Sunday, August 06, 2006

a new approach to the book of mormon - part #1 - biblical criticism

something that has been on my mind for the last several months is a radically different understanding of the book of mormon that, at least for me, breathes a vibrant life and complexity into the text. their are too many different (and sometimes seemingly unrelated) aspects of this way of reading the book of mormon that one or a few posts would be too long and would most likely bore you. instead i've decided to break it down into as many bite-size pieces as i could.


a few months ago i was attending a mormon studies conference and posed a question to a group of panelists who were discussing the and comparing the mormon concept of the godhead and the tradition christian trinity. the panel consisted of robert millet and a pair of christian theologians from the salt lake theological seminary. in response to different appeals to scripture to justify certain beliefs about god (and thus implying that these were the 'true' or at least adequately justifiable early christian beliefs), i posed the following question:

most biblical scholars are in agreement that besides a few letters of paul, we really don't know who wrote the new testament. mathew, mark, luke, and john were not written by disciples of christ named mathew, mark, luke, and john. paul's epistles were mostly not written by paul. the other epistles likely were not written by their purported authors either. though those who picked out the canon of the bible appealed to apostolicity for standards of canonization, the truth was that these texts were picked out because they felt the texts best represented their beliefs and practices. granted that this is a bit of a simplistic, but as such, is it really even appropriate to appeal to the bible to claim that christ and his direct disciples taught x, y, and z, when in reality the texts can really only reflect the beliefs of the christians at the time of canonization?
robert millet's response to the question was very telling. basically, he leaned back and deferred the question over to the two evangelical panelists who, though a bit stumped, tried to give the best answer they could come up with at the moment (they were able to give me a little better response at a dinner that night, though i can't quite remember what it was).

the interesting point of this story was that it illustrated the inability for many lds theologians (especially of the ces/byu brand) to adequately respond to and deal with biblical criticism, while their christian associates have largely been able to accomodate and learn from it. i am not claiming that lds theologians have completely ignored bibical criticism, but that they have failed to adequately acknowledge and infer the implications of textual, form, redaction, narrative, and other criticisms that give an often very different perspective of the biblical texts.

there are two main reasons i see for this failure in mormonism. the first is that mormonism tends to hold fairly fundamentalist views concerning scripture. while joseph smith's idea of scripture was very radical and dynamic, mormonism has in some large degrees left that expansive view and pushed to an almost mormon version of kjv-only fanaticism. the second reasons (which is also a reason for the first) is that much of mormon theology, tradition, and scripture is highly dependent of a more fundamentalist kjv understanding of the bible.

here are a few examples of some largely uncontested conclusions of biblical criticism that many mormons would have serious trouble accepting.

-the first five books of the bible (genesis -deuteronomy) were not written by moses, nor were they written by a single author. rather they are a blending of different texts from different authors with different purposes, often contradicting each other. for example (as i mentioned in my last post) the creation account in genesis is actually composed of at least two very different accounts. this creates problems for joseph smith's book of moses which is often claimed to be the original source of genesis written by moses himself.

-the sermon on the mount was never given as a single sermon, but is largely a collection of sayings by jesus (some most likely inauthentic) compiled into a single sermon by later authors. this creates problems for the book of mormon where jesus following his resurrection gives a nearly identical sermon to the inhabitants of america.

-the book of isaiah was most likely written by at least two authors, the latter (often called deutero-isaiah) begins with the 40th chapter and was written after the exile around 545 bc. this creates problems for the book of mormon where nephi quotes deutero-isaiah from the brass plates, even though they were written after he reached the americas.

other problems include the unknown authorship of almost every book and epistle in the bible, the possible inauthenticity of the ending of the gospel of mark, the origin of the hebrew bible from oral traditions (both their own, and adopted from others), and a plethora of other biblical texts that mormon scripture, tradition, and theology are largely dependent on.

typically, the response of lds theologians to these issues have been either silence or denial. like robert millet above, the lds theologian's usual response is to treat it like a malnourished african child - look away and hope it either dies or somehow manages to resolve itself. when pressed they're next response is usually to hold a position of infallibility of modern scriptures and attack the criticism as being a misguided and spiritually malnourished child of faithless intellectuals.

as i hope to show in the next several posts, these two responses can no longer be sustained and that a deeper and more critical reading of mormon texts can open up a way for a more vibrant and authentic understanding of lds scripture


  1. I look forward to reading more...

  2. Loyd, I can't deny that there is an element of fear that surfaces when I read some of the apparent contradictions that you point out up there. Not so much a fear of my beliefs being proven false, but a fear that in all honesty, I don't know how to deal with such criticism. I had no idea that there's evidence showing that Nephi quotes passages from Isaiah that might not have been written yet. I think the natural first response of many Mormons would be to get defensive. (Just like my mind started to reel a bit as I read your post. I felt myself struggling to find a way that I could wiggle my way out of this one and still keep my beliefs substantiated and intact.) BUT, just because that tends to be the first response, I'll try not to give into it and keep an open mind while I learn more. A person doesn't have to feel threatened when faced with a problem, right? I think learning more is a good way to deal with it. Members who engage in honest, critical thinking are what will keep the Mormon church vital. And in the end, what you decide to believe is a choice. So either way, it comes down to making a decision about the facts in front of you.

    Does this comment make any sense?

  3. Members who engage in honest, critical thinking are what will keep the Mormon church vital.


  4. kel:

    thanks for the comment. i must admit that sometimes i feel a bit tentative about writing some of the things i do because i don't wanna cause any existenial crises in anyone, but at the same time i feel like they can be avoided just as well.

    the deutero-isaiah hypothesis has been contested, though i don't think they they have addressed the issue well enough. an example is this. i don't think there is any need to argue against deutero-isaiah though and that the anachronistic addition of isaiah is just one example of the bofm being an authentic religious text.

  5. Are you a mormon?

  6. Hey Loyd, I'm not very prolific on the subject of Isaiah, however I think my professor for Writings of Isaiah did a pretty good job explaining the problems behind the Deutro-Isaiah theory. Have you ever read Victor Ludlow's book (Isaiah: Prophet, Seer and Poet)?If so, what are your thoughts on his arguments?
    If not, maybe I could go back to my notes and give you something from that.

  7. I read Ludlow's book, and I think it's great. I don't really think he does a great job of addressing the issue of Isaiah authorship, either, but his book was the first time I was aware of the issue and of possible explanations. If anything, what I think is important about Ludlow's book and your link above, Loyd, is that not all mormon scholars ignore the issue of authorship.

    As far as whether it needs to be addressed or not, I think maybe the reason that it makes us so worried is that the authorship of Isaiah is so central to our beliefs. Notice that no one has said anything about your statements regarding the sermon on the mount nor the books of Moses. I think if you understand Joseph Smith's view of scripture and that things like the Inspired Version are not necessarily literal translations, those kinds of issues become much easier to deal with.

    To me, the difference between those issues in the Book of Mormon and that of Isaiah is just that the Book of Mormon can't be what it claims to be if the writings that Nephi quotes didn't exist at the time of his writing. I don't think that means that we need to be afraid of research that shows that the authorship is in question, but that we need to find explanations that affirm our faith without ignoring reason. I think that in the case of Isaiah, disputing the multiple authors theory is just the best way to do that.

    And, just for the record on this particular issue, I looked into it a little myself after reading your post, and not that a few hours on the Internet make me an expert by any means, but just that I know a little more today than I did yesterday. I'm glad that you acknowledge that it is disputed, and it seems that it's not just within the mormon community. Whatever claims about the writing style and vocabulary of the sections of Isaiah are made seem to be disputed as quickly and thoroughly. The only major, indisputable difference between the sections attributed to Proto-Isaiah and those to Deutero-Isaiah seem to be content: Deutero-Isaiah wrote to a different, later, audience about later events. Ludlow simply points out that this is a lack of faith in Isaiah as a prophet, but from what I read on the Internet it's more complicated than that. The issue isn't that people don't believe that Isaiah could have known about the Babylonian captivity and resulting freedom nor about Cyrus by name, but rather that it doesn't seem to fit the prophetic model for that name and those details to have been revealed to Isaiah when his audience wouldn't have understood it. In my opinion, a much simpler explanation exists than that of multiple authorship, and it's simply that Proto-Isaiah could have written to a later audience, and that those details (whether they contained the original name or not, as your link above addresses) would have been meaningful to that audience. I don't think it's outside of the prophetic model for a prophet to address an audience that is in his future.

    Sorry that's long, but I think it's a really important thing that you bring up. I just maybe have different ideas about its resolution.

  8. thanks for the comments heathr and bryant.

    Ludlow simply points out that this is a lack of faith in Isaiah as a prophet, but from what I read on the Internet it's more complicated than that.

    one of the problems in some apologists strategy is that they appeal to a broad messianic message that they claim is contained in both of the isaiah's texts. the problem about this is that much of this broader messianic message is a construction by later authors who went back to the isaiah texts to formulate the messianic message.

    unfortunately, the isaiah issue is only a small part of the broader problems with anachronistic and problematic aspects of the bofm and other mormon texts. what i hope to show in later posts is that these problems do not need to be discounted but can be embraced to see the texts as more prophetic, more divine, and even more historic than has been seen before.

  9. Bryant,

    I was just rereading your comment. The problem with placing proto-isaiah at a later date is that it then problematizes some of the pre-exilic discussion in isaiah. for the book of mormon it creates a bigger problem of the entire isaiah texts being anachronistically used by nephi.

  10. When I said that Proto-Isaiah could have written to a later audience, I didn't mean that he would have written at a later date. I meant that he simply could have written to people that he forsaw, and not his contemporaries.

  11. thanks b. that makes some more sense.

  12. Loyd for prophet! I've been reading your blog for some time now and have decided that your right, there is no more prophecy/prophetic revelation in the church, the current leadership is all/only about PR and gaining more members. Since they have fallen so far from the truth as restored by Joseph Smith I say we hold elections to find a new enlighted and open-minded prophet. We need one that understands the truth as it really is and isn't afraid to tell the world. We need one that is willing to changes the accepted donctrines and teachings of the church on a whim, with whatever happens to blow along in society ... he should give in. Currently it's homosexuality -- forget it's rampet denouncing in the current cannonical scripture as wrong and perverse, b/c as your site has enlightened me to now see -- current cannonical scripture is wrong and made up anyways. Nothing more than false authors writing things YEARS after they happened anyways. So it's quite possible that they made up all the teachings about sexuality to fit their personal bias. Which would only lead to the next logical conclusion -- they probably also made up the fact that beastiality is wrong also, sex with in animate objects ... hell I'm willing to bet they made up marriage all together. -- Sorry, off the point there. Our new prophet should be willing to change and understand the current situations as they be, and help us to be inclusive according to real true teachings that somehow Loyd knows. And seeings how he knows them, I say LOYD FOR PROPHET!

  13. As long as we're holding elections, I vote that if you're going to post some attempted satire that shows that you entirely miss the point while trying to pawn your misconception off on another, that you should have to do it with your real name.

  14. why do I have to have misconceptions? How do you know that I'm not also enlightened enough now to see the "true" meaning behind what is really being taught here? What gives you the solo-access to the unfiltered, un-adultered truth? Apparently others here have this higher view of life that they can see, but somehow - unless you go along with that view - no one else is able to reach this pinnacle of enlightment; I need to call the Dali-Lama, maybe he can shed some light on this matter.

  15. Whew! Ignorance sure has a way of killing a conversation, huh guys? Hey, anonymous, thanks for your insight. I'm glad you're not threatened by some friends having a discussion about the thoughts that are on their minds. I'm also glad you've realized that when you disagree with someone, it's not really effective to spew logical fallacies and sardonic rants in order to try and voice your opinion.

    Loyd's blog is a place where we can talk about and mull over some of the issues that interest/bother/concern us. We're not trying to recruit converts for a new cult. We're just having a discussion. I'm all for people posting diverse viewpoints, and I might even be okay with the occasional argument here and there, but I think it's childish to act disrespectfully to a bunch of college students who are just trying to figure out some of the things on their minds.

    PS. I can't deny that there is an element of fear that surfaces when I read some of the apparent contradictions that you point out up there.

    I don't know how to deal with such criticism.

    I think the natural first response of many Mormons would be to get defensive.

    Thanks, anonymous, for proving my point.

  16. Why shouldn't I work for the N.S.A.? That's a tough one, but I'll give it a shot. Say I'm working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. So I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never had a problem with get killed. Now the politicians are sayin', "Send in the marines to secure the area" 'cause they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there, gettin' shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number was called, 'cause they were pullin' a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some guy from Southie takin' shrapnel in the ass. And he comes home to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cause he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile my buddy from Southie realizes the only reason he was over there was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And of course the oil companies used the skirmish to scare up oil prices so they could turn a quick buck. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain't helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And naturally they're takin' their sweet time bringin' the oil back, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain't too long 'til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So my buddy's out of work and he can't afford to drive, so he's got to walk to the job interviews, which sucks 'cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin' him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he's starvin' 'cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat the only blue plate special they're servin' is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what do I think? I'm holdin' out for somethin' better. Why not just shoot my buddy, take his job and give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president

  17. well i'm confused now, and frankly, a little scared.

  18. Anon,

    I think you're a little lost buddy. Let me help you find your way back

  19. To be honest, the reason I originally wondered why you are a member is the somewhat abrasive nature of some of the content on this blog. This might be why it draws fire from anonymous idiots.

    I've liked most all of what I've read here - a mormon asking the hard questions - but the tone of certain parts of the blog can really be hard to swallow for the trying-to-be-devout average mormon, like myself. The southpark avatar, the sentencing of LDS theologians at large to intellectual dishonesty... Totally just my own opinion, but to be fair, subtle jabs like that don't help your arguments, and may add to the defensiveness you'll see.

    Interesting post, though - and from someone who hasn't yet had much of a chance to look into this yet, is it possible that what we really read today as Isaiah, or St. Matthew was compiled from most the same source material?

    One other thought - Its seems to me like most of the modern canon of LDS scriptures is deemed so by some sort of process with the first presidency and the apostles. In that sense, it really isn't the author that deems the sacred nature of the text (though I think its probably a catalyst for the process).

  20. I'd be interested to see references to some of these statements so I can also read them.

  21. Loyd, what are your sources for the biblical-crit stuff? I'm interested in checking them out. Also, what response did the two guys from slts offer to your question?

  22. raisin:

    The southpark avatar, the sentencing of LDS theologians at large to intellectual dishonesty... Totally just my own opinion, but to be fair, subtle jabs like that don't help your arguments, and may add to the defensiveness you'll see.

    I see nothing wrong with the South Park avatar, and when BYU has professors of ancient scripture who do not know an ancient language, well it's hard to take them seriously.


    Do google searches for "Deutero-Isaiah," "Q Gospel," "Documentary Hypothesis," and "Biblical authorship." Also if you go to a local Borders or Barnes and Noble, they should have a plethora of books covering this topic.

    I don't quite remember what the guys from the SLTS said (even though I just had lunch with one of them today). If I recall correctly, they beasically just proposed that for the first few centuries, the majority of Christians had a fairly uniform set of beliefs... though I could be remembering it totally wrong.

  23. Ben (of erinandben)8/11/2006 6:52 AM

    Google Searches? B&N? You got no legit scholarly sources for me? laaaaaaaaaame. ;-)

    Btw, hope the Sunstone conf. is going well.

  24. mormon assasin8/12/2006 9:59 PM

    loyd do you have a current temple recommend ?

  25. mormon assasin8/13/2006 2:48 PM

    ok i'll take that as a no. What would you say when asked if you sustain the church leadership?

  26. mormon assassin:

    That is largely the answer to the first question. I've been active in my ward for almost a year now and have never been approached by my bishop and only a few times by one of the counselors (there are several in the ward who have had the same experience - many of which could use a loving bishop who reaches out them).

    If my bishop asked if I sustained my church leaders, I would tell him that I do not sustain him.

    As far as General Authorities go (which I assume you are directing this question about). I would say that I sustain them (whatever that means), but do not always agree with them.

  27. oh, and the spy thing was a joke for my friends. we were wondering yesterday if the 'strengthening the members committee' had spies who checked on members' blogs.

  28. I stubbled across your blog today and I have bookmarked if for future reading. Living in the south, georgia, does not present me with quite the opportunity that I would like for intellectual LDS discussions so I have to resort to the web.
    For the record I am a recommend holding member who shares many of the same concerns that you have posted. My comments in Sunday School are quickly glossed over and my last PPI with my Elder's Quorum president scared him to death.
    On the other hand I have friends at work who will bring in the lastest "how to talk to your Mormon friend about Jesus" pamphlets from their baptist preacher. To which I normally respond by telling them that what they are presenting me is Aniti-Mormon 101. I passed that class years ago. I then give them even more amunition without rebuting a single of their claims. In fact I'll usually give them sources for the claims in the pamphlets so they can read further.
    It's very tough to belive the church but also believe that it is an evolving church and it's run by imperfect men with their own agendas and bias.


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