Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Paradigm of Book of Mormon Historicity

From the Oxford English Dictionary for "Paradigm":

4. A conceptual or methodological model underlying the theories and practices of a science or discipline at a particular time; (hence) a generally accepted world view.

1962   T. S. Kuhn Struct. Sci. Revol. ii. 10   ‘Normal science’ means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements..that some particular scientific community acknowledges..as supplying the foundation for its further practice... I..refer to [these achievements] as ‘paradigms’.
 When it was either suggested or required that I read _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ for some undergraduate class I took (yes, I almost always did the suggested readings, in addition to the required ones. What else are you supposed to do while you eat lunch, walk to school, brush your teeth . . .?), I liked it. I had no idea how influential a book it was. In the last year I have heard it referenced several times, and it really has a lot to say about how we think and how we look for truth as societies. Kuhn seems to me to have been very clear sighted. In addition, it seems to me that really believing his story requires never ceasing intellectual humility. Some implications are that paradigms are imperfect and competing. They will fail somewhere. Holding to a paradigm can be useful and productive, but can also prevent some advances. Paradigms are not ultimately provable, but rather are accepted empirically because they work. No paradigm is free of these dangers.

So one might say that a paradigm is circular reasoning that works. Assume Newton's laws and you can predict all sorts of things about the physics of daily life, and even about many microscopic, molecular processes. This then confirms the validity of Newton's laws as a paradigm. Assume Evolution and you can explain hoards of biological data and expand human understanding of the workings of nature. Assume Intelligent Design and you force your God into a smaller and smaller box every time science increases in understanding and predictive power. Assume a vengeful, tribal God and you force yourself toward belief in a being that it's hardly surprising many people reject and ridicule. Assume a compassionate God and new doors open to understand the beauties and evils of this life. You may have a sense that I choose my paradigms based in part on esthetics, and you would be right. Truth is beauty and beauty, truth, after all. As I work to be happier, I find that optimism and looking for good in others serves me best. Consequently, I have become more of an ethical pragmatist than an idealist. I've had to give up a few ideals. I found that they actually made me and others measurably unhappy and unhealthy. I might argue that they were false ideals, but I've found it more productive to change my discourse. When I talk with people about effective ways to achieve shared values, I get more done and feel better than when I draw a line and say I will not cross it.

Some thoughts on what Book of Mormon historicity is and isn't

What does this all have to do with Book of Mormon historicity? What it means to me is this--assuming the Book of Mormon is about real people, who really lived and really did the things they said they did, works. I've listened to believing, practicing Mormons express their difficulties with believing the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I've tried a little to understand their point of view, and I've made a little progress, but as of now I've still mostly failed. The biggest reason is because Book of Mormon historicity works. It provides a paradigm that allows interesting and useful questions to be asked, and answers to be found. I don't find this same productivity from any incarnation of the opposing view that I have heard.

Let me clarify some things about what I believe Book of Mormon historicity means and doesn't mean. It does mean that real people, who really spoke with God, kept records on plates thousands of years ago. It does mean that Mormon and Moroni had visions of a future day and compiled some records specifically for this future day. It does mean that Joseph Smith "translated" this work by some means which we can only make educated guesses at from a small number of first and second hand descriptions. It does mean that the Book of Mormon is a historical document that can be fruitfully studied using historical and literary methods as appropriately applied to ancient documents.
It doesn't mean that the Book of Mormon is written like a modern history, attempting academic objectivity. It doesn't mean that the men who kept the records were any different from good people keeping journals, and that they weren't limited by their perceptions, paradigms, prejudices, and the information available to them. It doesn't mean that the authors' agendas didn't shape their writing or what they included. It doesn't mean that modern assumptions about what historical claims are made by the Book of Mormon are what was meant or indicated by the authors. If we start out with false assumptions about what historicity means for the Book of Mormon, we can end up deductively proving almost any arbitrary hypothesis, so as I explore this paradigm, please throw out patently false and contradictory assumptions, or just move on because we won't really be discussing anything.

Acknowledgement of apparent problems

Horses, elephants, large armies equipped with bronze and steel armor, and Middle Eastern origins for Native Americans rather than East Asian origins are among the testable problems for Book of Mormon historicity. I disagree that these or others are insurmountable or that, to be resolved, they require any mental gymnastics unusual to the fields of Archaeology, Linguistics, or Comparative Literature, or that they require any mental gymnastics at all for Genetics, but I would refer you to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies for apologetic comments on these and many other topics. I am convinced that much of the evidence for Book of Mormon historicity involves some circular reasoning, and that I cannot provide definitive proof that any of these people lived or did what they said they did. It may forever remain an impossibility. I have begun to examine Book of Mormon historicity as a paradigm rather than focusing on it exclusively as a fact that I must establish or reject based on the paradigms of scientific inquiry (I am interested in such a proofs, but find discussion of them generally fruitless. Too much is "lost to history").

An example of why I find the historicity paradigm valuable

I want to share a more subtle example of how the historicity paradigm works for me. To do this, I'm going to quote from a book about the Book of Mormon, the Psalms, and ancient temple worship:
The Hebrew word translated "prosperously" has the connotation of success rather than of wealth. The words in the LDS scriptures are keyed to mean the same thing as those same words in the Bible, so we can move from the Bible to the Book of Mormon and back again, and know the words in each have the same meaning. That would not have been true if Joseph had translated the Book of Mormon into 19th century New England backcountry English, but it is true because he used Bible words and phrases as they are used in the King James Bible. Consequently, just as we can use Bible meanings to decode the subtext of the Book of Mormon, so we can use the Book of Mormon to decode the subtext of the Bible. The word "prosperously" is a splendid example.
"Prosper" is an important code word in the Book of Mormon. We first encounter it when the Lord promises Nephi of the blessings of priesthood and kingship:
19 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.
20 And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.
21 And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.
22 And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren (1 Nephi 2:19-22).
There, as in the Hebrew, prosper had to do with success rather than wealth. The opposite of prosperity was not a bad potato crop, rather it was to be cut off from the presence of the Lord. That is an often repeated part of Book of Mormon theology. Lehi reminds his children:
Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence (2 Nephi 1:20)
So we may deduce that "prosper" was code for being brought into, or remaining in the presence of the Lord. If our psalm carries the same connotation, then the rest of the verse comes alive with meaning:
And in thy majesty [sacred garments of kingship] ride prosperously [successfully--in the presence of the Lord] because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee awesome things.
(Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, LeGrand L. Baker and Stephen D. Ricks, Eborn Books: Salt Lake City, Utah, 2009, pp. 267-269.)
That's a long enough quote, and likely not very illuminating about what I mean. Let me illustrate a little:

  1. Assume Joseph Smith translated mostly into KJV English and not his own.
  2. Assume ancient authors with strong Biblical cultural history wrote with similar understandings of theology as Biblical authors.
  3. Assume the cosmic temple story, in broad strokes, is the same now as it was anciently among the Jews and the Nephites.
 Admittedly, these are big assumptions that have not been proven, but what are some fruits of making these assumptions:
  1. Early 20th century scholarship proposing that many of the Psalms were the ancient temple liturgy make sense, and one can use the Book of Mormon as an independent check of still ongoing (although I don't know how prominent) study into the Psalms. It isn't academic proof, but it can open your eyes to things you may have overlooked in previous Biblical scholarship.
  2. Biblical scholarship can now be used as a tool to better understand the Book of Mormon. Things that we learn about 6th century BCE Jewish culture can offer a starting place for speculations about Book of Mormon culture--a culture for which we have no other confirmed archaeological or anthropological data because we aren't even positive where they lived, and there are almost no records from the possible Nephite and Lamanite civilizations (a lot less archaeology has been done in the Americas). Further, we can compare Book of Mormon words with KJV Bible words and look at their Hebrew or Greek roots to see if additional meaning is revealed in the Book of Mormon.
  3. We can use the Biblical scholarship and our understanding of temples to replace false interpretations of the Book of Mormon.
This third point is probably the most important to me (although perhaps not the most fun). Take the quote as an example. We can assume that Nephi was a cultural bigot who lorded his righteousness over his brothers and who was intent on making his brothers look bad and fostering a generations long feud among their descendents. We can assume that "prosper" means to get rich, and that the nearly unconscious Mormon belief that wealth + correct cultural practices = righteousness is supported by the Book of Mormon, and even that racism is supported by the Book of Mormon. Or, from this historical view of the Book of Mormon we can demonstrate to other believing Mormons that these views are false. We can show each other that God has greater hopes for us. He wants us to become His friends, not just His children. He wants us to bring all of our brothers and sisters along on the journey to a new promised land. He wants us all to "prosper."

This was one example from one pair of authors that has influenced me recently. I have had similar experiences with my understanding of faith, the atonement, and the creation story, to name three. The changes in my understanding have been incremental, and possibly could have come in other ways, but this is how I learned them--listening to people who have thought carefully about the historical Book of Mormon.

Concluding thoughts

If the Book of Mormon is historical, then real people had real visions (1 Nephi 1, 8, 11). Real people had real gaps in their knowledge and perception and wrote a flawed story as a consequence (Ether's claim that not one Jaredite survived). Real people had real agendas, and we can understand their meaning better as we search for those agendas (see Who Shall Ascend cited above). If it isn't historical, it's a nice story--sometimes. It's impressive literature to come from Joseph Smith or whoever. It has great and inspiring words of wisdom. But I'm not sure it teaches me what it says it wants to teach me--how to be like and return to Christ. I'm not sure an invented story about seeing Christ can teach me as much as a real account about a flawed person who actually met Christ (Ether 3). I'm not sure an abstract story about coming into God's presence can teach me as much as a story of a real person who himself became God's friend (Helaman 10-11). And I'm not sure I could learn as much from the Book of Mormon if I didn't believe its historical and biblical ties--beyond just quoting some verses and using similar sounding language. I would be depriving myself of tools to fully explore this amazing book and fully apply its power to bring me to Christ. The tidbits I've gained from this approach have added up. They have been small and scattered. Not one of them is impressive by itself. But they show up year after year without my doing anything that feels like mental gymnastics. In fact, the longer I study the Book of Mormon from the paradigm of historicity, the more apparent problems sort themselves out for me. I know others have experienced it differently, but I think for now I'll keep believing the historicity.


  1. Hey, Jonathan. Enjoyed the read. Three things though:

    1. Like the Word of Wisdom, claims of Book of Mormon historicity do more harm than good. The LDS Church has taken such a hard line on it that it has become as a barrier to entrance and/or acceptance. It's laughable that almost every discussion on the Book of Mormon invariably delves into questions of its historicity. On the other hand, The Bhagavad Gita, for example, doesn't share this problem. Nobody cares about its historicity, because the reader is supposed to assess its merits based on the power of the text itself.

    2. It's been debunked. That's all there is to it. The mopologists lost. EVERYONE knows it. You will not convince one person that this book is historically true, unless they are already a true believing Mormon. The anachronisms, the genetics problem, the complete lack of supporting evidence (i.e., the ever-shrinking Limited Geography Model), etc. No one's testimony should rely on questions of its historicity.

    3. It's clearly allegory. Not only that, it's prophetic allegory. That means the book is foretelling, through means of allegory, future events. For something to be historically true AND prophetic is a very, very tall order. Consider Helaman 5. This is--and I would say indisputably--pure allegory. It's walking us through the repentance process--a spiritual process--through very literal means.

    The Nephites are us. The Lamanites are the Native Americans (and maybe occasionally our enemies abroad). In my opinion, that's all anyone needs to know. If you force arguments regarding its historicity, you actually diminish the value of the Book of Mormon as a sacred text. Let it stand on its own.

  2. "For something to be historically true AND prophetic is a very, very tall order." probably should have read, "For something to be historically true AND allegorical is a very, very tall order."

  3. Hi Noah,

    Thanks for your comments. It could be interesting to examine number 1 in more detail and try to weigh the harm vs. good, but that kind of question usually ends in a disagreement about which harms and goods should be given priority rather than any real resolution, and they can be very hard to quantify. It is worth my attention in the future, however.

    Number 2 is clearly false. First, it is an uncharitable (and I would assert false) view of those who believe and defend Book of Mormon historicity. It assumes a close-mindedness, an unwillingness to face evidence, a deceptiveness, or a lack of intelligence among all who believe the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Second, it has only been debunked within certain paradigms, or based on certain unproven (and in many cases unprovable) assumptions. Not acknowledging these unspoken assumptions, or not acknowledging that they are unproven, is the one area where I find the most fault with critics of Book of Mormon historicity. When you can identify for me the set of assumptions upon which Book of Mormon historicity has been debunked (most effectively by picking one issue and carefully laying out the debunking and the assumptions upon which that debunking rests), I would be happy to discuss it more. The issue upon which I am most conversant is the genetics.

    As to number 3, I totally agree that it is allegory. I think my whole post supports this view of the Book of Mormon--the whole thing is the temple allegory. It just is not only allegory. Mormon had an agenda. He selected stories that matched this agenda. He arranged them in literary ways that matched the agenda. He added commentary that highlighted the agenda. He told the stories from limited viewpoints that were shaped by his own and the original participants' biases. It is history as theology, as I heard someone describe another story.

    On its own, the Book of Mormon claims to be about real people who really lived. I think acknowledging its historicity, with the limitations I accept, is letting the text stand on its own. I think ignoring these claims within the text is making it something it isn't. If you want to convince me otherwise, I have two suggestions. First, point me to writings where your views are clearly laid out--especially the positive claims about how the allegorical view alone improves one's understanding of the Book of Mormon. You can do this sometime in the future if these writings don't yet exist. The second is for me to pick one or more of the apologetic writings that I find most convincing, for you to show me in detail the problems with it, and for us to discuss them and their underlying assumptions. I suspect the first would be more fruitful, but we could attempt either.

    Last, I admitted that Book of Mormon historicity may be unprovable (in fact, it is fundamentally unprovable. The best we will ever be able to do is argue plausibility through consistency with various evidence. Even if we find Zarahemla, it doesn't prove Lehi had his visions). I am accepting it as a paradigm and seeing where it leads.

  4. The real issue isn't whether or not BoM historicity can be proven, but instead, whether or not it's necessary. Mormon apologists ask, "Is it possible?", whereas serious critics ask, "Is it plausible?". Sure, Book of Mormon historicity is possible. Anything is possible. But it isn't plausible. Thus, it isn't a matter of evidence, but faith. You have faith in the Book Mormon's historicity, whereas I don't think it's necessary. In fact, I think it's harmful.