For over 100 years, Bible scholars have analyzed the Bible text and historical sources to understand more about things like: when it was written, by whom, actual historical events or extant literary sources that influenced the text, etc. For religions that are open to progress/revelation, the information learned by scholars in this process has sometimes informed and modified the religious interpretation and even theological understanding of the Biblical passage.
Latter-day Saints are pretty comfortable with this process. I highly recommend Ben Spackman’s 2019 FairMormon address on this topic. He talks about three fallacies of absolutism (another word for a fundamentalistic approach to scripture, viewing it as the infallible Word of God).
First, absolute consistency. This minimizes differences, tensions or contradictions in history or scripture as only imagined, misunderstood, or mistranslated. Often the word harmonize has been abused not to actually make harmony, but to make things sing in unison.
Second, absolute accuracy. That is, in this fundamentalist assumption, the idea is that revelation speaks primarily in historical and scientific terms and is necessarily factually correct because it comes from the mouth of God. This touches on the issue of recognizing different genres in scripture, as well as inerrancy. Now, our teachers, our materials, most of us do not often talk about genre in scripture, and while we give lip service to errancy, in practice many of us are inerrantists.
This third, the third assumption here is that revelation is absolutely unmediated. That is whatever human elements might exist in the revelatory process have no functional effect on the end result as it reaches us.
Scripture is not always consistent. Scripture is not always accurate. Scripture is not always transmitted by God unmediated by human error.
Though we are pretty comfortable applying this logic to the Bible, we still don’t seem to be as comfortable applying this same process to the Book of Mormon. Perhaps due to misinterpreting or taking too seriously the 8th Article of Faith.
8 We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
However, informed LDS scholars are increasingly applying this type of logic to the Book of Mormon in interesting ways. A few examples.
- Tower of Babel. The Book of Mormon makes reference to Noah’s flood and Tower of Babel in a way that assumes the historic interpretation of these. Noah’s flood as a global flood. Tower of Babel as the event where humans dispersed and different languages were created. As recent as 1998, an (absolutely horrible and embarrassing) Ensign article criticized modern, alternate interpretations for these events. But, for informed LDS who accept traditional scientific understanding related to a global flood and the evolution of culture and languages, a common way to handle this would be with a loose translation model and put the fault on Joseph Smith, saying that minor errors and 19th century cultural misunderstandings crept into the Book of Mormon through an imperfect translation process. That always seemed fine to me. But some informed LDS scholars (Apologists) have made an interesting argument that goes like this: the Book of Ether was abridged by Moroni. Ether, who lived a thousand years after the Brother of Jared, might have abridged earlier writings which might have already been abridged and summarized. So, when the Book of Mormon says Brother of Jared’s people were at the Tower of Babel where others had their language confounded, it could have been a later writer (Moroni, Ether, or other) who made improper assumptions due to having access to the Hebrew Bible Genesis account, wrongly assuming it was literal. This wrong assumption could have been preserved in future abridgements and translations.
- Sermon on the Mount. Some of the Book of Mormon account of the visitation of Jesus Christ to the Nephites in 3 Nephi contains verses or phrases that scholars don’t believe were in the earliest New Testament manuscripts. Also, some Bible scholars view the Sermon on the Mount, not as an event that actually happened, but a collection of sayings of Jesus, injected into a narrative form. I have seen arguments from LDS scholars recently that acknowledge and allow for this, proposing that a later abridger like Mormon (or translator) of the Book of Mormon did this same type of thing, combining sayings into a unified sermon, in a way that might not correlate accurately to one historical event, the way the Book of Mormon and Bible report it.
- Nephite Racism. Recently there was a brou-ha-ha over a racist statement in the Come Follow Me manual related to skin color and the Lamanites. Joseph Fielding Smith got thrown under the bus, but it seems to most readers like the racism is there in the Book of Mormon from the beginning. I saw some arguments made by LDS acknowledging that Nephi might have been racist and put in his own wrong assumptions about the Lamanite skin color. Russell Stevenson in a public Facebook comment wrote very insightfully (reposted here with permission):
For the Sunday School-erati among us, a brief take on 2 Ne. 5 and racism and How Nephi Projected His Own Bias and Ethnocentrism onto Revelation: It’s been a fairly straightforward read to me.
Nephi (the figure who serves as author in this narrative) is ethnocentric and by modern terms, racist.
1. Nephi was writing a memoir explaining his legitimacy as the rightful successor to Lehi. He needed to explain how the Lamanites (descendants of his apostate brethren) became the horrible people that they were—and reads their change of skin tone as an indicator. They had left the covenant and, one might easily interpolate, intermarried with indigenous peoples. His was not a contemporary record. His was a justification.
2. Nephi records the Lord’s language (2 Ne. 5): “And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done. . .They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction.” Nephi speaks in “tribal” terms here, referring to whole peoples and nations as not only wicked but also, inherently adversarial. It’s standard fare Old Testament-ese—and I’m much more grateful that we speak in more individualistic tones these days. But note: the Lord, at no point, connects skin tone/color to the scourging, cursing, etc.–in any way.
3. When Jacob offers a more contemporary record only a few years later, he highlights Lamanite righteousness and the utter irrelevance of skin color to righteousness. He gave his speech within a very short time of 2 Ne. 5’s writing) at the time of Nephi’s death), so it _should_ have matched Nephi’s sentiments—but doesn’t. So either they’re a loathsome scourge who are cursed, or they’re a more complicated composite of moral goodness and cursedness. Jacob gives no indication that there’s a massive, Lamanite wide repentance process. And we have a pretty one-sided account. So either they repented and we don’t know about it, or Nephi viewed Lamanite marriage practices and melanin through a lens he imposed on the Lord’s words.
A fascinating opportunity to highlight how we interject rationales onto the Lord—even when he’s never said so himself. The Book of Mormon can offer powerful anti-racism lessons for those willing to turn the text around in a different light.
That’s an interesting way to explain the skin color assertions in the Book of Mormon. Assuming the Book of Mormon is historical. And assuming the Book of Mormon was produced in a somewhat similar process as the Bible (ie humans recording their experience and interaction with the divine from their perspective while not always getting everything right in an absolute sense), we should expect a lot of this kind of thing. It’s refreshing to see this kind of anti-absolutist, anti-fundamentalistic approach to LDS scripture.
Up to this point, I have shared examples from LDS scholars who give non-traditional explanations of some issues in the Book of Mormon but who affirm its historicity. I’m changing directions a bit here.
As a faithful LDS who doesn’t believe in BOM historicity but views it as a non-historical, inspired revelation to Joseph Smith, this really makes me think about how different my view is from this nuanced, fallible, quasi-historical version.
What is the real theological difference? In terms of reliability of the text of the Book of Mormon, I think it’s almost exactly the same position. In the nuanced historical version, we have faith the book is full of truth, but also we know it is full of human error and we individually as members and collectively as a church, must struggle with what could be an error and what is truth. Our own study and intellect, the Holy Ghost, and the counsel of Church leaders guide us in that endeavor. In the inspired but non-historical version, the process is the exact same.
The supernatural translation process is what blows this up and really makes one wonder about the theological ramifications. In the historical but fallible version, God is preserving error in the Book of Mormon. Serious error in the case of racism. In the inspired but non-historical version, the buck stops at Joseph. He got it right a lot. He got it wrong a few times. God can be accused of being hands-off but not accused of preserving error and perpetuating racism. Which is theologically more favorable? I think it’s a question worthy of discussion.