Looking for historicity in all the wrong places

July 7, 2010 | 34 comments
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crown2If you think that the textual history of the Book of Mormon includes historical records, then you can’t avoid the possibility that a lot of Book of Mormon scholarship has been looking for the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and reading the wrong verses.

The problem is that Book of Mormon chronology is anchored in time only by the fall of Jerusalem and Christ’s appearance to the Nephites. But these events belong to sacral history, and their translation into historical chronology is not necessarily transparent. In the same way, the identification of the Nephites as descendants of pre-Exilic Jews depends on 1 Nephi, which is a literary account of an eponymous ancestor that grafts ethnic origins into sacred history. National theophanies and sacralized accounts of ethnogenesis are not the kinds of writing usually given much weight in historical analysis.

And yet Semitic origins and a 600 BC – 421 AD timeline define the current debate about Book of Mormon historicity. I think this is a mistake, and that we needlessly limit what can or must be assumed about where and when the events described in the Book of Mormon could have taken place. It is as if Scandinavian history would focus exclusively on the question of Trojan origins as alleged by Snorri Sturlason, and attempt to date the events described in the Edda with respect to Ragnarök.

Over time, histories get re-written and chronologies get re-arranged from the perspective of the present moment. Consider the example of the Old Testament, which is a difficult source for the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, let alone for earlier periods. Still, the value of the books of Kings and Samuel as historical documents is unrelated to the questioned historicity of the Exodus, let alone the events on Mt. Sinai. If we admit the possibility of the Book of Mormon as a pre-modern historical record, then we have to consider the same kinds of processes that have affected other pre-modern texts, and be prepared to think about the Book of Mormon and its history with the same flexibility.

So the problem of Book of Mormon historicity is not to uncover how Jews came to the Americas, or to find the stone-paved plaza where Christ descended upon the Nephites, any more than scholars of classical antiquity spend their days arguing whether or not Virgil’s story of Aeneas’s escape from Troy really happened, or decrying the lack of Trojan DNA among the Latins. The debate over historicity should focus on the parts of the Book of Mormon that, in any other context, would be recognizable as history. That does not include 1 Nephi or 3 Nephi 11.

34 Responses to Looking for historicity in all the wrong places

  1. Non-Arab Arab on July 7, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    There is a qualitative difference between 1 Nephi and say 1 Kings. The former purports to be a first-person account, the latter doesn’t. Ditto 1 Nephi versus Snorri. I think that forces us back to a framework far closer (even if not identical) to the one you are trying to dismiss here.

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 7, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Certainly Mormon admits that there are possibilities of error in the recording of history, as when he says he is relying on the dating assigned to the record of the visit of Christ in 3 Nephi. On the other hand, he appears to believe that the Small Plates of Nephi are exactly what they say they are, a first hand acocunt, primarily by Nephi and Jacob, of their own experiences, including Nephi’s in Jerusalem and Arabia. So I see no special reason to doubt the basic veracity of the primary elements of Nephi’s story, other than to recognize his recollection of the details of some events may be inexact due to the normal vagaries of human recollection. On the other hand, it seems to me that, since this was explicitly a retelling of events already recorded in greater detail on the Large Plates, they would have become part of a fixed narrative by then, and not subject to further drift due to the limits of recollection.

    As to 3 Nephi 11, it is pretty clear that a lot of this stuff purports to be a first person account, very much from the viewpoint of someone literally “on the ground” and not someone who is purporting to have a “God’s eye view” of events that is inherently a partial fabrication or imganiative narrative.

  3. Ben S on July 7, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Couldn’t disagree more :)

    As with non-Arab Arab, 1 Nephi is quite different from Kings or Chronicles. Alma, on the other hand, would be closer to what you’re getting at.

    So you posit a drastic and late (re)editing of the small plates? Or no small plates at all? In other words, you seem to be conflating the historiographical question with the historicity question.

    The fall of Jerusalem is very much a concrete event, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding you. Writing about the fall of Jerusalem may be Heilsgeschichte, but that doesn’t annul its actual destruction.

    And assuming you accept plates, but they aren’t Semitic, then who produced them knowing good details about pre-exilic Jerusalem ?

    Clarification?

  4. Andrew S. on July 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Yeah, I’m not totally sure if I understood even 30% of what Jonathan Green was trying to say, but I don’t see how the BoM’s books would fit the kind of patchwork historicity that the OT’s books have…

  5. Jonathan Green on July 7, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    So, let’s try this again.

    Ben and NAA, you are disagreeing with the opposite of what I wrote. That 1 Nephi is different than Kings is exactly what I’m saying.

    Or in other words: because the fall of Jerusalem is Heilsgeschichte, writing about it doesn’t guarantee that you were an eyewitness.

    So, assuming that this clarifies some things, what are the parts that you still disagree with?

  6. Jonathan Green on July 7, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    And, Andrew, please explain: what problems do you see with a patchwork historicity for the Book of Mormon?

  7. Non-Arab Arab on July 7, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Jonathan: If I understand you right, you’re basically claiming that the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem was mostly a literary/spiritual metaphor. Perhaps some vague link to some only distantly related semi-event. And that therefore anyone claiming to write about it – even someone claiming first person presence and describing a fairly detailed first person account of those days – is basically constructing a myth they consider useful for some other purpose. Am I reading you right?

    If so, then A) I think you basically have little more than an extremely out there conjecture to rely on especially given the reasonable amount of archaeological evidence of the 586 Babylonian conquest and Nephi’s quite plain and straightforward account, and B) you’re still failing to grasp the key differences between legends and sacred history written hundreds of years after the fact versus a sacred history written by someone in the act of living the events and saying they’re not even exactly sure why they’re writing it (right here, right now) other than the fact that God said to do it. That of course doesn’t mean that we can’t misconstrue meanings or that the author might not have had his own perception of things that might not have matched others perceptions then or later. But that sounds a far cry from what you’re suggesting if I’m reading you right.

  8. Brad Dennis on July 7, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Are you suggesting that chronology of BOM be completely detached from the chronologies of other peoples’ histories in other regions of the world?

    Are those who accept the BOM as a pre-modern text view its history as having happened almost virtually in a vacuum?

    I think that would be the best way for the pre-modern text thesis to survive: the Nephites would have to be viewed as an extremely small religious minority group living among different dominant civilizations, who never had much political power and whose language and textual traditions did not spread much. I say this because evidence that they were a dominant civilization in Meso-America is actually quite scant, and despite the existence of a few words from Egyptian or Hebrew and some of the indigenous languages of the Americas (which are probably happenstance) the language families in the Americas and Semitic and Egyptian have practically zero connection. Perhaps we could entertain the idea that Mormon and Moroni envisioned the Nephite civilization to be much greater than it actually was.

  9. Andrew S. on July 7, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    re 5:

    Jonathan,

    It’s probably something I’m just reading into the BoM based on folklore/how I was raised up, since obviously I can’t look up scholarship about it.

    But my gut impression is that the BoM books are a record handed down from person to various person (and then edited/compiled). It seems straightforward to say that the continuity of the record is also a continuity of its purpose, and it doesn’t seem like the purpose is to be anything but some kind of historical journal.

    I guess the issue is that prior to the bunches of scholarship toward the OT, the outlook regarding the OT was similar. It’s a history. It was only after controversial scholarship that became more mainstream with time that people considered certain books ahistorical or differently purposed (e.g., legendary/spiritual.) And this conclusion came with ideas that books were written across far different time frames, with very different writers, etc., [If I butchered opinions about the OT throughout time and scholarship into the OT, then sorrry!]

    It seems to me that the BoM is more compressed in purposes of the narratives, the writers, the time frame, so we shouldn’t start mincing it up.

  10. Jonathan Green on July 7, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Non-AA: We’re getting closer, but not quite all the way there yet. I’m claiming that the fall of Jerusalem in 1 Nephi is much like the fall of Troy in the Aeneid: it’s an origin story that makes Nephite history an offshoot of biblical history. The narrative function is pretty clear, I think, but it’s difficult to test as a historical proposition. On the other hand, the track record of pre-modern origin stories as factual history doesn’t seem to be all that good. That being the case, why should we stayed tied into a focus on 600 AD and Semitic origins when we argue about Book of Mormon history? It would be like focusing exclusively on the Flood and the location of Eden to provide context for biblical history.

    You are of course correct that this is purely a conjecture, but there are reasons for going through the exercise. If nothing else, it helps identify the borders of what’s imaginable. You mention that 1 Nephi was written by an eyewitness to the events, but that begs the question: was it written by an eyewitness, or about an eyewitness?

  11. Jonathan Green on July 7, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Brad, yes, the point of this exercise is to detach how Nephite history is usually situated. I don’t want to leave it in a vacuum, but I do want to let it float around for a moment. I don’t think serious students of the Book of Mormon are generally in favor of doing so.

    You bring up some good points about reconciling the Book of Mormon and the history of the western hemisphere. One way to go about it is, as you mention, to see the Nephites as an extremely small and insignificant group. I’d like to consider some other possibilities, based on what happens when people write history.

  12. Jonathan Green on July 7, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Andrew,

    Why don’t you think you can look up Book of Mormon scholarship? It’s pretty accessible. And please don’t think that what I’m writing here is emerging from a thorough study of the literature. This is strictly amateur hour.

    I think you’re on the right track with your criticism, because all we have to go on is the text. Your gut and my gut are telling us two different things, but it really does come down to gut feeling. In my case, my predisposition is to look for slippage and discontinuity between sections, and Mosiah/Alma/Mormon strike me as writing of a different sort than 1 Nephi or 4 Nephi. Whether or not my gut feeling is correct, and if it leads anywhere useful, is something yet to be decided.

  13. Andrew S. on July 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    re 11:

    Jonathan,

    What I meant was…we can’t go back to find supporting or similar documents or items of culture from the Americas (or wherever the BoM takes places if any number of competing location theories are correct instead). As you say, all we have to go on is the text, and then we extrapolate things based on the text and things “around” the BoM (e.g., Israel before/around the time Lehi left.)

    I mean, even if we had copies of manuscripts (in this case, the plates) then that would be something different. It might not be the original, but a copy passed down and passed down (and edited and compiled), but then we could really argue something more about slippage and discontinuity, just as NT scholars argue about the style and quality of the Greek.

    As things are currently, we have to wonder things like whether “horses” referred to horses or are a translation liberty.

  14. g.wesley on July 7, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    JG,

    What a fascinating proposition. I glanced back at your other posts on 1 Nephi. Great stuff. Thanks. Will have to give this some thought.

  15. john f. on July 8, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Great post. I think it is a very good idea, even for people who perhaps do not find value in or wish to go where you want to go with this post, for all people to incorporate a few considerations about historiography, at least, into their study and interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

    Primarily, they would hopefully decide it is best to be realistic about how the book came together. Even in the most orthodox understanding of what the Book of Mormon is, aside from interpretations that are beginning to adopt Evangelical creedalist conceptions of infallibility and sufficiency in relation to Book of Mormon origins (a very unfortunate trend), one should not lose sight of the role played by Mormon and Moroni as compilers/editors. They did this work of summarising perhaps dozens or more writings and records without any training in historical method and of course without any knowledge of the science of history as developed in the nineteenth-century German mind. When summarizing historical events within a didactic narrative, especially a narrative that serves to explain Nephite economic and spiritual hegemony in an ethnically charged reality, there is every likelihood that such historical information could be inaccurate at best on the level of dates, numbers and things actually said in a historical moment by certain figures. But our view of BoM historicity remains intact because even remaining extremely flexible about historical facts that seem to come through in the Book of Mormon, this approach is still based on a belief that Mormon and Moroni were real people who lived and wrote in approximately the timeframe that can be deduced from the BoM narrative, i.e. 400 AD.

    To illustrate, if President Monson were given a blank book with 500 pages and told to summarize the religious development of Mormons starting from circa 1200 to the present using a circumscribed universe of source material consisting mostly of priestly writings and diaries (and based on a certain starting point, say the signing of the Magna Carta) then you’d surely get a great and inspiring book that describes things and events that really existed and happened but your primary use of the book would not be historical but rather devotional. It could still pass as Holy Scripture, given that it is written by the President of the Church (assuming that it goes through the canonization process that has been put in place in our times) but it would probably not be properly used as a textbook for English history.

  16. Jim Donaldson on July 8, 2010 at 8:57 am

    The Book of Mormon lays its cards on the table in the title page. Its stated purpose is to persuade. It is a polemic, not a history, and never pretends to be otherwise, though we often think otherwise, forced by our own (not the writers and editors) rhetoric. Like all polemics, the facts (i.e., the history) take a beating to benefit the moral, which is much more important to the writers themselves.

    It is long on inspiration and short on explanation; it even gets most of the doctrine wrong (e,g., all the trinitarian stuff, a very Protestant view of salvation for believers)—what it gets right is what it sets out to do: testify of Jesus Christ. That is maybe all it gets right, but then, that’s a very big deal and that’s what the authors set out to do.

  17. John C. on July 8, 2010 at 9:12 am

    My only concern with what you are proposing is that it appears that the Book of Mormon’s historical accounts could have taken place anywhere within the western hemisphere (okay, anywhere on land). People have tried to place it in central america, south america, upstate new york, and the Philippines (admittedly, not in America, but still proving my point). Detaching it from ancient Near Eastern history is probably a good idea, but, detached, it might float away altogether.

  18. Bill of Wasilla on July 8, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Oh, hell! I’ll have to come back and read this one sometime when I’ve had more sleep.

  19. manaen on July 8, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    the identification of the Nephites as descendants of pre-Exilic Jews
    .
    Didn’t father Lehi discover in the brass plates that they were not Jews but Josephites? This raises a different question for me: what were these Josephites doing down in Jerusalem just before it fell? Amulek said that Lehi was a descendant of Manasseh, whose tribe’s land was up north from Jerusalem, and Manasseh was among the tribes (the “lost tribes”) dispossesed of their land and taken captive more than 100 years before the Jerusalem fell. I believe there’s an interesting story behind Lehi’s presence in Jerusalem at the beginning of the BoM.

  20. Non-Arab Arab on July 8, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    manaen: The exile of the northern kingdom was far from complete. We have this image of wholesale exile, when in reality that’s generally not how the Assyrians or any ancient empire really worked (too much trouble). Generally the elite classes were the ones who were killed, enslaved, and exiled. These agrarian, often feudal societies of the ancient world typically had only a very thin crust of wealthy and educated (besides for wealthy merchants also including clerical classes as well as rulers, sometimes mingled) who could marshal the resources to cause trouble to imperial rulers further afield. Those were the folks who the Assyrians focused on exiling. Left over were apparently masses of peasant refugees, many of whom then intermarried and intermingled with immigrants brought in by the imperial powers, thus producing the Samaritans. I think it is a safe assumption that in the tumult of those years, there were refugees from the north who traveled south into the Judaean kingdom. Lehi being a descendant of them is nothing terribly shocking. The mixing of peoples in the ancient and modern world is a dynamic and far messier process than we often assume.

    Jonathan: “I’m claiming that the fall of Jerusalem in 1 Nephi is much like the fall of Troy in the Aeneid: it’s an origin story that makes Nephite history an offshoot of biblical history. The narrative function is pretty clear, I think, but it’s difficult to test as a historical proposition. On the other hand, the track record of pre-modern origin stories as factual history doesn’t seem to be all that good. That being the case, why should we stayed tied into a focus on 600 AD and Semitic origins when we argue about Book of Mormon history? It would be like focusing exclusively on the Flood and the location of Eden to provide context for biblical history.”

    I read this and all I can think is that you’ve taken a reasonable line of questioning, and stretched it unreasonably. It is reasonable to view 1 Nephi as an origin story and consider its ramifications. However, given the entirely different claims that the author makes (“I was there!” and not “I read about someone who was there”), and the fact that the historical period it is tied to (the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem) is far more historically documented than Troy, I simply think you’ve stretched things farther than can reasonably be done. An origin story written by the participants in the origin is different from an origin story written later. The roles they take on in their societies may eventually be similar, but in examining veracity and ramifications, there is a qualitative difference. Now, if you just don’t believe the Book of Mormon is a real historical account, ok, I can get that line of reasoning. But if you happen to believe that God revealed a piece of ancient history, then I don’t see how one can take it as far as you have without basically saying it is not in fact a historical account (even with all the flaws of the writers of history as john f. points out.

  21. John C. on July 8, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    manaen,
    Here is the story: there were refugees.

    A more interesting story is, “How Lehi got inheritable land”

  22. Ben S on July 8, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Manaean, around the time the Assyrians trashed the northern kingdom in 722, Jerusalem doubled in size, presumably from northern refugees. Lehi’s ancestors may well have been among them. For an LDS source, see here the section called “Lehi’s Ancestors.”

  23. Jonathan Green on July 8, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    John C., that is the problem, isn’t it? One you introduce a gap between the text and history, how do you know when to stop, or how large a gap you can tolerate? I’ll float some ideas about how to anchor the text in the next post.

    Non-Arab Arab, yes, I’m pushing this idea about ten steps farther than is really prudent. I think you identify three different ways that 1 Nephi, in your view, resists the kind of treatment I’m giving it here:
    1. It’s scripture
    2. It’s an eyewitness account
    3. It’s written in the first person

    All good reasons! But imagine that the Book of Mormon text as we now have it had been dug up by archeologists and connected to some past culture and translated by scholars of one kind or another. Even if we had the plates and the text of 1 Nephi, would a historian look at a document from 400 AD that purports to describe events of a thousand years earlier, and not treat the whole account as legendary or fantastic?

  24. Ben S on July 8, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    “a document from 400 AD that purports to describe events of a thousand years earlier”

    Except the small plates would be noticeably different than the rest of the plates on several levels: material, language, perhaps script, style, etc.

  25. Jonathan Green on July 8, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Ben, do any of the 19th-century descriptions of the plates describe them as a noticeably different section of the translated plates? Or is the difference in material only attested by the text in the Book of Mormon?

  26. Non-Arab Arab on July 9, 2010 at 1:23 am

    Jonathan: That’s a fair question as well. And perhaps that’s the reason where I come out different on the conclusion. I think an archaeologist digging up such a record would be able to read the “I Nephi…” (as opposed to “There was this guy Nephi a long time ago…”), combine it with how the story meshes with independently corroborated contemporary events in history, and together with the dating of what was found (I’m presuming our fictional archaeologist would be able to reasonably date what he had found) would have to give the record more direct credence than a Snorri or a Genesis. Not the same perhaps as if he dug up say the bureaucratic archives of Nebucchadnezer’s palace scribes (this is still meant to be a moral/religious record even by the authors’ own admissions), but certainly a lot more than something which has little to no independently confirmed outside links in history.

  27. Brad Kramer on July 9, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I don’t know for sure, but I assume that Jonathan is suggesting the possibility that 1 Nephi could have been, for example, crafted by circa 150 BCE Nephite scribes who consolidated and standardized existing origin traditions by constructing a first-person account in the voice of the eponymous legendary founding king that both accounts for the existing cultural and political state of affairs (vis a vis Nephite/non-Nephite relations, the social position of the elite, literate, priestly Jacobite caste, the Nephite priestly-monarchical line, competing priestly-monarchical claims, the material control and political meaning of sacred relics, including records, etc) as well as grounding Nephite society historically in Israelite roots (cf. Aeneas and Troy). The mere fact of first person narrative voice is hardly conclusive historically.

  28. manaen on July 9, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    18, 19, 20
    .
    Thanks, all, for your responses. They confirm my comment in 17, “I believe there’s an interesting story behind Lehi’s presence in Jerusalem at the beginning of the BoM” which would be an earlier persecution-causes-Lehi’s-family-to-leave-the-land-of-their-inheritance story.
    .
    Non-Arab Arab’s first paragraph in 18 leads to an interesting possibility: if the intermarriages during the Assyrian captivity that he noted resulted in non-Israelite women occupying the right branches of Lehi’s family tree, the haplotype-BoM discussion could take a different turn.

  29. Jonathan Green on July 9, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Brad, yes, that’s a good example of what I have in mind. Right now I’m headed in a somewhat different direction, but accepting the Book of Mormon as an ancient historical record is entirely consistent, I think, with the possibilities that you suggest.

  30. Jed on July 10, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Joseph Smith made a series of statements and claims about how he found and translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, based on his first-person experience. I choose to believe those are true, in large part because of my belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.

    Some of those claims relate to personal visitations by Moroni, an angelic being who claimed to have lived on the earth circa 400 AD and to have written part of the record that Joseph Smith translated, again by the gift and power of God. I likewise choose to believe Moroni’s claims to be true, again in large part because of my belief that Moroni was a prophet of God.

    Some of Moroni’s claims relate to the existence of Mormon, a prophet who was also Mormon’s father and who claimed to have compiled a history of his ancestors by the gift and power of God. I likewise choose to believe Mormon’s claims to be true, again in large part because of my belief that Mormon was a prophet of God.

    Some of Mormon’s claims relate to the existence of Nephi, a prophet who had lived approximately a thousand years before Mormon and who had created several records claiming to describe how some of Mormon’s ancestors arrived in the Americas. I likewise choose to believe Nephi’s claims to be true, again in large part because of my belief that Nephi was a prophet of God.

    My question for you is: at what point do you diverge? I assume that you accept the historical accuracy of Joseph Smith’s statements, and probably of Mormon and Moroni’s statements, but that you are concerned that Mormon and Moroni did not sufficiently interrogate the historical records they had and used, including the accounts that purported to be written by the hand of Nephi, and that we should therefore insert our own questioning approach about the historicity of those claims (or any claims from the Book of Mormon that are based on events that Mormon or Moroni didn’t see firsthand). Is that correct?

    But why cut off the chain of belief there? What if, instead of jumping from Mormon to Nephi, we moved from Mormon to Ammaron? And then to Amos? And then to his father Amos? And then to his father Nephi? And then to his father Nephi? (And I think we could extend the chain further back before this, but I’ll stop here.) Each of these men claimed that they and their father both wrote on the same plates of Nephi, which Mormon claims to have had in his possession. At what point then would you detach the historicity of the visit of Christ to the Americas from the reality of Mormon as a historical figure or the visit of Moroni as an angelic being to Joseph Smith in the 1800s? Or does it just get more and more fuzzy and detached in a vague sort of way the further we go back?

  31. Jonathan Green on July 10, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Jed, I think you’re taking exactly the right approach by asking yourself what part of the story seems firmest, and where you can go from there. Like you, I find that Joseph Smith’s experience has particular significance, and I’ll discuss it a bit more in the grand finale (which is coming soon). And you’re certainly correct that Joseph Smith leads to Moroni–who does indeed pose a problem for the line of reasoning I’m exploring here–and Moroni leads to Mormon.

    I do think we should try to separate historical judgment from faith, although that’s not always possible. It should be possible to accept the Book of Mormon as scripture whose moral teachings have a claim on us, and which we are obliged to study for its present relevance to our lives, without binding ourselves to a literal interpretation of its historical narrative. The fall of Jericho, for examples, appears to be a story that needed to be included in the OT, but correcting the historical details (like that Jericho appears not to have had walls during the relevant time period) is not something that God has seen as worthy of correction through the prophets of any intervening time period. Nevertheless we can recognize in the story something we’re still supposed to learn from. When we turn around and start working on Ancient Near Eastern history, we can recognize the OT as the most important source we have for Judah and Israel, but still remain cautious about much of what it says, even as we maintain our belief in the scriptural value of the OT.

    So back to your question. The chain from Joseph Smith to Moroni to Mormon is pretty resilient, under the present assumptions. But earlier than Mormon, things get a bit flaky, don’t you think? After 3 Nephi, the focus gets fuzzy, in the same way that history gets blurry before King Benjamin. I’d pick those as two of the places where Book of Mormon history gets squishy. And evaluating the reliability of old records is the kind of thing that highly trained scholars with decades of experience regularly get wrong. I don’t think it’s demeaning of Mormon to suggest that he was not in a good position to evaluate the historical objectivity or accuracy of the plates of Nephi.

  32. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 11, 2010 at 7:24 am

    One way to go about it is, as you mention, to see the Nephites as an extremely small and insignificant group

    Not so insignificant, but a small group. After all, when they get destroyed in the wars at the end, the wars continue on without them.

  33. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 11, 2010 at 7:45 am

    I assume that Jonathan is suggesting the possibility that 1 Nephi could have been, for example, crafted by circa 150 BCE Nephite scribes who consolidated and standardized existing origin traditions by constructing a first-person account in the voice of the eponymous legendary founding king that both accounts for the existing cultural and political state of affairs

    Having read the comments, I now know he isn’t, but he should be.

    We know a number of groups, stylistically, used first person for accounts, even when they were writing the stories of others.

    It is also apparent that the verbatim quotes (the sermons and blessings) are all poetic. The text almost seems to exist to embed poetic sermons at times.

    But there are themes that carry through, which is where I got the inspiration for my deconstructing the Book of Mormon series I was doing for a while at Mormon Matters.

    For example, Lehi takes only his family. When the boys go back, they bring back Lehi’s political ally with his entire household — which would mean servants, slaves and some extended relatives. Abraham’s household was large enough to include 300 men raised to war, relatives and a huge host of other servants and employees. At that point they could have had 400-500 people in their group.

    When they build a ship unlike any the boys had ever seen before, part of that may well be the size. When the two older brothers are astonished at it, it may well have been that the labor they were withholding was their share of the servants and slaves, not their personal labor. So they did not see the ship being built, but instead came upon it one day after lolling about in their tents as the process went on.

    “Made us slaves in the wilderness.” A bondservant goes free after seven years. If the seven years comes up and they decide to stay (as in they are in the middle of the Arabian peninsula an Nephi isn’t too charitable with them), they have to agree to become permanent slaves.

    As to Lehi, who was surprised to learn he was of Manasseh — that is a telling point as to his acculturation, his identity and his tribal affiliations. It says a number of dramatic things about Lehi of Samaria who may have really discovered his identity (or, he may have well known it and was using a poetic statement — the narrative doesn’t let us know which applies).

    By the time of Jacob they have enough additional people that there is a group of men with concubines that their wives are unaware of.

    If there were only fifty or sixty of them, men, women and children the chances that there is a class of men with concubines that their wives are unaware of is vanishingly small.

    If they have moved in with the natives, and if it was a larger group that came out of Jerusalem, the possibility that a number of men had concubines from the local natives they had moved in with is (a) very much higher and (b) explains why when Jacob preached his sermon he surprised anyone.

    But I think the real problem is treating it as an historical record when it is something else. It is a sacral record. Probably, it seems to me, including the real story of Nephi, but with huge blind spots, some of them the authors know about as they make excuses for their weaknesses, some of it that comes from being a sacral history rather than a different type of history.

    But “ten thousands” were probably no more ten thousand men than a Roman Centurion commanded a hundred men.

  34. James Olsen on July 11, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    A very enjoyable post. I particularly appreciate the seriousness with which you’re taking the BofM – taking it at face value. Doing so certainly demands that we at least entertain the possibilities of its being afflicted with the same problems that other pre-modern texts are afflicted. If nothing else, it’s a great question to pose on what basis we anachronistically read post-enlightenment historiographic sensibilities into an ancient document’s historiography.