The Book of Mormon: A Minimal Statement


The Book of Mormon: A Minimal Statement

TitleThe Book of Mormon: A Minimal Statement
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2004
AuthorsNibley, Hugh W.
Book TitleNibley on the Timely and the Timeless
Chapter7
Edition2
Pagination163-168
PublisherReligious Studies Center, Brigham Young University
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsAncient America; Historicity; Limited Geography Model; Mesoamerica; Scripture Study
Abstract

The following statement was written on request for a journal that is published in eight languages and therefore insists on conciseness and brevity. Teaching a Book of Mormon Sunday School class ten years later, I am impressed more than anything by something I completely over­looked until now; namely, the immense skill with which the editors of the book put the thing together. The long book of Alma, for example, is fol­lowed through with a smooth and logical sequence in which an incredi­ble amount of detailed and widely varying material is handled in the most lucid and apparently effortless manner. Whether Alma is address­ing a king and his court, a throng of ragged paupers sitting on the ground, or his own three sons, each a distinctly different character, his eloquence is always suited to his audience and he goes unfailingly to the peculiar problems of each hearer.

Throughout this big and complex volume, we are aware of much shuffling and winnowing of documents, and informed from time to time of the method used by an editor distilling the contents of a large library into edifying lessons for the dedicated and pious minority among the people. The overall picture reflects before all a limited geographical and cultural point of view—small localized operations, with only occasional flights and expeditions into the wilderness; one might almost be moving in the cultural circuit of the Hopi villages. The focusing of the whole ac­count on religious themes, as well as the limited cultural scope, leaves all the rest of the stage clear for any other activities that might have been going on in the vast reaches of the New World, including the hypothetical Norsemen, Celts, Phoenicians, Libyans, or prehistoric infiltrations via the Bering Straits. Indeed, the more varied the ancient American scene becomes, as newly discovered artifacts and even inscriptions hint at local populations of Near Eastern, Far Eastern, and European origin, the more hospitable it is to the activities of one tragically short-lived religious civilization that once flourished in Mesoamerica and then van­ished towards the Northeast in the course of a series of confused tribal wars that was one long, drawn-out retreat into oblivion. Such consider­ations would now have to be included in any "minimal statement" this reader would make about the Book of Mormon.

URLhttps://rsc.byu.edu/archived/nibley-timely-and-timeless-classic-essays-hugh-w-nibley-2nd-edition
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The Book of Mormon: A Minimal Statement

The following statement was written on request for a journal that is published in eight languages and therefore insists on conciseness and brevity. Teaching a Book of Mormon Sunday School class ten years later, I am impressed more than anything by something I completely over­looked until now; namely, the immense skill with which the editors of the book put the thing together. The long book of Alma, for example, is fol­lowed through with a smooth and logical sequence in which an incredible amount of detailed and widely varying material is handled in the most lucid and apparently effortless manner. Whether Alma is address­ing a king and his court, a throng of ragged paupers sitting on the ground, or his own three sons, each a distinctly different character, his eloquence is always suited to his audience and he goes unfailingly to the peculiar problems of each hearer.

Throughout this big and complex volume, we are aware of much shuffling and winnowing of documents, and informed from time to time of the method used by an editor distilling the contents of a large library into edifying lessons for the dedicated and pious minority among the people. The overall picture reflects before all a limited geographical and cultural point of view—small localized operations, with only occasional flights and expeditions into the wilderness; one might almost be moving in the cultural circuit of the Hopi villages. The focusing of the whole ac­count on religious themes, as well as the limited cultural scope, leaves all the rest of the stage clear for any other activities that might have been going on in the vast reaches of the New World, including the hypotheti­cal Norsemen, Celts, Phoenicians, Libyans, or prehistoric infiltrations via the Bering Straits. Indeed, the more varied the ancient American scene becomes, as newly discovered artifacts and even inscriptions hint at local populations of Near Eastern, Far Eastern, and European origin, the more hospitable it is to the activities of one tragically short-lived religious civilization that once flourished in Mesoamerica and then van­ished towards the Northeast in the course of a series of confused tribal wars that was one long, drawn-out retreat into oblivion. Such consider­ations would now have to be included in any minimal statement" this reader would make about the Book of Mormon.

The first step in what the Mormons consider the Restoration of the gospel in the dispensation of the fulness of times was the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. More than anything else this fixed the unique status of the new reli­gion, of which Eduard Meyer wrote: "Mormonism ... is not just another of those innumerable new sects, ... but a new religion of revelation (Offenbarungsreligion)."1 The Latter-day Saints "believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God" in exactly the same sense as the Bible (Articles of Faith 1:8) — a proposition that has caused great offense to many Christians and led to long and se­vere persecutions, the Book of Mormon being the principal object of attack.

However, the book does not take the place of the Bible in Mormonism. But just as the New Testament clarified the long misunderstood message of the Old, so the Book of Mormon is held to reiterate the messages of both Testaments in a way that re­stores their full meaning. Its professed mission, as announced on its title page, is "to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations." Until recently, many Church members have not been zealous in the study of the book, considering it on the whole a strange and alien document with little relationship to modern life. Its peculiar effectiveness has indeed been as a messenger (it was brought by an angel) to the world at large.

The Book of Mormon professes to present in highly abridged form the history of a peculiar civilization, transplanted from the Old World to the New World around 600 BC. Of complex cultural background and mixed racial stock, the society endured only a thousand years, of which period the Book of Mormon contains an unbroken account, taken supposedly from records kept almost entirely by the leaders of a minority religious group. The first of the line was Lehi, who with his family and some others fled from Jerusalem to the desert to live the law in its purity and prepare for the coming Messiah. Commanded by God after much wandering to cross the seas, the community reached the New World and there broke up, only a minority choosing to continue the ways of the pious sectaries of the desert. Lehi's descendants in time met and mingled with yet other migrants from the Old World, and indeed for almost five hundred years they had, unawares, as their north­ern neighbors warlike hunting tribes which, according to the Book of Mormon, had come from Asia thousands of years before. The racial and cultural picture of the Book of Mormon is anything but the oversimplified thing its critics have made it out to be. For the Mormons, the Book of Mormon contains "the fulness of the gospel." Six hundred years of its history transpire before the coming of Christ, and four hundred after that. In the earlier period the faith­ful minority formed a church of anticipation, their charismatic leaders "teaching . . . the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was" (Jarom 1:11). There are extensive quotations from the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah, with remarkable variant readings, and much that is reminiscent in language and imagery of early Jewish apocryphal writings. The boldest part of the Book of Mormon is the detailed account of the visit of Jesus Christ to his "other sheep" (3 Nephi 15:21) in the New World after the Resurrection, including His in­structions and commandments to the new church. This episode closely parallels certain sections of early Christian apocrypha deal­ing with post-resurrectional teachings of the Lord to His disciples in Galilee and on the Mount of Olives, although none of these sources were available in Joseph Smith's day.

The historical parts of the Book of Mormon bear witness to its good faith, which never claims for it any sort of immunity, re­ligious or otherwise, from the most searching scientific and scho­larly criticism. Lack of comparative historical documents is offset by an abundance of cultural data: over two hundred nonbiblical Hebrew and Egyptian names offer ample material to the philolo­gist, and a wealth of technical detail invites critical examination, thanks to precise descriptions of such things as the life of a fam­ily wandering in the Arabian desert, a great earthquake, the an­cient craft of olive culture, a major war in all its phases, the ways of the early desert sectaries, and the state of the world during a protohistoric Völkerwanderung.

Along with cultural-historical particulars, the religious mes­sage of the book is richly interspersed with peculiar expressions, legends, traditions, and customs supposedly derived from the Old World, which may today be checked against ancient sources. Thus, it describes certain practices of arrow divination, an odd custom of treading on garments, a coronation ceremony (in great detail), peculiar ways of keeping and transmitting sacred records, the in­tricacies of an ingenious monetary system, and the like.

Of particular interest to Latter-day Saints are the prophetic parts of the Book of Mormon, which seem to depict the present state of the world most convincingly. The last 140 years have borne out exactly what the book foretold would be its own reception and influence in the world, and its predictions for the Mormons, the Jews, and the other remnants of scattered Israel (among which are included the American Indians) seem to be on the way to ful­fillment. The Book of Mormon allows an ample timescale for the realization of its prophecies, according to which the deepening perplexities of the nations, when "the Lord God shall cause a great division among the people" (2 Nephi 30:10) shall lead to world­wide destructions by fire, for "blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke must come; and it must needs be upon the face of this earth" (1 Nephi 22:18). After this the survivors (for this is not to be the end of the world) shall have learned enough to coexist peaceably "for the space of many years," when "all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people shall dwell safely in the Holy One of Israel if it so be that they will repent" (1 Nephi 22:26, 28).

The Book of Mormon is the history of a polarized world in which two irreconcilable ideologies confronted each other and is addressed explicitly to our own age, faced by the same predica­ment and the same impending threat of destruction. It is a call to faith and repentance couched in the language of history and pro­phecy but above all it is a witness to God's concern for all His children and to the intimate proximity of Jesus Christ to all who will receive Him.

Note

1. Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: Niemeyer, 1912), 1.