My friend and co-blogger Rosalynde presents a fascinating argument about Book of Mormon historicity in her recent review of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. Based on my experience with various other ancient texts, I respectfully disagree.
Rosalynde suggests that Grant Hardy’s literary analysis of the Book of Mormon is harder to separate from a discussion of its historical origins than he thinks. He shows us the complexity, coherence, and development of its various narrative voices, and in the process shows how much their distinctive, personal perspectives and interests shape the text. Hardy invites readers of the Book of Mormon to set aside questions of historicity, at least for the moment, and explore literary features like these which are interesting in their own right. Yet in Rosalynde’s view the literary character that Hardy finds ironically indicates something itself about the book’s historicity. If we attend to “the history of the narrative genre,” we see that even at the time of a relatively modern work such as Don Quixote, “the romance had not yet become the novel, the author had not yet entirely separated from the narrator, and indeed the human being had not yet become the modern subject comfortably at home in its fully-furnished mental interior.”
Hence in Rosalynde’s view, the very complexity of the narrator’s personalities, and the degree to which their voices are visible in the text, mark it as a distinctively modern book, much more modern even than Don Quixote, at least in this respect. In the comments she suggests that the Book of Mormon still need not be entirely modern in its origins; perhaps these modern characteristics enter the text through a process of interpretation as (modern) Joseph Smith tries to convey authentically ancient content. However, one must “recognize a modern context at some level,” and presumably one whose influence on the text is roughly as deep and pervasive as the influence of these complex, developed narrative voices that Hardy describes.
First I want to thank Rosalynde for such an interesting, creative, and unexpected angle on the question of Book of Mormon historicity. This is an exciting question to explore, if only because it calls out such interesting questions about the literary character of the Book of Mormon and indeed the entire history of writing. I am quite interested in both the historicity and the literary character of the Book of Mormon myself, and find it very exciting to think about how they might be related. Further, if Rosalynde’s view of the history of literature were accurate, her point would seem to carry great weight.
That said, I disagree rather thoroughly. I think Rosalynde greatly overestimates how far the sort of subjectivity and personal voice displayed in the Book of Mormon is distinctively modern. I am inclined to agree that the Pentateuch takes a very different tone than most of the Book of Mormon, as do many other portions of the Bible, and there may be a trend across history for books to be less personal in the ancient world. My impression is that the history of literature is simply less linear than Rosalynde suggests. However, if there is a trend corresponding to the emergence of modernity, it is a trend in how many books have this personal tone, not in whether there are books with a highly developed narrative subject such as we see in the Book of Mormon.
Several examples spring to mind of ancient writings in which the complexity and pathos of the author’s subjective experience come through quite vividly: Augustine’s Confessions, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and many of the Psalms, for example. Julie Smith similarly calls our attention to the rather existential Ezekiel.
Plato’s writings also develop some really stunning portraits of characters and narrators, explicitly and implicitly, especially of Socrates. The Phaedo is one of the most illustrative. In it, Socrates offers a sustained, elaborate defense of his view that the soul is eternal, but interrupts it with disarmingly frank comments on his relationships with his interlocutors, on how they may feel about what he is saying and vice versa, and about his own feelings on the subject he is discussing. The conversation itself clearly arises in response to the emotionally loaded situation in which Socrates and his friends and family find themselves. More than once Socrates directly calls into question his own motives for presenting such an argument when he is about to be executed. As author of the dialogue, Plato clearly shows a rich appreciation for human subjectivity, including the way our perceptions and judgments are often shaped by our interests and emotions, both overtly and covertly. In fact, there are times when the quintessentially modern Kierkegaard, a contemporary of Joseph Smith, is clearly and self-consciously channelling Plato.
Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, though it was written a few centuries after Moroni, is also interesting to consider on this point, as are some of the Buddhist scriptural texts and the Chinese Zhuangzi, which date from a similar period. The Buddhist texts I have read (from the Pali Canon) do not necessarily display the inner depths of an individual author as such, but they display an incredibly rich appreciation for the complexities and quirks of human subjective experience. Even in some of the more historically oriented books of the Bible, now and then we get surprisingly personal glimpses into the struggles of heroes like Gideon, Saul, Elijah, and Abraham. The writings of Paul in the New Testament were presumably written before the time of Mormon and Moroni, but display deep, sustained, and poignant introspection.
I think it is fascinating to consider how well developed the personal voices of the Book of Mormon narrators are, and what this might indicate about both the meaning and origins of the text. Rosalynde suggests, though, that the “fully-furnished mental interior[s]” of the Book of Mormon’s narrators are the sort of thing that only turns up in modern texts. It would not surprise me if something like her view of the history of literature is true within certain periods and regions. However, based on my own reading of ancient texts, especially those I’ve mentioned, at the scale relevant for evaluating the Book of Mormon, her view of history does not hold up. Some of the most complex, cohesive, subtle, and moving explorations and expressions of the individual person as subject come from the ancient world, in and around the time of the Book of Mormon.