A Case for a Semi-Historical Book of MormonBy: Nate
I recently made a personal choice to believe that Nephi was a real, historical person. In spite of all the doubts I’ve harbored over the years about Nephi and his trans-Pacific voyage, I feel good about my choice for several reasons:
- The Holy Ghost confirmed to me that the Book of Mormon was true, or that I should follow God through this book. I can’t infer from my testimony that Nephi was actually historical, and personally, I don’t need Nephi to be historical to understand the Book of Mormon as true. But I feel like I should stand in solidarity with other members who make this assumption if I am to follow the path of the church, which the Holy Ghost directed me into.
- God set up the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, with its angels and plates, to support the assumption that Nephi was a real person, not a myth. God also provided witnesses to these miracles who never recanted their testimonies. For this reason, I feel like I should submit to the paradigm as it came from the Lord, even if it turns out that God inspired a fictional Nephi. God seems to want us to understand His spiritual allegories as historical, even when He makes them sound a bit outlandish.
- The Book of Mormon contains some ancient characteristics which would have been nearly impossible for Joseph Smith or his circle to have invented. Therefore, I believe there might actually be something authentically ancient about the Book of Mormon.
But do I believe the Brother of Jared was a real person or that his story is historical? No, not really. Why not, if I believe Nephi was real?
- The story takes place in the Genesis post-flood era and in my mind is clearly mythical. Many Mormons don’t take a 6-day creation, the tower of babel language origin myth, or world-wide flood completely literally, so why should we take the Brother of Jared’s fleet of submarines literally if it’s an extension of that same era?
- There is a limit to how much absurdity I am willing to embrace. God does challenge us to believe some absurdities, like the existence of Golden Plates in upstate New York, and he gives us witnesses to help us out with that challenge. But do we really need to embrace utterly non-scientific conceptions of reality simply because we have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is true?
- The Brother of Jared story is my favorite in the book, and the most personally meaningful. My acceptance of the story as myth has not diminished the power of the story as an allegory for my life.
So I find myself believing in a semi-historical Book of Mormon. It’s a position that is full of contradictions, but it’s one I’m comfortable with. Howard and I were sparring with Bruce Nelson over at Millennial Star, who claimed that the inspired fiction theory of the Book of Mormon was so convoluted and contradictory, that it could never be realistically presented as a middle ground between the Book of Mormon as hoax, and Book of Mormon as “most correct book” viewpoints. He challenged Howard and I to try to present the inspired fiction theory in a way that might prove more plausible. This is my response to that challenge. It does not reject historicity outright, but leaves room for a flexible interpretation that could include both historical and non-historical elements within an inspired framework.
Embracing Contradictory Evidence
Dallin H. Oaks said, concerning the historicity of the Book of Mormon, that neither side could adequately prove or disprove it. On the one hand, we have implausibilities and anachronisms that lead the Smithsonian Institution and almost all other secular observers to reject Book of Mormon historicity outright. But then we also have the remarkable statements from witnesses of the plates and angels, as well as some spectacular internal evidence’s of the Book of Mormon’s ancient origins. Elder Oaks described this contradictory situation as “a draw” that can only be broken by an appeal to the Holy Ghost.
It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Its authenticity depends, as it says, on a witness of the Holy Spirit. Our side will settle for a draw, but those who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon cannot settle for a draw.
In spite of what Elder Oaks said about accepting a draw, most people choose one side or the other. We often hear: “Either Joseph Smith was the greatest prophet, OR he was a complete fraud!” If members have felt the witness of the Holy Ghost, they assume this means the book must be historically accurate, in addition to being spiritually true. But even some who have felt a witness of the Holy Ghost, begin to doubt that witness when faced with contradictions and implausibilities, assuming God could not be the author of anything that wasn’t historically perfect.
Is it really necessary to choose between these two extremes? Mormons believe in embracing all truth. What if there is truth on both sides? It would be wrong to reject the wisdom of the Smithsonian Institution’s position if it contained some truth, just as it would be wrong to reject Joseph Smith’s witness if that is true. Scientists don’t reject quantum mechanics because it contradicts Newtonian physics. They live with the contradiction without rejecting either theory until further knowledge is gained. Personally, I am content to embrace the contradictions which surround the Book of Mormon. But I enjoy imagining ways in which these contradictions might be resolved. The following theory allows me to take the Book of Mormon at face value, as a work of contradiction and mixed influences: real history, 19th century theological understandings, pure revelation, and invention.
Book of Mormon Translation Similar to Book of Abraham Translation
David Bokovoy, a faithful LDS scholar, recently advocated a theory of the Book of Abraham which accepts it as a pseudodepigraphic text written not by Abraham, but by Joseph Smith under the influence of the Holy Ghost. Pseudodepigraphic texts are writings attributed to one person, but really written by someone else. The word is often used to discuss books of the Bible which were written centuries after their attributed authors died. Bokovoy argues that the Book of Abraham contains Hellenistic Jewish elements also contained in the Book of Genesis, and thus must be considered pseudodepigraphic, because it would be impossible for a historical Abraham to have written it. Additionally, many LDS scholars have come to the conclusion that the Egyptian scrolls were not the source material for the Book of Abraham, as Joseph Smith claimed. Instead, the Book of Abraham is considered a pure revelation, inspired by the idea of Abraham in Egypt which Joseph explored after he came in contact with the scrolls.
Since many faithful LDS scholars have come to accept the Book of Abraham as a revelation, a pseudodepigraphic text written by Joseph Smith, what is stopping us from viewing the Book of Mormon the same way? Witnesses to the translation of the Book of Mormon claimed Joseph Smith did not translate directly from the plates, but most often from a seer stone. This also corresponds to the theory that Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Abraham directly from the scrolls.
What About the Plates and Angels?: Crutches for Faith
Unlike the Book of Abraham and its facsimiles, we cannot compare any original source material for the Book of Mormon. Additionally, the source material was presented to Joseph Smith by an angel, not by a traveling salesman. This story makes it difficult for us to dismiss the plates as mere “inspiration” in the same way the Egyptian scrolls were. If the plates were really extraneous, why would God go to all the trouble of sending an angel, and giving him real golden plates meticulously etched by ancient scribes?
I believe the existence of plates and angels helped Joseph and his followers exercise faith in what was happening. As mortals, we often need tangible, material things, crutches upon which we prop up our faith. Do our bottles of consecrated oil contain real healing power? No. But the oil is a tangible token in which to place our faith, which does have power. Joseph Smith’s seer stone was just a worthless rock he found in a ditch. But because he believed in it, it became a portal to receive heavenly messages. As Joseph Smith matured, he stopped using the seer stone, because he was mature and experienced enough to access heaven without it.
The “Study it Out in Your Mind” Method of Translation
D&C 9:8 provides evidence that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using the creativity and inspiration of his own mind. When Oliver Cowdery tried to translate the Book of Mormon, he failed because he thought the translation was simply going to be given to him, like reading English words off a page. Instead, God told him he had to come up with the translation by “studying it out in his mind,” and then ask God if it was right.
But if Joseph and Oliver were really trying to translate reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics, what kind of authentic translation could they have come up with through their own personal study? None whatsoever, as they had no experience with the language. However, they could have invented a translation using their own imagination, and then asked God if it was right. What kind of “study” was going on in Joseph’s mind? I would submit that Joseph probably marshaled all his intellectual faculties and spiritual gifts in the process. He used his clairvoyant gifts to try to access something deep in the past, a “voice crying from the dust.” Then he filled it in with his own theological understandings, influenced by his 19th century culture, as well as elements from the KJV Bible, and perhaps his own imagination or stream of consciousness as well. The result would be exactly what the Book of Mormon turned out to be: a book full of mixed influences, pure revelation, 19th century theological and cultural ideas, KJV language, strange passages that correspond with elements of real antiquity Joseph could not have known about, as well as imaginative passages.
The Akashic Records
In 1908, a man named Levi H. Dowling wrote the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ, which detailed events in Christ’s childhood, as well as his travels to places like India. Dowling claimed to have received the book through the Akashic Records, which is a repository of spiritual truth on a metaphysical plane. The Akashic Records is a popular theological concept in New Age and Eastern Religions, which sometimes call it The Book of Life, wherein all events that ever transpired are written. Mormons have similar beliefs in a Book of Life which contains records of all our deeds, and angels “silent notes taking.” Could it be that Joseph Smith was able to recreate the Book of Mormon record by delving into this spiritual repository of historical and spiritual wisdom?
The Agency of Angels
All of this still doesn’t answer the question of why God went to all the trouble of creating these elaborate golden plates, which would have no relation to the finished product. Surely God could have found a more efficient way to do this! Maybe God didn’t meticulously plan all of this out. Maybe it was Moroni’s idea. Seeing angels is really not that big of a deal. Lots of people see them, in and out of the church. Here in the abbey ruins of Yorkshire, I’ve heard a number of accounts of people who have seen ghosts of monks who died centuries back. The idea that Joseph was visited by an ancient Indian ghost is quite normal. There are many accounts like this. In many cases, these ghosts and specters seem to have their own personalities and strange behaviors. This makes sense doctrinally. Free agency is eternal, so it would follow that angels could also be imperfect, that they do things of their own free will, and behave in unexpected ways.
It is not so unusual that Joseph Smith’s Indian ghost Moroni behaved in a very strange way, showing Joseph Smith buried treasures, and reciting passages of scripture. That was simply his manner. But its strangeness may not be a reflection of God’s ways, but on the randomness of angelic agency. Joseph may not have known what to make of it all, but in the end, he was able to construct a narrative that helped him understand it all, in a way which encompassed his previous doctrinal understandings and assumptions and inventions about Native American history. If Joseph Smith had lived in China, perhaps he would have been visited by angels from ancient China who showed him buried artifacts and inspired him to write an account of Christ in ancient China.
I believe Joseph Smith’s strange story could have been the result of his very peculiar encounter with a particular angel, which inspired a narrative that included many influences: Joseph’s 19th century theological understandings, his clairvoyant gifts, supernatural encounters, revelations from the Holy Ghost, invention and imagination. In short, exactly what the Book of Mormon is: an inspired book of scripture, similar to the Bible, psudepigraphic, with a mixture of modern theology and clairvoyant illusions to real antiquity. I know of no other theory can really account for the many anachronisms and implausibilities, as well as the evidence of witnesses to the angels and plates, and ancient elements within the text.
- Is there any “middle ground” between those who consider the Book of Mormon a hoax, and “the most correct book?”
- Could the Smithsonian Institute, and the Church both be right about the Book of Mormon?
- Is this Semi-Historical Book of Mormon Theory more or less plausible than other theories?
- Can you live with contradiction, or must you interpret the Book of Mormon as either “most correct book” or hoax?