Canonical Criticism of the Book of Mormon?

The following is a brief response to Michael Austin’s post “Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars” published yesterday at BCC, in which he advocates that more students of the BoM should adopt something along the lines of the canonical criticism developed by biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs as a means of breaking through the debate over BoM historicity.

I practice biblical criticism, and while I appreciate Austin’s call to focus greater attention on the text of the BoM, I have reservations about a number of points he makes, including his description of canonical criticism and its relevance for the BoM.

First, I think Austin exaggerates the degree that Childs’ 1970 book was a paradigm shifter in academic biblical studies. It was provocative and made some waves, especially as some of his ideas were put into practice in his later publications. But the canonical approach as advocated by Childs has also been strongly criticized (e.g. Barr, Barton, etc.), to such an extent that it has largely been abandoned in contemporary scholarship.

Second, it is important to note that Childs himself did not see historical-critical methods as irrelevant or unimportant per se. In fact, he was a practitioner of conventional historical criticism in his writing and commentaries. Yet as a theological matter, he subordinated the insights of biblical criticism to the role of canonical shaping in determining the meaning of scripture for religious communities.

Third, the following paragraph is most perplexing to me:

“The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.”

I don’t think this accurately describes the development of biblical criticism after Childs. Childs’ approach wasn’t so much a middle way as it was a totally different theologically-oriented reading that could be adopted by those who already accepted the basics of biblical criticism. And I’m not aware of the “good scholarly work” that is still being produced in this vein. Liberals insisting on an ahistorical modern context for the biblical text?

On the other hand, I have serious doubts that Childs’ canonical approach is all that relevant for study of the BoM.

First, the situations between the BoM and Bible are very different, in my opinion. Childs’ goal was to revitalize the authority of the Bible and to make it theologically germane to present day religious communities in response to biblical criticism’s tendency to “otherize” texts to their original historical contexts. His solution was to make the interpretation of one part of the Bible subordinated to the theological interpretation of the whole. In other words, canonical criticism was a synchronic tool to bring greater coherence to the Bible, flatten out some of its contradictions, and revalorize aspects that don’t fit with modern Christian belief or ethics. That is obviously not what Austin is proposing we should do with the BoM.

Second, I think Austin severely exaggerates the degree to which the primary historical context of the BoM is unavailable. We have lots of archaeological and 19th century data that is relevant in this regard. No smoking gun, perhaps, but enough to make the argument for ancient historicity a real uphill battle. For example, while we don’t have the shipping records of Zarahemla, we do have examples of Reformed Egyptian, which I am very confident are not Egyptian, an alphabetic language, or any language whatsoever. And textual information internal to the BoM points just as strongly to a modern origin for the narrative– I find the statement “Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point” to be agnostic in the extreme. It is worth reiterating here that Childs himself was not inimical to pursuing historical questions.

Third, “… it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community.” However, this is the problem that all religious believers face when confronted with modernist historical investigation of religious claims. The same for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. Many religious communities have initially or at some point down the line made assumptions about the reality or facticity of their truth claims, which have later been called into question or shown to be based on stories or myths whose original function was very different from what later interpreters assumed. So the real problem here is the perennial one: how to accept modernity and historical and scientific investigation while also holding to traditional religious norms, categories, or beliefs that originated before or in conflict with modernity.

Fourth, “But this is not how the text is or has ever been understood by those who take it seriously. To reject outright the idea that the BOM is a historical document is to separate the text from the canonical context that makes it meaningful.” This is perhaps the most difficult and vexing aspect to deal with, because it is indeed the case that from the beginning JS claimed the BoM to be a historical account, and the BoM narrative portrays itself as grounded in real history. But personally I belong to the school who say, in order to avoid greater problems in the future we need to be free to ask the historical questions and then go from there about how we want to theologically evaluate the BoM as a community. In other words, I try to separate the historical and theological questions, because if we allow them to be entangled together it is inevitable that the latter will unduly influence the former.

In any case, I think it will become increasingly problematic for religious communities to require belief in something empirically verifiable (at least in principle) as a matter of tradition if they are not able to provide reasonable grounds for such a belief, which is where we are today with the BoM. I would also say that religious communities have to be able to mature and come of age intellectually, just as children eventually realize that the stories their parents told them when they were young aren’t all true. As children grow up they reevaluate these stories and incorporate their new understanding more or less into their evolving identity, without having to perpetually infantilize themselves.

One final thought, at a theological level a final form approach to the BoM or Bible (to be distinguished from a literary reading) presupposes their high inspiration as a matter of course. But for many the issue is that the high inspiration of the BoM is in fact the thing in question or potentially in doubt. So in my view, rigorous historical investigation and careful final forms readings of the text must go hand in hand.

Call for Papers: Book of Mormon Studies

Book of Mormon Studies: Toward a Conversation

Academic study of the Book of Mormon has never been more promising than at present. Royal Skousen’s work on producing a critical text is nearing completion, and the Joseph Smith Papers Project is making the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon widely available. Terryl Givens and Paul Gutjahr’s work has provided a basic outline on the reception history of the book. Brant Gardner has provided students of the Book of Mormon with a richly sourced and substantive commentary. Grant Hardy has introduced the content and the depth of the Book of Mormon into the larger academic world, and scholars associated with Community of Christ have recently made a case for renewed interest in the volume. The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies has begun to provide a space where various kinds of serious research on the book can be published. Book of Mormon Central has laid the foundation for a comprehensive archive of previous scholarly work. The Mormon Theology Seminar has begun assembling a body of close theological readings of specific texts. And promisingly, non-Mormon academic presses and journals have begun to publish important work on the Book of Mormon.

In the hopes of furthering all these developments, and of encouraging the pursuit of other directions, we would like to announce a conference to be held on October 13–14, 2017 at Utah State University. The purpose of the conference is twofold. First, we wish to gather scholars invested in serious academic study of the Book of Mormon and provide them with a venue to present their work and receive feedback and criticism. Ultimately, we aim to foster a community of academics interested in the Book of Mormon. To this end, the conference has no centralizing theme, but instead invites papers on any subject related to the Book of Mormon, from any viable academic angle. Second, in gathering interested scholars, we hope to use the occasion of a conference to lay the groundwork for a sustainable (but minimal) organization that can sponsor regular (annual or biannual) conferences on the Book of Mormon. To this end, the conference will include a meeting attempting to institutionalize a regular, repeating event for gathering scholars working on the Book of Mormon. We therefore invite the submission of full papers to be considered for presentation at the conference, particularly from scholars interested in promoting academic work on the Book of Mormon.


Three awards for most outstanding papers will be given:
$750 first place
$500 second place
$250 third place
One award for most outstanding graduate student paper:

KEYNOTES: Jared Hickman (Johns Hopkins University) and John Turner (George Mason University)
DATE: October 13–14, 2017
LOCATION: Utah State University

Send submissions to Submissions must include a full-length paper (3500–4000 words, excluding notes), a 300-word abstract, a brief CV (no more than two pages), and full contact information (including student status if applicable). Complete details available at

The Cyclical Nature of BYU’s Religious Education

A guest post from Mrs. Silence Dogood

One of the most interesting books on Mormon history to appear in the last year was Thomas Simpson’s American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism (University of North Carolina Press). You can read reviews of the book here, here, here, and here, as well as interviews here and here. As a summary, Simpson argues that the Mormon tradition’s awkward, uneven, but relentless interaction with higher education drove much of the Americanization process during the Church’s transition period between 1870 and 1940. Young Latter-day Saints traveled to Harvard, Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Chicago to receive a secular education and better integrate into their surrounding society. Yet the process was complex and brought unintended consequences, especially at home. Most poignantly, not everyone in Utah, especially at the leadership levels, was excited about the new knowledge that graduates brought back with them. A resurgent populism and ever-present authoritarianism countered these modernist ideas and led to several significant clashes. This is an important narrative concerning the origins of the modern Mormon mind. Continue reading “The Cyclical Nature of BYU’s Religious Education”

The death of Book of Mormon antiquity research?

Book of Mormon antiquity research has changed a lot since since the late 1990s. Not so long ago, it appeared that the future looked bright for the project to authenticate the BoM. Even in 2005 Richard Bushman could write, “the proponents [of an ancient BoM] are as energetic and ingenious as the critics in mustering support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. On the whole better trained, with more technical language skills than their opponents, they are located mainly at Brigham Young University and associated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). As a loosely coordinated group, they are as assiduous in demonstrating the historical authenticity of the book as the critics are in situating it in the nineteenth century” (Rough Stone Rolling, 92-93). But of course today FARMS with its university backing no longer exists, the quality of apologetic work produced through its intellectual successor The Interpreter has deteriorated, and the general sense is no longer onward and upward.

Nevertheless, in my view the most significant development that occurred during this period with long term implications for BoM apologetics is not the dissolution of FARMS and subsequent reorganization of the Maxwell Institute, but rather the failure of this earlier generation of scholars to convince people in my generation who went into biblical and ancient studies more generally to continue the struggle, not only that this was a fight worth having and sacrificing for but that it was grounded in the best available methodologies and scholarly bodies of knowledge. If you can’t build up supporters from those with the relevant professional training to say something informed about BoM historicity, then you have already lost. No matter how many articles you publish by enthusiastic layperson students of the BoM, the scholarly discourse is eventually hollowed out and devitalized and its credibility diminished. As with organic life, intellectual traditions can wither and die.

This, I would submit, is what is happening with traditional BoM antiquity research. I am aware of no one of relatively recent professional training in historical methodology or biblical or ancient studies who has attempted to give any kind of evidence-based justification for belief in a historical BoM or provided a competent response or accounting for the many ways in which our present knowledge of the Bible and its historical development militates strongly against a literal understanding of the BoM story. So either people have the requisite training but choose not to use it for this purpose or they bring their training to bear in only a very selective, limited, uncritical, and one-sided fashion.

Chaoskampf, the Garden of Eden, and the Mountains of Lebanon

I have a new paper up on the Garden of Eden that explores its mythological background in Canaanite-Israelite mythological tradition. Among other things, I argue that the mysterious ʾēd that comes up to water the ground in Gen 2:6 is correctly translated “flood” and that the motif hearkens back to an ancient Canaanite myth in which El created the world through defeating the primordial Sea monster. This discovery then leads me to reconstruct how the biblical Garden of Eden story has evolved over time, with particular emphasis on the identity of YHWH-Elohim and the original mountain location of Eden in Canaan. I show how at an earlier stage in the narrative the divine protagonist was likely El rather than YHWH-Elohim and that the site of Eden has been adapted from Mount Lebanon to a non-defined place somewhere on the eastern horizon.

John Hall and why we can’t have nice, biblical things (part 2)

This may become a recurring series. Who knows. There is a mountain of material with more coming out each year it seems. Anyway, today’s installment comes from John F. Hall, a former professor of Classical Studies at BYU and self-styled scholar of the New Testament. In his 2002 monograph New Testament Witnesses of Christ: Peter, John, James, and Paul (Covenant) the reader finds this (p. 59):

“Modern critics resort to literary analysis and redaction criticism to dismiss the accounts of Mark and Matthew in favor of those of Luke or John because “the more complex circumstances which the stories in Luke and John suggest for the calling of Peter have a plausibility that the brief Markan account lacks.” (14) Nevertheless, for those who accept the historicity of all accounts, there is no reason to reject any of the treatments. Although they are not identical, they are likewise not mutually exclusive, but compatible and complementary, open to synthesis.”

Please clap.

Modern critics? Resort? Oh geez. No. They don’t resort to literary analysis and redaction criticism, they use these as tools to do the work of biblical scholarship. Also, isn’t it great that in the 21st century Hall is still playing the harmonization game? Of course, gospel harmonizations are the close cousin to Barker’s (last post) patchwork quilt of decontextualized sausage linking.