What’s in a name, or, why is the Book of Mormon called the Book of Mormon?By: Jake
All of us upon our birth are given a name. This naming is often accompanied by a ritual such as a blessing or a christening along with being recorded in civil records. The process in which a name is chosen is often agonising, and most parents don’t chose any old name at random; no parent that I know chose their name by throwing darts at a book of names. The name that a child is given is often a thought out process and endowed with significance. In the Book of Mormon Nephi and Lehi are told they are given their names as a reminder of their ancestors so their name would remind them of their righteous acts. We can look at countless times in the scriptures where the name has been significant, Abram has his name changed to Abraham, Jacob to Israel to show significant changes in their life, and many other examples could be found in the scriptures to show how God has used names for important reasons. For most people, however, the significance that our name had when it was chosen is lost. Our name simply becomes a way of identifying who we are, no one ever says ‘that’s Jake, who is called that because his mum liked the name and it reminded her a person who had helped her during difficult times.’ Or, in the case of Victoria and David Beckham’s child Brooklyn, nobody really says ‘that is Brooklyn named after the place in which he was conceived’. Sometimes we will recall the significance of the name as part of anecdotal conversation, but for the most part our name simply is for identification, most of us don’t think to much about why other people are called by certain names. In the case of books the name of a book is not simply for identification. In fact the title and name of a book has a great deal of impact upon the way in which we understand and read it. The significance always remains and has a functional role, even if it is often over looked.
To demonstrate this lets consider the title of one of our books of scripture The Book of Mormon. The current full title of the text is The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. On a basic level it is called this because Mormon was the compiler of the records, and the subtitle was added later to clarify and inform a certain approach (the significance of this will be seen later). However, it could equally be called The Book of Joseph Smith: A 19th Century historical text this is because it was dictated/translated/interpreted by Joseph Smith, and it was written in the 19th century and is of a historical nature. Both of these titles would be valid as a name but in changing the title it radically alters the way in which we read the text. Reading it in terms of the latter would possibly cause us to miss the theme of testifying of Jesus Christ and instead focus on the 19th century elements that exist in the text. On the other hand the first would cause us to look more at the christology within it, and miss perhaps the 19th century elements embedded in the text. If the title of the text is important as to how we read the text it leads us to ask the question why is it called The Book of Mormon and why was the subtitle added to it?
The purpose of the title of the book usually informs us into what the subject of the book is about. A reader of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone knows instantly that the subject of the book is Harry Potter and that it will involve a philosophers stone. It is providing a structure around which we can build our expectations and oriantate the information we gain as we read through the text. Likewise Mormon Doctrine, with its title Bruce R. Mcconkie makes it clear that he wants his readers to understand that subject inside is what the title claims it is: the doctrine of Mormons. As debatable as it is regarding if the contents are actually Mormon Doctrine at all, and not just his own interpretation and opinions, he in chosing that title wants the reader to read it as if it is Mormon doctrine. This follows common protocol for books to use titles as a guide for what it contains then, but it highlights the fact that in guiding it influences and imposes upon how we read the text. If we take this notion of using a title as a guide to what its about, it doesn’t really fit with the Book of Mormon, as the prophet Mormon isn’t the subject of the Book, in fact there is no clear subject of the Book Of Mormon. It is impossible to understand what the title even refers to if one has not read the book already. This makes the title semantically empty, there is nothing in it that really conveys anything to the general public (who would know nothing about Mormon prior to encountering the book) about what the book is about. Perhaps, more can be understood when we consider its full title as it should be remembered that the authorial title, that is the one that was given it by Mormon was: The Book of Mormon: An Account written by the Hand of Mormon upon plates taken from the Plates of Nephi, and not the title that we know it by The Book of Mormon: Another testament of Jesus Christ. The initial title was reduced to the Book of Mormon when it was printed on the cover of the book. This was common practice when books where published at that time, most books had extensive titles that would be reduced when it was printed on the spine of the book. For instance Gulivers Travels was initially called Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, which when printed was reduced to its current title simply to save space on the cover and to clarify what the book was about.
Even when we consider the full title of the Book of Mormon (with the subtitle). The title is still rather enigmatic and tells us little about what to expect from the book. It tells us nothing about what the account is of, simply that it was written by Mormon and that its source was the Plates of Nephi. It does tell us that it is an account, but it tells us nothing about what it is an account of, or what type of account it is. After all, a financial report from a company would be called an account as well as a persons story about their trip to the shops, or a fictional narrative such as Guliver’s Travels. It is possible then to infer from the title that it could be a financial report in the Book of Mormon on the basis of it being an account. The fact then that the title has no clear subject in its title reflects the lack of a clear subject within the text. Whilst, it is possible to say that it presents a narrative of some of the religious events of a population of people that resided in America this raises the question of why is it not called the Book of the Nephites and Lamanites? This could be because it isn’t just about either of these groups, as it also contains other populations such as the Jaredites and the Amalekites. It seems then to make sense to call it after the person who compiled the records, but this is not what we do with our other scriptures, we do not call the bible the Book of Constantine, as it was under his instruction that the canon was produced. In fact the title of the Book of Mormon seems to direct us away from the book as a abridgement and compilation of book’s. Despite the fact that the text is broken up into individual books, it is not presented to us as a Biblia or Library of books, but as a whole text that has been edited by Mormon. It is not the Books of Mormon, or Books of the Nephites but simply a singular book.
Even more bewildering is if we take the title The Book of Mormon, to denote possession, that it is the book that Mormon owns. Like the house of God, or the car of Jake. If it is in this case that we take it, then why didn’t Mormon bring the book which is his to Joseph Smith, and in that case why wasn’t it called the Book of Moroni as he was the one who wrote the last sections, and gave it to Joseph Smith and is linked to the stewardship of the plates. These questions are all relevant and in considering the decision that was made in its name, and if it can help us understand more about how we can read the Book of Mormon, or how Mormon and Moroni wanted the book to read. For we could also make the case for it being called the Book of Joseph Smith, or the Book of the Latter-day saints, on the basis of ownership and possession. The fact then that the title gives nothing away about what it is about, and due to the rise of the term Mormon to apply to a members of The Church of Latter-day saints, has caused the relevance of the name Mormon in the title to be lost, and simply cause bewilderment. It is more often read as being the Book of The Mormons and not the Book of Mormon by those outside of the church. In order to prevent this confusion in 1982 the church added the subtitle ‘Another testament of Jesus Christ’ the purpose of this was to highlight the role of the Saviour in the book. It also indicates who they were aiming the book towards. It was aimed at a Western Christian audience. As the terms testament and Jesus Christ would only be understood by those in western christian nations, who were familiar with the language of christianity, and would have understood the reference to the old and new testament. This also helps us to understand that the book should be read in relation to these two texts. As Boyd K. Packer said:
“The Book of Mormon has been misunderstood. With the subtitle, it takes its place where it should be– beside the Old Testament and the New Testament.”
Packer makes it clear that it needs to be read in relation to these texts. Likewise Ezra Taft Benson explained the function of the new subtitle:
“With the subtitle added to the Book of Mormon, the purpose of the book, ‘to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST,’ will become immediately apparent to all who hereafter receive the Book of Mormon,”
If the role of Christ is how it should be read then why didn’t Mormon name it the Book of Jesus Christ, or an account of Christ? Maybe it was because this would have been misleading, as it wasn’t written by him, or about him, even if he features significantly within the text. The intrusion by the Church redefines how the Book of Mormon is perceived, and in turn how we read and understood the text. With the subtitle our reading experience is structured around the concept of what we are reading being related to the Bible, and in a framework that testifies of Jesus Christ.
It is certainly good to read the book in this way, but, perhaps the fact we have overlooked the title and its significance means we have missed out on the way in which Mormon features in the book as its narrator and compiler. It is possible that really it is a book that is all about Mormon and that is why it is called the Book of Mormon. That the way in which he appears in the text is at the level of editor and compiler, that it is on the meta-analysis of the text that we can see his hand throughout the text, and it is indirectly about him. It should be remembered that as a writer of history the account he gave us of the Nephites is not the only account he could have given us of the Nephites and Lamenites. There are an infinite number of combinations and variations of other stories that he could have picked and chose from the 1,000 years of history he had access to, to form the Book of Mormon. The fact that he chose certain stories, books, and narratives to tell, reflect upon what was important to him, and what he thought would be important to his future readers.If then we look at the Book of Mormon and consider the historiography of its composition from the perspective of Mormon the prophet and the series of choices he made in the composition we will read it in the way in which the author intended it to be read. The post-humous addition of the extra subtitle ‘Another testament of Jesus Christ’ has caused us to focus on reading the book in terms of one looking for testifying of Jesus as the Christ, and in seeing it in relation to the old and new testament, this is surely an important way in which we can read the text. However, it is also interesting to see it as the prophet Mormon’s story, for the book represents the way in which he understood the narrative of his people, the series of events that he thought were significant enough to explain where he was in a war-torn country on the brink of utter destruction. This raises questions such as why did Mormon pick certain stories for inclusion? What does his narrative tell us about the time in which he was writing and his struggles? In what ways can we see the influence of Mormon on the narrative? and what sources was Mormon using to construct his narrative? Maybe when we look at the book in this way it will be seen that the Book of Mormon really is a book all about Mormon the prophet and in looking at it from this perspective we will gain a new set of lessons from the rich structure of the Book of Mormon.