26 October 2006

The Weakness of the Book of Mormon

Those who attend Gospel Doctrine class are by now nearly through the Old Testament. To many this has been...chore, but hopefully it has also been enlightening. The Old Testament has so much to offer, not simply due to its length, but also to its complexity.

Here are a few characteristics of the Old Testament, some that make for truly superb study, others that that make it indecipherable, and some that do both:

  1. Complex Structure: most everyone loves a good chiasmus, especially when someone else works it out for you—and the Old Testament has chiasmi within chiasmi.
  2. Rhetorical Style: Hebrew poetry employed repetition, parallelism, grammar, and word-plays; western poetry is more about rhymes and meters. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of the "poems" in the Old Testament, and the emphasis they anticipate; are missed by most readers.
  3. Unidentified Redactors: much of the Old Testament was written, edited, and revised by unknown or unidentified authors. Were they wise, righteous, inspired, vengeful, manipulative, or perverse? One thing is probably certain: they were well educated.
  4. Oral Tradition: many of the stories and events were passed down orally from person to person until much later some scribe captured them in ink. The benefit: the stories were adapted to sound good to the ear, not just look good on papyrus.
  5. Culture Context: when we say "ancient" Hebrew, we often mean "very ancient." In the western United States, any building over fifty years old is considered ancient; go to Israel, however, and one hundred, five hundred, even one thousand years might still be considered recent. And throughout that history Israel sat in the center of the world: it knew Sumeria and the birth of Egypt, the long reign of Assyria and the relative flash of Babylonia, it neighbored Phoenicia and traded with the Greeks—and every page of the Old Testament is soaked in the richness of that history and changing culture.
  6. Birth of a Religion: we get to follow God’s continuing struggle to establish not only a nation, but a religion. The Israelites were really all converts—surrounded by other religions—and we learn line upon line as they struggle to learn the basics and the intricacies of God.

Certainly there is more, but the title of this post indicates that this is not what I wanted to talk about—so let’s move on.

Two Book of Mormon authors, Nephi and Moroni, lament what they call a "weakness" in writing:

"And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking...And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness." (2 Nephi 33:1,11)

"And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them. (Ether 12:23-24)

Many of us read that, then read one of our favorite verses (eg. 1 Nephi 3:7) and think, "What? They're just being modest!"

But if we remember to what they compared themselves (viz. the Old Testament), we see that they have a point. 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. That is not to sat that they aren’t beautiful, but compared to Deuteronomy 11, chiasmi in the Book of Mormon are amateur. I don’t doubt that the Nephites were intelligent, I just think that Mormon tended to focus less on "the finer points of language" and more on "the finer points of swords."
  2. Language: whatever linguistic devices the Book of Mormon authors used in their reformed Egyptian was 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 (eg. when Moroni inserts his comments in Ether), but we always know the names of the two possibilities. Furthermore, it is always clear who kept the plates and who abridged what. (This point is not weakened if you insist that Joseph Smith influenced the wording in the translation process.)
  4. Permanent Medium: the Book of Mormon authors employ the complete opposite of oral tradition: they write their words in unchanging gold. Not paper that rots, stone that erodes, or iron that rusts—they use gold. As a result, there is no changing over the years the things that Nephi wrote; ie. even if he had wanted to, Helaman couldn’t have modified or edited something Nephi wrote in order to make it more beautiful or correlated.
  5. Unknown Culture: we know almost nothing about Nephite civilization and culture. I know that statement might upset many FARMS fans, but in comparison to the archeology in the Middle East, it is true. We can assume that certain aspects were similar to ancient Israelite culture, but even that is speculation: how many of us would claim that our families accurately and completely capture all aspects of our nation’s 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.

(By this point I fear that most readers will have either stopped reading this post due to lost interest or are close to leaving due to being offended by my critique of the Book of Mormon. To the former I say, "The winning numbers for tomorrow’s lottery are 4-3-6-9-7." To the latter, I say, "Read on.")

The Book of Mormon authors who worried so much about their weak writing were promised by the Lord that it would be made strong:

"And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them...." (2 Nephi 33:4)
"Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness....

"And I, Moroni, having heard these words, was comforted, and said: O Lord, thy righteous will be done, for I know that thou workest unto the children of men according to their faith." (Ether 12:28-29)

I can imagine that Nephi and Moroni might have pictured the Lord rewriting and embellishing their words to make them more like the Old Testament, but what actually happened is even more profound: the past weaknesses of the Book of Mormon are actually its strengths today. We struggle through the Old Testament because:

  1. We don’t "do" chiasmus, so any that exist in the Book of Mormon go undiscovered by most readers. We do "do" climax-resolution-explanation, and that ("thus we see") is how the Book of Mormon is written.
  2. We don’t "get" Hebrew. We "get" English, and we tend to prefer "straight talk." With a limited language and limited time and space in which to write, the Nephites played right into our strength. Mormon, a military man, must have thought and wrote like a military man, not like a poet, philosopher, or intellectual.
  3. We want sources and trust authority. One result of Nephite recordkeeping is that every word is attributable to someone we identify as being a prophet (except for a few cases when the person writes very little or even admits their unworthiness; eg. Omni).
  4. We don’t read aloud. We each have our own set of scriptures—something unimaginable even a few hundred years ago—and we read to ourselves. So we don’t really need or want our scriptures to read like a sermon; we just want them to be readable.
  5. We have trouble defining our own culture, let alone relating to someone else’s. The benefit of an obscure and barely referenced Nephite culture is that we get to—sometimes have to—ignore it.
  6. Here’s where the Old Testament would have an advantage over the Book of Mormon in our day: the Old Testament is a story of conversion—and what better story to give to an investigator. But that storyline is often missed, not only because of the complexities mentioned above, but because members and most investigators already know the general Judeo-Christian story, we read the Old Testament not as a conversion story but as an illustration of stubbornness and ignorance. The Book of Mormon, in contrast, is addressed to Nephites who had some understanding of God but needed to repent and draw closer to him—which is exactly the message members and investigators need as well.

In summary, I love the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon, but in some ways for different reasons. Imagine our missionaries around the world handing people the first ten books of the Old Testament to read as an introduction to our faith. I think it would be a disaster. In contrast, the Book of Mormon, thanks to its weaknesses, is actually pretty easy to follow and makes a very clear statement: "that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL God, manifesting himself unto all nations."


Eric Nielson said...


That's pretty good.

Rob Osborn said...

Brian j,
pretty good post if I do say so myself. Well done. One of the things I have always thought about with the Nephite language was that it was not a written language very much amongst themselves. It was probably not a pretty language to the eye either. Kind of like our language in our day is not a pretty language.

I think of the great Mayan glyphs and marvel at how well they were able to work the stone with their language and say this definately looks like something the Jaredites would of done. The Nephites did not care much for writing everything let alone making it a status symbol for the whole world to wonder at. But the Jaredites sure would have.

The Jaredites were all about kingly stature and creating records that enthroned their glory forever to be seen by the empire for future generations. It would be very interesting to know what the mayan language really speaks of! For all we have is a pirated handed down copy of mistranslation- it is a travesty to say the least!

BrianJ said...

Eric: thanks!

Rob: thanks! In light of your comment, it is interesting that part of Moroni's lament is that he wishes he could write like the Jaredites.

Stephen said...

If you've read Samuel's sermons out loud you know the real reason that they failed to include parts of them in the records was that they did not match up to contemporary critical poetic levels ... and that is why they did not say anything to Christ when he asked them about it.

Interesting points you make.

BrianJ said...


It took me a while to figure out: 1) Which Stephen you were (where's the "(Ethesis)" tag I look for?); 2) Which Samuel you were talking about. I am so stuck in the Old Testament that I was trying to remember when Jesus quizzed the Pharisees on Samuel the Israelite's teachings.

But now that I've got that clear, I want to ask how you know that that is the reason they didn't write down Samuel's teachings? When I read 3 Nephi 23:9-13 I thought it meant that Christ had caught a small omission in the record, not a huge gap. Help me with your interpretation, please.

Either way, I am exited to try reading his words aloud. (I've actually done that before, but that was back in high school when my dad dragged me out of bed at 5 AM to read as a family---needless to say, I do not recall much from that time.) Thanks for the suggestion.

Stephen said...

Read his words aloud, they are the sledgehammer version of Chaismus. It is just my interpolation, but it makes better sense than any other reason, especially given the silence that greets the question.

Robert C. said...

Very interesting Brian. I've wondered about related issues specifically in relation to Nephi's plainness vs. Isaiah's . . . uhm, shall we say richer? . . . writing. We discussed this a bit in some comments at the New Cool Thang blog here (I brought up the issue in the comments, then Jacob a bit of follow-up conversation--the other comments don't really pertain to this issue).

Anonymous said...

My first visit to this information has been interesting reading. Hope that in your efforts to understand all the jots and tittles, you spend as much time in the weighter matters of the message. I'm sure you do, and I am not being critical here. It's just that I see to many people who get lost in the method of things to the exclusion of the plain and simple, and find themselves looking beyond the mark. As Pres. Packer may say, "they are fed but not nourished." A person would do well to spend time in the method of repentance and faith, and the study of the language of prayer, than perhaps the method of presentation and language comparisons. Interesting yes, spiritually satisfying, no. It is about edification and not so much about education. Although both are needed, proper balance is a must. Anyway, take it for what it's worth. I am not a scholar or a writer, or an intelectual. I am a simple person with a simple mind. Fortunately for me that is the type of person the gospel message was intended for. Faith, the first principle and most basic has enough meat for a lifetime of study for me. God bless you in your quest for knowledge, but,"...in all your getting," don't forget to "get understanding." Love ya my brothers!

BrianJ said...


I can't quite tell if you have any plans to return to this site to see how your comment was received. Yet, assuming that you will, here is my response:

I'm not sure what was your motivation or reasons for reading the way you did, but I think you missed the point of the post. Otherwise, I don't think you would have written, "...than perhaps the method of presentation and language comparisons. Interesting yes, spiritually satisfying, no." The thesis of the post was that, in fact, that the comparison of language, etc. is "spiritually satisfying," to put it your words, and that paying attention to those differences is the only way to really understand Moroni's and others' concern over their writing. And if we shouldn't be asking why he had that concern, then why did he write it down?

Furthermore, your concern that anyone here was getting "lost in the method of things to the exclusion of the plain and simple," is just unfounded. The post draws the reader's attention to the Book of Mormon in a way that relies on faith. Careful reading of the scriptures is required, I think, to be truly "feasting on the word" and not merely "feeding" (to hint at your quote of Pres. Packer).

I would also take issue with this statement: "I am a simple person with a simple mind. Fortunately for me that is the type of person the gospel message was intended for." I think the scriptures are clear that the Gospel is intended for all people everywhere, not just the simple. There is no command to be simple or unlearned when obeying the call to follow Christ. But your comment makes it clear that you think that being learned is not good---that it is a hindrance---and must be warned against. The Book of Mormon, however, states that "to be learned is good, if you hearken unto the counsel of heavenly father." So I would ask, in what way did the post show a lack of listening to God?