My basic problem with Blake Ostler’s expansion theory is that it approaches via intellectual history what is at heart a problem in textual history. Blake’s theory that the Book of Mormon is a modern expansion of an ancient source is plausible and useful, perhaps even correct. In biblical texts that he cites, and certainly in the more recent prophetic texts that I’ve studied, later expansions on earlier works are quite common.
However, I think Blake’s treatment has some limitations. The chronological dichotomy of ancient vs. modern is too narrow. If we are to critically examine the textual history proposed by Joseph Smith, we should do the same for Nephi and Mormon, rather than take their accounts at face value. Thus even if we accept the Book of Mormon as a pre-modern text, that does not require that we uncritically accept the text’s claim to represent an offshoot of pre-exilic Jewish culture, a Semitic source language, or the time period of 600 BC-400 AD. Apologists’ provision of evidence that tends to confirm these notions (and skeptics’ efforts to the contrary) are very interesting, but not the end of the discussion.
One of my problems, I suspect, is that I’m looking for the expansion theory to provide things that it was never intended to accomplish. I want a theory of Book of Mormon textual history to give me tools for dealing with the text, but my primary objection to Blake’s theory is that it mostly plays out at the lofty level of motif and literary form, and only infrequently deals with textual history (as it does when comparing the Book of Mormon to passages from the KJV). At that height, the expansion theory misses textual fault lines in the Book of Mormon that suggest a more complex textual history than usually envisioned.
If I were to propose a Book of Mormon textual history, it would look something like plate tectonics. During the Book of Mormon’s development, sections of solid text were periodically torn apart by intrusions of red-hot commentary, dividing formerly continuous texts like the Atlantic separates South Africa from the embrace of Argentina. Sometimes whole continents slipped down beneath the surface, leaving at most a plate of ancient rock surrounded by a younger continental shelf as a witness of its passing. Passages can drift towards each other until their collision leads to the rise of new verses, like the Himalayas rising between India and Asia.
In this respect, the story of Nephi and his Brothers is something like the Gondwanaland of 1 Nephi. The narrative consists of a series of scenes, which often have the character of accretions: fleeing Jerusalem, and then the return for the brass plates, and then the return for Ishmael’s family, and then Nephi’s bow, and then the Liahona, and then Nephi’s ship and the voyage to the Promised Land. The Nephi novel has been broken up, however, by the addition of various self-contained textual units, including sermons, visions, commentaries, editorial interludes about plate-making, and lengthy scriptural quotations. If Lehi’s vision was a set-piece addition to the Nephi novel, then Nephi’s vision and commentary on Lehi’s vision followed even later. The boundaries between narrative segments—and also places where the narrative thread is dropped for a moment, and then resumed—are marked not by chapter divisions, but by visits to Lehi’s tent.
Internal reconstruction of textual history is necessarily speculative, so for the most part all we can hope for is to extend the boundaries of what can be imagined, rather than pinning down exactly what must have been. But we might note the following from 1 Nephi as possible evidence that the text has been expanded repeatedly, rather than just once, or never.
- Consider 1 Ne. 5: 17-19, 7: 1. Lehi read the brass plates and “began to prophesy concerning his seed.” We only get a few brief passages of this prophecy in vv. 18-19 before Nephi breaks off with the note that Lehi “prophesied many things concerning his seed.” At this point we have what look like a couple of intrusions into this section of text, including Nephi’s insistence that both he and Lehi had kept the commandments (5: 20-22) and one of Nephi’s several interludes about how and why he made his plates (6: 1-6). Following this (7: 1), we get a textual clue that the narrative is resuming: “after my father, Lehi, had made an end of prophesying concerning his seed.” The narrative has been interrupted by two kinds of intrusions, and most of Lehi’s prophecy has been omitted.
- 1 Ne. 20-21 are clearly signaled as textual citations that expand the narrative. Note Nephi’s introduction of the citation in 19: 24: “Hear ye the words of the prophet, ye who are a remnant of the house of Israel, a branch who have been broken off…” We also get a clear signal that the narrative resumes (at least long enough for Nephi to launch his commentary on Isaiah) in 1 Ne. 22: 1: “And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had read these things which were engraven upon the plates of brass…” Both believers and skeptics would agree that 1 Ne. 20-21 represents a citation of Isaiah 48-49, for that is clearly what it is, and also what 1 Nephi says that it is. But note also the additional signal in 1 Ne. 19: 24 that an older, linguistically marked text is being inserted: “for after this manner has the prophet written.” The same marker of perceived linguistic markedness, “after this manner (of language)”—which I take as more specifically marking linguistic antiquity—occurs several other times in 1 Nephi, often by way of introducing direct quotations of highly stylized genres, including poetry, oaths, and laments, where it is plausible to imagine that the particular wording was worth preserving.
- Note that 1 Ne. 10: 12-14 again appears to preserve an abbreviated citation from Lehi: “My father spake much…concerning the house of Israel, that they should be compared like unto an olive-tree….After the Gentiles had received the fullness of the Gospel, the natural branches of the olive-tree, or the remnants of the house of Israel, should be grafted in….” And then in v. 15: “And after this manner of language did my father prophesy and speak unto my brethren, and also many more things which I do not write in this book…” Following this, we find religious statements by Nephi (10: 17-22) and Nephi’s expansion and commentary on Lehi’s vision (chapters 11-14). After this, Nephi’s return “to the tent of my father” signals the resumption of the narrative, again only long enough for Nephi to launch a lecture to his brothers. The topic of Laman and Lemuel’s confusion is noteworthy: “Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive-tree, and also concerning the Gentiles.” This looks to me as if Nephi’s teachings and vision have intruded into the middle of Lehi’s olive-tree sermon and Nephi’s commentary on it.
One might also note that attitudes toward the descendants of Nephi, Laman and Lemuel are dramatically different at various points in 1 Nephi, where the Nephites appear as everything from rivals of the Lamanites, to victims of Lamanite hostility, to an obliterated remnant. To the extent that 1 Nephi was actively read by the Nephites (and Zeniff’s citation of 1 Ne. 1: 1 suggests that it was), and to the extent that texts are affected by the social context in which they exist (and scholarship on texts of many periods suggests that they are), then we should acknowledge that 1 Nephi will have had a different significance at various times in Nephite history, and will have been variously affected by a changing Nephite society before its modern translation into English.
My final point is that Book of Mormon apologists and skeptics disagree vehemently about the historicity of the events described in the Book of Mormon, but they often (although not always) have similar views of the Book of Mormon as a text with no history: either it sprung at once from the mind of Joseph Smith, or it sprung from the stylus of Nephi and Mormon into the mind of Joseph Smith. Stressing the textual historicity of the Book of Mormon—that is, that it underwent changes similar to those experienced by other texts in pre-modern and modern times—is one way to relieve some of the pressure on what might be called archeological historicity. Positing that the Book of Mormon has a textual history also poses challenges for both believers and non-believers, however. One must accept the possibility that great prophets can still be lousy editors. Alternatively, one needs a theory of composition that accords with accounts of Joseph Smith’s translation process, and with the traces of expansion in the text.