who they were writing their “good news” to. My study of the scriptures hasn’t been as voracious as it was during my mission years (I read the Book of Mormon 14 times on my mission for instance). But I’ve tried to understand what was written from the point of view of the author. I can’t look that deeply, personally, at the New Testament letters and gospels. I don’t think the authors knew their works would become so valuable in time, probably because they didn’t think that 2000 years later only the few letters we do have remain. Mormon’s account of the history of his people is slightly different in that he knew his account would be for a future generation. So he tailored it as best he could to what he thought that future audience might want to see. It is vastly different than the Old Testament, which really, is a historical piece. At least based on how I view “scripture.” While the “word of God” is found in the Old Testament, the Old Testament is not the “word of God.”

    I don’t know what this really adds to your discussion. Heck, I don’t even know what homiletic means. I just felt like adding something. :)

  14. matt b on February 15, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    It’s worth nothing that Alter’s hardly the only Biblical exegete urging us to take the text more seriously as a narrative; source criticism is not nearly so dominant in the field as it was seventy or eighty years ago.

    Indeed, though I understand why he’s so influential, I think it’s also important to recall that Alter does not understand himself to be doing practical theology. Now, it’s true that the whole point of narrative criticism – and the reason why I think Mark D’s argument is misguided – is that scripture presents us with stories without any obvious moral or point far more frequently than it presents us with precise doctrinal statements, and thus Alter’s work opens a lot of doors. However, someone like, say, Walter Brueggemann, who is an actual theologian working in fields of Biblical theology and rhetorical criticism, has the skills and interest required to develop Alter’s subtle readings of the text into arguments about how all of this is relevant to the believer’s relationship with God.

  15. Jason L. on February 15, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Another plug for Alter as well. I really enjoy his “Five Books of Moses” and “Psalms” translations.

    I appreciate your categorizations and suggestion of more Alter-like readings. It seems to me, however, that such an approach really leads up back to what you’ve described as the first purpose of the “internal” hermeneutic. When I read Alter, at least, I find inspirational moments that feel very much like the best reading of restoration scriptures and have the same homiletic impact.

    In that regard, I’m not sure I concur that the third approach you’ve identified (Nibly-esque) “represents the most sophisticated engagement with LDS scriptures to date.” I’ve heard insights stemming from the “internal” hermeneutic reading that strike me as equally sophisticated. They may not come from professionally trained or engaged scholars, but I actually find that reassuring.

  16. aquinas on February 15, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Discussing interpretations or methods of reading the scriptures is always a tricky business.

    Personally, I’ve found the textual and narrative type of reading (if indeed I’m using these terms as you understand them, and I’m not sure that I am) to be very rewarding and enriching. However, I’ve in some cases I’ve noticed a slight difficulty in trying to present this reading to others. The moment I present the reading as something which Latter-day Saints haven’t done and something that Latter-day Saints should do (for whatever reason, and you really haven’t put forth a reason in this piece beyond saying there is a hermeneutic or interpretive payoff), there is often going to be resistance and sometimes resentment.

    There will be resistance because if this is a new kind of reading and it has only been done by a few people, then, the argument goes, why is this important? If it were important then wouldn’t we be using this already? Some people get suspicious about innovation.

    There will be resentment because if we should be doing this and we are not, then are you saying, (the argument goes) that my reading is insufficient, wrong, or handicapped? Are you saying that I and my family and friends are all reading the scriptures in the wrong way? Even to reply that it is a wrong way that is still “quite valuable” will not be received enthusiastically.

    Lastly, you’ve described the payoff and purpose of the other approaches but haven’t really elaborated on the purposes of the approach you advocate. What is its value that the other approaches cannot provide? If it doesn’t provide apologetic or homiletic value, if it doesn’t help us live better lives or defend the church, goes the argument, then what other values are left? You suggest other approaches distract from the “real work of reading the text” but what is that real work? Here, if one forced to say that it the real work of the text is the intent of the author then one is criticized for saying that all these years Latter-day Saints have not understood the intent of the authors of scripture. It is a very difficult position.

    Of course, not all people react the way I’ve described above and some are quite open and receptive. It’s just hard to predict who will respond this way. But in conversing with those of this disposition, I’ve had much better success in simply relating the fruits of the textual narrative approach without comparing it to other kinds of readings, without disclosing the fact that these fruits were born by using a textual and narrative approach and without saying it hasn’t been done and we need to do it. In fact, in some cases, it is only when I’ve been able to demonstrate that the textual and narrative approach has “homiletic” (or theological) value in our day to day lives that some have finally accepted this hermeneutic as valuable or legitimate.

    In many cases, what fascinates me beyond the hermeneutic itself is the kind of human psychology and social behavior of individuals as they come across a market place of hermeneutic frameworks. In some cases, I think individuals think of these frameworks as true or false. They want the true hermeneutic, the best hermeneutic, the traditional hermeneutic, the restored hermeneutic, in which case, it might be better to not describe the approach at all, but just use it. It is frustrating that one would have to present an interpretive approach very carefully as if walking on eggshells but I’ve seen this reaction before. Should people just be more open to interpretive approaches without having to concretely demonstrate the payoff, or are people justified in asking for concrete demonstrations? Is the presentation of an interpretive framework just as important as the interpretive framework itself? Has anyone else had this experience?

  17. Mark D. on February 15, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Nate (#10), I think the problem is that given the multiple sources we have recorded in scripture, if we don’t at a minimum check scriptural claims for consistency with other scriptural claims, we can have little or no confidence that any particular scriptural claim is actually true.

    One of the reasons for the study of systematic theology is that if God himself isn’t rational and essentially systematic in his operations then we can take it as a foregone conclusion that he is irrational, arbitrary, unjust, and unfair. From the classical perspective, an irrational God is nothing but an arbitrary terror.

    Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious epistemological problems in such study. But if we give up on theological study before we start, it is hard to see what is left in the scriptures that is worth studying at all, relative to any number of secular works we could pull off the shelf.

    Jack(#6), I agree that literary analysis is a necessary first step in any scripturally rooted theological enterprise.

  18. Nate Oman on February 15, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Mark D.: I am not sure what you mean by “theological study.” If you mean something like, “coming to know and understand God and his ways,” then by all means I agree that theology is ultimately the most important reason for reading scripture. On the other hand, if by theology you mean something like complete, consistent, definitive, final, systematic doctrine then I am skeptical. If such systematic theology is our ultimate goal, then surely God has been unusually sloppy in his presentation, as you are hard pressed to find much systematic theology in the scriptures. That said, I think that systematic theology is useful in a variety of contexts. I am less convinced, however, that it is the primary means of knowing God or the primary benefit to be derived from scripture.

  19. Clark on February 15, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Mark D. (#4) I think we need to draw out the range of meanings before we start to systemize such that we can answer theological question. One problem with the theological mode is that people employing it so often apply a naive hermeneutic (often a kind of proof text for what they already believe) By seeing the range of possible meanings (which is not the same as historic or correct meanings) then I think we can take the next step of trying to figure out what is going on or what is useful.

    Mark D (#17) I think one has to be careful looking at scriptural consistency. While it is sometimes there it is sometimes illusionary. (That is a similar phrasing or even quote is taken to imply to theological point when it’s just an accident) I also don’t think every author has the same understanding, a position that the systematic reading has to presuppose.

    To say we have no claim that something is true if there is not total consistency just seems false to me. For instance not all scriptural texts are of equal weight. Given the composition of the OT, for instance, I’m more skeptical of claims from it than other texts – especially modern revelation. Likewise while I value Paul I put the weight of his texts much farther below many other figures such as Christ himself. But even Christ’s sayings come to us second hand for the most part.

    While you don’t quite make it, the move from “God must be systematic” to “the scriptures must be systematic” just seems a category error. And many taking the systematic approach make that error. Further just on a plain logical error if we find an inconsistency one can always create a new principle that makes them consistent and merely apparently inconsistent due to context. The problem with this more Hegelian approach is that it can justify anything. Further the problem with systematic theology is that it’s aim often isn’t just to be systematic but to arrive at a simple system of principles. (Once again not saying you are doing this – just that it’s common) Yet this simplifying tendency combined with this view of God as consistent and simple leads to lots of theological errors. (IMO) More importantly because it can justify almost anything real engagement with problematic scriptures can be ignored. (Look at the Evangelical systemizers who seem able to produce a theology consistent with an inerrant scripture – yet this tends to twist scripture by not taking error as error.)

  20. Mark D. on February 15, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Nate, I certainly do not mean anything definitive or final. That is more or less impossible. However, I do maintain, for example, that most of the work of Joseph Smith can be be understood better as an inspired systematization of biblical theology than as anything else.

    That is what he did. Mormonism is easily seen as the most biblical of all denominations. Precedents for virtually everything Joseph Smith ever said or wrote about can be found in the Bible. He could hardly open his mouth without paraphrasing some verse or other.

    So if one desires to understand what he wrote, it seems that a very good place to start is to attempt to duplicate his thought process – to enumerate very questions that led him to be inspired to such a degree in the first place. And in a way that seems awfully out of place today, those questions were fundamentally theological, and rather systematic theological questions at that.

    The plan of salvation and the doctrine of exaltation, for example, are nothing if not systematic. If one approaches the scriptures in a manner that doesn’t attempt to expand our understanding of the system that Joseph Smith revealed, it is hard to see that one is approaching the scriptures in a manner that is characteristically LDS at all, regardless of whatever independent merit such approaches may have.

    The headliners of LDS theology were all systematizers to one degree or another. All the Smiths, Pratt, Young, Taylor, Woodruff, Talmage, Roberts, Widtsoe, McConkie. I would say that to the degree any of them bear influence today, it is because what they taught was eminently rational, in a way that leads to an intellectual conversion to the gospel, not just a social, emotional, pragmatic, or devotional conversion of the sort that could be had in nearly any denomination.

  21. Nate Oman on February 15, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Mark D.: I am not at all convinced that you are right that Joseph Smith was fundamentally a systematic theologian. I think that you are correct that his revelations and sermons consist of an extended set of readings and inspired interpretations of the bible. However, while he frequently began with questions drawn, via the sectarian debates of the Second Great Awakening, from systematic theology, I don’t think that this is where he ended. Later thinkers, such as the Pratts or McConkie have attempted various post hoc attempts at systematization. These are valuable and important and some of them are more successful than others. They are not, however, quite what Joseph was doing.

    Whether the kind of literary interpretation that I am looking for is “characteristically LDS” is something that I am not sure how to answer. I am also not sure that it matters. If I am deeply engaged in the texts of the Restoration and trying to understand what they say and how they challenge me, that, it seems to me, is sufficiently Mormon to justify the practice.

  22. Mark D. on February 15, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Clark, what you describe with respect to Evangelical and inerrantist theology is what I would call anti-systematization. Any systematization worth pursuing prioritizes universal principles of indisputable value over awkward anomalies in the text.

  23. Nate Oman on February 15, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Acquinas: You may well be right about the hackles raised by discussing hermeneutics. My own thinking is addressed at what I take to be a self-consciously intellectual or scholarlly audience, one that I assume would be undefensive about thinking through modes of interpretation explicitly. In the contex of say a Sunday School class, I suspect that your approach makes much more sense. Right now, however, I am just trying to get my own thinking straight by articulating what I see as the range of approaches that have been tried.

  24. Ray on February 15, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    My biggest concern, frankly, with methods of studying the Book of Mormon stem from my frustration over how many of the things I hear that the Book of Mormon says or teaches (from critics and believers) can’t be supported by the text itself. There are SO many assumptions that have been handed down from the earliest days of its translation that I just don’t see as expounded in the text that it would take a major publication to detail them. I think the fact that even Joseph himself seems to have assumed much that the text doesn’t support is a great argument for its status as a text that he didn’t create from his own mind, but it also caused the continuation of those assumptions – since people then assumed that the prophet understood the book perfectly (that his view of it also came from God).

    Given that perspective, I am most concerned initially with a careful parsing of the text to see what the words themselves actually say – strictly from a linguistic standpoint. The internal claim is that the recorded words were chosen intentionally, carefully and purposefully – and the implication of the translation / transmission method bolsters that claim. I understand fully the issue of interpretation and multiple possible meanings, but I believe a careful text analysis alone would wipe out much of the difficulty we have with many critics and strengthen greatly the book’s impact on us.

    Once that foundation has been laid, I am open to more nuanced and complicated interpretive endeavors – but I want the simple misunderstandings and assumptions addressed first.

  25. Tom D on February 16, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Mark D (#17), diligent study of the scriptures is always worthwhile, but I believe that the most valuable witness of any *doctrine* is the Spirit of the Holy Ghost.

    “Proving” doctrine by systematic examination of the scriptures alone can be misleading. I vividly remember meeting a former JW on my mission who told me how he used to “prove” to others from the Bible that everyone else’s doctrine was false. That worked for years, until he had a crisis of faith and decided that JW doctrine was incorrect too. He decided then that everyone must be wrong and that there must not be a God!

    Given the long and shadowy history of the Bible I would have a hard time taking it seriously if it weren’t for the *feelings* I have while studying it. I feel that the story of Jesus Christ is true. He really is our Savior and Redeemer. I have faith in Him and try to follow Him with all my heart. I do not believe that every word of the Bible is true.

    I really don’t think that we can systematically resolve all theology– even with modern revelation. I think we should do our best to learn and understand true theology, but it is far more important that we *do* the things God (and the current prophet and our local bishop) has asked us to do. I imaging that this common LDS avoidance of hard-coded doctrine tends to drive Protestants berserk :-), but I think it makes a lot of sense.

    Another way of stating it is that I study the scriptures primarily for the companionship of the Holy Ghost in my daily life. I vaguely recall that Teryl Givens described this Mormon philosophy in “By the Hand of Mormon”.

  26. Joel on February 16, 2009 at 7:20 am

    I suggest reading Hans Frei and John Sailhamer. Sailhamer is doing this type of Biblical theology.

  27. Kevin Christensen on February 16, 2009 at 9:59 am

    FWIW, I think Alan Goff has done the best work in applying Robert Alter’s insights on type-scene and allusion to reading the Book of Mormon. It was Goff’s essays that got me to read Alter. Besides the direct insights about the Bible and Book of Mormon that I got from reading them, what I learned had a significant impact what I began to see in the Book of Mormon myself. For example, I realized why it was that the only detailed story that Nephi tells about his mother is the “complaint” story. He chose that story in order to emphasize that she as an exemplary woman of faith, very like the widow to complained to Elijah. If we don’t see the allusions, we miss the point of the telling.

    While Mark Thomas’ book had some insights I appreciated, I thought he underused Alter. At one point, he quotes part of a key passage that identifies several recurrent type scenes in the Bible, the same passage I had quoted in one of my own essays (RMMB 10:2), and yet he did nothing with it in applying it to the Book of Mormon. I found it easy to find Book of Mormon examples of each biblical type scene Alter identified. I was surprised that Thomas had used the quote without looking for those type scenes.

    And I think his chapter on “Dying Heretics” demonstrates how not to use Alter. Alter claimed that given a type-scene, it is not just the similarities between stories that convey meaning, but contrapuntal variations. So stories of liminal encounter in which a heretic did not die—Laman and Lemuel, Alma and the Sons of Mosiah, Zeezrom, for instance–should be considered. If he that done that, I think he could have seen the use of that type-scene it used with far more insight that he found. In deciding that the Book of Mormon use was flat and stereotyped, he followed a method that flattened telling differences in the stories he used, and he ignored stories with potentially enlightening comparisons. By defining the type scene in a less restrictive way, I see more richness and variation, and I’m far more impressed than Thomas.

    And he spent way to much time looking for ways to insinuate anachronism in the Book of Mormon, making comparisons with New Testament accounts, while ignoring their antecedents in ancient Israel.

    I’m looking forward to the appearance of Goff’s book-length study, which is glacially creeping towards publication.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  28. Troy Keller on February 16, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I don’t know how you get a copy of it, but Bruce Jorgensen at BYU had an essay in this vein 25 years or so ago. It was about typology in the Book of Mormon. I have heard folks in the literature department there on occasion lament that it is one of the few examples of this type of analysis of the BoM. I couldn’t find it on the internet, but here is a link to the reference

  29. Steve on February 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I’m generally not as enthusiastic as many in the FARMS crowd (for example) about Nibley-style textual apologetics, but I nevertheless think it’s an interesting subject. Nate, just to throw in my two cents worth, I don’t think that the varied approaches to the Book of Mormon are mutually exclusive. An apologetic approach and a hermeneutic approach can feed into each other. For example, apologists love to point out the chiasms and other poetic structures found throughout the text. While this effort is generally apologetic in focus, it also has the effect of setting forth an approach to understanding the message(s) being conveyed–supposedly, the apex of a chiasm usually points to the (or a) central concept of the “poem.” I like to think that this knowledge enables me to “get more out of” passages like Helaman’s prosaic counsel to his sons in the first part of Helaman chapter 5. While not chiastic, these verses seem to contain a sort of thematic parallelism or repetitiveness (which I might not have “caught” but for my limited exposure to the work of apologists) which I believe aid the reader (especially if he is aware of the deliberate structure of the passage) in “getting” the message.

  30. Kevin Barney on February 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm
  31. john f. on February 17, 2009 at 9:10 am

    The post is unfortunately titled but provides great insights. Nothing to add except for full agreement (except with the title).

  32. Rameumptom on February 17, 2009 at 11:14 am

    I think there is value in better understanding the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and Book of Moses, by not only studying them from the KJV view, but also from the views of early Jews and Christians, alike. I think it is valuable to study the early pseudipigrapha, not just for apologetics’ sake, but to better understand the background and viewpoints of the peoples of that day.

    It is one thing to see Pseudo-Jeremiah mention “land of Jerusalem” as evidence of that BoM term.

    It is another thing to study the theophany of Lehi (1 Ne 1) in light of other theophanies. For example, to study the patterns and differences between them are interesting. The Ascension of Isaiah shows several similarities to Lehi’s visions: Christ and his apostles descend to earth, both receive a book to read and then prophecy, both see God’s throne, etc. In studying the patterns, similarities and distinctions, we often can come to a better understanding of what the story tells us.

  33. busracer on February 17, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Nate, thanks for posting this (though it sounds vaguely familiar). I guess I’ll have to make good on your generosity by seeing what Alter has to say about all this stuff.

  34. BHodges on February 17, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I really like the hermeneutic categories you outline here. Are there any essays or books that give such a structure? I think a study on various hermeneutics, where they came from, who uses them, etc. would be a fascinating read.

  35. AL on February 18, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Joseph Smith said the German Bible is the most accurate bible so why don’t our LDS scholars study it rather than the KJT?

    The Sumsheno Bible was the first printed Hebrew Bible, called the “fugitive bible” and was published in 1480.

    The Bumberg, from Venice, was the bible which a Christian commissioned ghetto Jews to translate. Luther used this bible for the translation to the Guttenberg Bible.

  36. Wandering by on February 18, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Many years ago I took classes from Hugh Nibley, Arthur Henry King, and Robert Alter. Although I learned from all of them, I have listed them in the order of how they influence my readings of the scripture now. To me it seems that Alter’s approach wears the thinnest the fastest. All of them demand close and careful reading of the text. King’s approach is much more demanding that Alter’s.


Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.