Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The Weakness of the Book of Mormon

Posted by BrianJ on December 26, 2007

If you’re just joining the discussion, this is Part Two. In Part One, we asked why Nephi and Moroni would describe their writing as “weak.” I concluded that this was due, in part, to comparing their work with the rich, complex, and beautiful writing in the Old Testament. In Part Two, we ask:

2) Were Nephi and Moroni actually weak in writing?

In other words, if we look at what makes the Old Testament such rewarding study—and assume that Nephi and Moroni admired the same things—do we find the same strengths in the Book of Mormon? How do the Nephite authors compare to their Israelite ancestors? Part One of this series considered Nephi and Moroni’s perspective; now we’ll shift to our own perspective.

I’ll come right out and share my opinion: The Book of Mormon lacks much of what makes the Old Testament such a pleasure—and a challenge—to study:

1. Structure: yes, the Book of Mormon has chiasmi, but they are not only rare, they are also simple. (Which is not to say that they aren’t beautiful.)
2. Language: whatever linguistic devices the Book of Mormon authors used in their reformed Egyptian were probably fairly basic, given that it was not their native language. In any case, much of it would be lost in translation to English and, unlike the Hebrew of the Old Testament, unavailable as source material for us today.
3. Authorship: conspicuously, every word in the Book of Mormon can be attributed to a known author. There are a couple of cases when it is difficult to distinguish between two candidates (e.g., when Moroni inserts his comments in Ether). Furthermore, it is always clear who kept the plates and who abridged what. (This point will be important in Part Three.) Also, consider that Mormon’s occupation—warrior—might not make for the best literary training.
4. Permanent Medium: the Book of Mormon authors employ the complete opposite of oral tradition: they write their words in unchanging gold. As a result, there is no way to alter the things Nephi wrote over the years; i.e., even if Helaman had wanted to, he couldn’t have modified or edited something Nephi wrote in order to make it more beautiful or…correlated. This is not to say that Nephite culture was not oral, just that their religious tradition wasn’t.
5. Unknown Culture: we know almost nothing about Nephite civilization and culture.
6. Maintenance of a Religion: Nephi clearly had a deep understanding of his religion, and he effectively taught it too, as evidenced by his brother Jacob’s speeches and writings. Their focus, however, was on strengthening people in their faith, not to establish a novel religion.

Just to be clear—none of these points is a good reason to stop reading the Book of Mormon, just as President Kimball’s scratchy voice was not a good reason to stop listening to his speeches. The strengths of the Book of Mormon are considered in Part Three.

9 Responses to “The Weakness of the Book of Mormon”

  1. Clark said

    1. I’m not sure the BoM chiasmus are simpler than say the OT, are they? Alma 36 is reasonably complex. What bugs me about chiasmus are those who see them everywhere. But weaker two line parallelisms are pretty common in the BoM and as easy to discern as in Pslams.

    2. Is the language Egyptian or is that merely the encoding? It seems this is a pretty open debate. I think a strong case could be made that the language is Hebrew or a variant.

    3. I don’t think this claim is accurate. For one we have Blake’s expansion theory which entails it isn’t always clear who is writing at all. (i.e. is this an expansion via Joseph Smith and not in the original text? — typically we can’t tell) Even ignoring the issue of translation though there are big questions in expansions of say Isaiah. Then there is 3 Nephi to deal with.

    4. Once again I’m not sure here. I think this would apply to the small plates but not to everything in Mosiah onward. We just don’t know the sources Mormon was working with nor when they were compiled. I think we can safely say we don’t have quite the situation there is with the OT but I think things are far more complex and perhaps unknowable than you suggest.

    5. This is a big one. I think we can read some Hebrew culture into the Book of Mormon and perhaps, to a far more limited extent, mesoAmerican culture. But we simply don’t know how quickly Nephite culture diverged and evolved from what Nephi knew in Palestine. And, to be fair, our knowledge of Palestinian culture in 600 BC is pretty spotty too.

    6. I’m not sure Nephi’s focus is on strengthening people in their faith. I think Nephi, moreso than anyone else, has an odd writing style. Why so much Isaiah? These are his more personal writings but their “audience” isn’t exactly clear. (And perhaps wasn’t entirely clear to Nephi as well) Certainly they talk about preaching Christ, but how much of those sermons were for the people around them and how much of having a future audience with the plates in mind isn’t clear.

  2. brianj said

    Clark – Thanks for challenging me on these points. I won’t defend any of them to the death. I suppose I could illustrate my stand this way: If I were getting a PhD in religion, I might test these hypotheses for my thesis.

    1. I may be guilty of finding chiasmus everywhere—or at least reading commentaries that do. I just remember some pretty complex ones in the books of Moses (Deut 11 in particular) that just blew me away. I know there is the argument that Moses would never have written that way, and I actually agree with that argument. I’m just open to the possibility that later scribes (i.e., smarty-pants with a lot of time on their hands) reworked the text to create complexity. And I’m doubtful that Mormon, Nephi, Jacob had that kind of training.

    2. I’m assuming that there was still some difficulty when thinking Hebrew but writing reformed Egyptian (the whole “awkwardness of our writing” thing). In other words, reformed Egyptian was not just a different set of letters for Hebrew (the way we can write Hebrew today using the Latin Alphabet), but rather, a different-enough way of writing that it was cumbersome. I agree that they were probably not writing/thinking in Egyptian, just using it as a format.

    3. I marked my BoM once as I read it, assigning every word to an author. There were some places where I couldn’t decide between two people, but as I remember I could always narrow it down, and I always knew who my choices were. Even with expansion theory, it means you are either reading Moroni’s words or Joseph’s. And we always know who had the plates—which means there is no debate about what should be BoM canon and what should not (unlike the Apocrypha/Masoretic text).

    4. Good point. I think I did oversimplify things.

    5. Maybe MesoAmerican culture. Since we don’t know where in America it took place, that may be like imposing ancient Ethiopian culture on our study of the NT. If you’re a fan of the idea that the Nephites met up with people who were already in the Americas, then you’d think that their culture changed fairly quickly.

    6. Your point seems hard to grasp. Nephi records his and Jacob’s sermons, giving us what the word-for-word account (or at least what is supposed to be direct quotes). It seems that you are saying that they taught those exact sermons but they weren’t really all that interested in their people understanding them—they were really talking to us. I would think that if they really had us in mind, they would have preached Sermon A-D-F to the Nephites, and then filled in the blanks for us when they wrote in the plates (giving us Sermon A-B-C-D-E-F). It seems disingenuous to go out a preach a sermon to people that you don’t actually want those people to hear. Maybe I missed your point.

  3. clarkgoble said

    Brian. A few comments.

    1. I actually come from the school of thought that highly structured structures like parallelism and chiasmus aren’t hard to invent and may even be natural on a subconscious level. So I don’t deny they are there but tend to see far, far less significance to their existence. Further I suspect most of these structures won’t be ideal examples of them. But I don’t think they require a lot of training. People naturally create patterns and may impose them on their texts. The big question is how much such structures would be affected by any translation process. Especially if there is expansion at work. Then the issue of “reformed Egyptian” (whatever it is) would affect structures in the original perhaps oral texts.

    2. I tend to be very sympathetic to those pointing to various encrypted scripts from late antiquity – often used for commercial efforts – as a way to think of reformed Egyptian. One person (whom I vaguely remember as kind of the “quack” apologist) actually had some interesting parallels to some scripts from around 100 AD. I used to have notes on this but think I lost them in a basement flood. If this is so then encryption of this sort ends up being difficult since it is as much a cipher as it is a different character set.

    I’d add that these kinds of ancient ciphers weren’t always coded in a more “mathematical” fashion (i.e. rule based) but often were a bit interpretive in nature. I’ve thought a long time now that the text of the Book of Mormon was sealed in the sense of being encrypted rather than simply having a metal band on it. This would also, as many have noted, fit into the so-called “hermetic culture” that was available in folk tradition at the time of Joseph Smith. (The old alchemist John Dee being an obvious example of such sealed texts that actually bears some resemblance to Joseph’s history)

    3. I think the expansion theory ends up being more complex than you allude. For instance let us say Joseph (perhaps independent of his conscious action – inspiration is involved) borrows some sentences from Paul via the KJV to place in the text to represent some similar ideas. Who is the author? That’s the kind of problem I was alluding to. Likewise, consider the JST. Who is the author?

    Now I’d fully admit that this question is perhaps different than the issue of authorship in say 1 Enoch. Yet in some ways it is also remarkably similar.

    Likewise, I’d once again point one to the problematic nature of 2 Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.

    Even beyond that we have the issue of say Ether where authorship is pretty convoluted at best.

    So I don’t think that Mormon’s editing of the Book of Mormon necessarily leads to less complexity than all the editing of the OT. Mormon is editing via multiple texts. We can point to a single editor (Mormon) versus the OT where we have an unknown set of scribes perhaps over decades or even centuries. Yet structurally it is pretty similar.

    Of course this just raises the question of, “so what?” regarding authorship. But I think with respect to say Nephi it is an interesting question. What shape was his Isaiah on the brass plates? There is the prominent theory that the brass plates were from the norther Kingdom. Were the brass plates themselves already highly editing? Were there authorship issues there? When is Nephi relating perhaps a “better” text, when is he expanding it himself in a midrashic style, and when is he simply quoting an already expanded text?

    We can’t know, of course. But the issue clearly is that authorship questions go well beyond who appears to be speaking. (Especially since narrative discourses are themselves expansions by later historians or authors unless there were scribes following these folks around – believable in the case of King Benjamin’s discourse but less so in most of the other historical narrative)

    5. I admit that I find all other alternatives to mesoAmerica pretty unworkable. But if the Nephites were a small minority then we can’t say how different their subculture was from the main one. And since most of the BoM appears to be written by a privileged elite class with an even more specialized religious tradition we don’t know how different that culture is. (Think, for instance, Jewish culture in 12th century Spain, and then say Kabbalistic rabbis within the larger Jewish culture as an analogy)

    6. I think you illustrate my point. Nephi records a few of his and Jacob’s sermons. But when were they recorded? Were they transcribed when uttered? Probably not. (Although it is possible) Were they, like perhaps most of Jesus’ quotations in the gospels, oft made sermons? (With perhaps slight variations between utterances – much like the 20 different talks Pres. Monson gives) Were these sermons changed for a different audience when put on the plates? Or was it simply transcription?

    Put simply, who were the plates written for. Is it direct for us or are some things copies of sermons for his people? It seems a little of both. And I suspect Nephi doesn’t always even know why he writes what he does. (He indicates this in a few places) In some cases he’s probably being inspired in his selection with God working through him and Nephi not having a clue why he’s impressed to write what he does. But that in itself leads to interesting questions. (There’s a whole post on that issue of revelation and the fact most texts are at a minimum two authored – with God playing this nebulous role in them)

    My point is that the issue of ‘novel religion’ is an interesting one. What does it mean? Is Nephi interested in setting up a restoration as he understands it from his very limited perspective? I think we have to say yes. He may not know what Catholics or Protestants are. (I doubt that much was revealed) But he is writing to us. Yet simultaneously he has his own religious tradition which I think we must acknowledge as a new transition from the Judaism of Jerusalem. (One can’t help but pick up on his antagonism to Jerusalem religion) So he’s probably setting something up novel there as well.

    Yet the text of the small plates isn’t primarily designed for religious establishment. Further it appears that the texts are primarily written and compiled late in Nephi’s life. Both Nephi and Jacob show a fair bit of discouragement (IMO) and cynicism. Perhaps earlier they did try a kind of utopian scheme much like the folks who left to form Qumran. But it didn’t work out well.

    I don’t know – and of course we likely can’t know. But there are all sorts of things at work in the text which make Nephi’s aims quite complex. I just don’t think we can say Nephi is primarily working to increase faith. I think that tends to trivialize his writings – especially his use of Isaiah.

  4. brianj said

    Clark: I don’t have time for much more than a big thanks. You’ve pointed out some ways in which I was being too simplistic.

  5. Rebecca L said

    Brian, thanks for these posts and thanks, Clark, for your thoughts.

    My two-bits are that we ought to be ultra-careful about assuming the Book of Mormon is simple, or even as transparent as it might appear. With the Bible we have the advantage of millenia of study to draw upon. How many literary structures and cultural references would we have seen without the benefit of our commentaries?

    How many times has knowing the original language of Biblical texts helped us to link up different passages/themes or changed our interpretation?

    I am actually very impressed by the complexity of Nephi’s chiasmus/parallelism as outlined by my father, Noel Reynolds, and those very studies have served as a cautionary tale to me that we simply are unaware of how much we don’t know.

  6. brianj said

    Rebecca (and Clark): So how do you weigh in on the question of whether Nephi et al thought they were inferior to the writers of the Brass Plates? Or do you think Nephi was really only comparing himself to himself (his writing v. his speaking)? Still, we have Moroni clearly comparing his own writing to the brother of Jared’s….

    As for assuming that the BoM is simple: I agree. But that’s not really what happened here (I hope that doesn’t sound argumentative). In fact, I always used to assume that the BoM was better than the Bible in every way. Then one day I read Nephi’s lament and stopped to actually think about it. I realized my assumption and started to question it—and these are some of the thoughts I had (and have) as I ask that question. And I am still asking it (i.e., it is not settled in my mind). A lot of why I think the OT is more complex has nothing to do with chiasmus, and is really just a ‘sense’ or impression I get when I study them. Mentally, the OT tastes like dark chocolate while the BoM tastes like strawberries—both wonderful and exceptional in their own way.

    But thanks, Rebecca, for your cautionary words. I think they are helpful.

  7. Rebecca L said

    Brian, I really like the culinary analogy. I don’t have time to write right now but I think I’d broadly agree with Clark’s reply to your Lament post.

    Cheers and Happy New Year!

  8. clarkgoble said

    I suspect for Nephi he’s primarily comparing himself to Isaiah, and especially his holding Isaiah up so high. But I think there is a natural inferiority complex among prophets where they feel the duty is so much higher than they. We read of this same thing with Moses, for instance. Then it’s fairly common even among modern prophets. But I also think there’s just that technical element of the difficulty of writing not to mention the role writing has in the community.

  9. Bob said

    Why would you say that they (Nephi and moroni) were week in writing they were very wise men unlike the person who thought for a second they were (unwise)if someone has a problum with understanding the writing you should take an english class or something becuase there very strong in writing and wise in allkinds of ways so get a two million year old dictionary if you want to understand it becuase your english is that bad.

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