The Original Pious Fraud

Latter-day Saints often discuss the merits of thinking about the Book of Mormon as a “pious fraud” or a “pious forgery.” It might be surprising to know that this term was not initially used with respect to the Book of Mormon. Rather, biblical scholars like Wilhelm Martin Lebrecht de Wette used it to describe the book of Deuteronomy. Interestingly, the idea that Deuteronomy is a pious fraud forms the backbone to many contemporary apologetic claims about the Book of Mormon’s historicity. What is at stake in making the case that the Book of Mormon is historically authentic at the expense of admitting that Deuteronomy is a pious fraud?

The idea that Deuteronomy is the book that King Josiah “discovered” in the temple in 622 BCE, and that its “discovery” was more the result of the text having been recently written than having been lost in the temple, are nearly universally accepted among biblical scholars. Naturally, the question arises as to what temple worship and Israelite religion might have looked like before Josiah’s reforms. This question has received a great deal of attention from many scholars.

Idiosyncratic scholars like Margaret Barker have tended to depict a pre-Josian religion that resembles, and in her view, explains where Christianity comes from. Latter-day Saint scholars have been attracted to the idea of a Christian-like ancient Israelite religion because it gives context to the pre-Christian Christianity of the Book of Mormon. Further, LDS scholars and apologists have sought for LDS temple traditions in the pre-Josian reform period.

This scholarly consensus, and the foundations of it that are used in some circles of LDS thought, entails denying that Deuteronomy is exactly what it claims to be. It requires that the author of the text is not who it says that it is. It requires that it is written centuries after it claims to have been written. Yet, such admissions are not reasons to reject it from the canon, or even to think that it is uninspired (though some LDS interpretations actually do make this argument about Deuteronomy).

My question is not at all about whether or not the Book of Mormon actually is ancient or modern. As I have said many times, I am not really interested in this question anymore, and am basically agnostic on the issue. Rather, my question is about the hermeneutical issues involved in taking one part of the canon as a “pious fraud” in order to deny the possibility that another part of the canon is a “pious fraud.” If it is possible to admit, and even rely on, the unhistorical and even “deception” involved in the coming forth of the “lost” or “hidden” book of Deuteronomy as an unthreatening aspect of one’s faith, why is it not possible to do the same with regard to the Book of Mormon?

12 Replies to “The Original Pious Fraud”

  1. Ignoring the other issues, as you note, I think Mormons are more open to errors in the OT simply because the BoM claims there are huge errors. Throw in Mormon distrust of uninspired scribes and I think many more intellectual Mormons are pretty open to distrust of the OT text. It helps that Christians in general have had a distrust of the OT and that the text itself often seems hard to reconcile to the loving God of the BoM or the NT. When you have Joseph Smith outright saying the Song of Solomon shouldn’t be in the Bible (even as the D&C quotes from it) then I think there’s a prima facie reason to be distrustful of it.

    What’s most interesting to me is that despite this distrust there’s a huge tension on the issue within Mormonism. We have all these reasons to approach the OT with a strong hermeneutics of suspicion. Yet we also want to give it the benefit of doubt – often with a literalist reading. It’s kind of interesting in a way. Personally I think more Mormons ought be open to say the Documentary Hypothesis given how well it lines up with our own theology. If we’re distrustful I suspect it’s more because of the problem of the Book of Mormon quoting from deuto-Isaiah.

  2. “If we’re distrustful I suspect it’s more because of the problem of the Book of Mormon quoting from deuto-Isaiah.”

    I think it would be fun if we found out the small plates themselves were a “pious fraud”, or, phrased in another way, “inspired pseudepgrapha” written by a post-Christian “Nephite”. They have a very similar story and purpose as to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History, and was also proclaimed to be a suddenly and mysteriously “found” deposit that “is more clear” , and contains unusually specific prophecies of events leading up to the period of its discovery.

    If the plates are set earlier than they were written (they seem to want to begin their story directly where the Deuteronomistic History ends – starting a New Genesis from where the old story left off?), then how fun would it be if we would learn that the proto-Nephites were actually a post-exilic crew who did indeed have post-exilic scriptures with them, and that all we have of their story now is being re-written through a polemical Christian lens…and then transmitted again through Joseph’s 19th Century Protestant eye and application of KJV language. Layer upon layer indeed.

    All of this is fun and games, of course. But it is fun to think of the possibilities of applying paradigms of Biblical Studies onto the genres of material for potential Q texts of the BoM.

    In short, I’m all for accepting even modern revelation (especially the JST) as Inspired Pseudepigrapha. We already do such in practice as a Church when we affirm the truth of many writings in the Old and New Testament alike.

  3. Here is what I said in response to Dan Vogel’s use of “pious fraud” as a description of the BoM:

    “I personally am not bothered by the expression “pious fraud,” which many scholars have applied, for instance, to the Book of Deuteronomy. Obviously I don’t believe that, but for a nonbeliever it strikes me as a charitable point of view.”

    See comment 24 here:

  4. I think the discomfort comes in consequence of the repeated idea that the book of Mormon is the keystone to our religion, and among the chiefest evidences of a latter-day restoration.

    This stuff, while intellectually stimulating, would surely lead to a conclusion of falsity in the restoration’s divine seal of approval…if accepted.

  5. That is, they have to be evaluated separately against their genre conventions and requirements and other criteria. For myself, a pious fraud BoM is inconsistent with its own (pious fraud) purposes.

  6. If you agree with the claims that Bart Ehrman makes in his new book Forged, there are lots of pious frauds in the New Testament. And even if you don’t reject every NT book that Ehrman doesn’t like, the majority of competent and reasonable scholars believe that there are SOME pious frauds in the NT, which, of course, you have pointed out on this blog previously. Nevertheless, I don’t think the Book of Mormon fits the mold of these pious frauds for many other reasons, which I don’t have time to elaborate on at the moment.

  7. Re # 7, on what basis are we equating Pseudepigrapha with “pious fraud”? Is that the standard convention in Biblical Studies? I haven’t seen those who see the Book of Mormon as a “pious fraud” describe it interchangeably as Pseudepigrapha.

    As to an apparent disconnect between taking Deuteronomy as a “pious fraud” but not the Book of Mormon, I think Clark and Ben S. make excellent points about why that is a consistent position to take as a believing Mormon. The real question is why such a large number of Mormons — and apparently growing larger — seems to have joined Fundamentalist Evangelical creedalists in a literalist, inerrant reading of the Old Testament such that questioning aspects of the genesis and reception history of its individual components is seen as suspicious or even apostate.

  8. Robert Price’s essay in American Apocrypha beings with a discussion of Deuteronomy as pious fraud, using that as a paradigmatic approach to the Book of Mormon, eventually wandering into a discussion of the themes of priesthood and transfiguration in 3 Nephi. I found it striking that it never occurs to him to consider that 1 Nephi begins in Jerusalem and 600 BCE, and that Lehi would be contemporary with Josiah, a witness to the reform. For the idea of pious fraud can provide a context for the Book of Mormon, but the coincidence in the setting fails to even register. Considered in that setting, the themes of priesthood and transfiguration emerge quite naturally, and to me at least, undermine Price’s use of them as evidence of pious fraud.

    At a Sunstone a decade ago, I spotted an acquaintence from California, and held up a copy of my newly published Paradigms Regained. She stiffened and said, “Before you say anything, The Book of Mormon is a 19th century fiction, and nothing you can say will ever change my mind. I never read anything from FARMS. It makes me mad.” The liberal perspective was so different from the creedal literalists, so open-minded as to demonstrate the opposite side of the coin.

    I’m open to the notion of pious fiction an approach to the Book of Mormon. If that is the particle of belief that works for you (as Alma 32 says), go ahead an nurture it to see what growth you can get. Personally though, I’ve not been impressed by the pious fiction approaches I’ve read. Not even Digging in Cumorah. I’m much more interested in those who contextualize and read the Book of Mormon as an ancient work. Say, Ben McGuire observing that the Book of Mormon use of Deuteronomy reflects the hypothetical proto-Deuteronomy layer. Even if Price has the critical tools to explore the question, his assumptions and methods preclude him ever noticing. I see the same thing in Coe compared to Gardner, Poulson, Sorenson, Clark, and Wright.

    Though that is just me.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  9. I think it would be fun if we found out the small plates themselves were a “pious fraud”, or, phrased in another way, “inspired pseudepgrapha” written by a post-Christian “Nephite”.

    It’s an interesting question. I’d note that Orson Scott Card long ago proposed a variant of this to explain the Mulekites.

    If the Book of Mormon is what it purports to be then there’s no reason to expect that its history was written the way we expect history to be written. Even though that’s the common view by lay members. If pseudopigrapha was an accepted style then who knows how to evaluate a lot in the Book of Mormon. Especially if the pseudopigrapha was written early on and then found by a later editor. (How different is Mormon’s role from what is claimed for post-Babylonian scribes compiling the Bible, for instance?) We want to make a distinction due to inspiration. However I think midrashic expansions not that removed from pseudopigrapha are common with Joseph Smith. (Ignoring the issue of the Book of Abraham, consider the expansions of the OT in the JST such as what we now find in Moses)

    Put an other way within a restoration framework the issue is less that of pseudopigrapha than inspired and uninspired pseudopigrapha. That’s because the very concept of revelation entails that a later prophet can write for an earlier one and perhaps (according to mainstream theology) be historically accurate. (Or at least close enough to count) At the same time the looseness of the translation/transmission/creative process might mean that it has lose connection or even no connection to any original ur text. Once again the JST on Melchezedek or Enoch is quite relevant here.

    I think the reason most Mormons react negatively towards the pseudopigrapha (except for apologetic uses) is because of the perception that it’s purely created for political reasons by uninspired untrustworthy religious movements. Put an other way I think pious fraud is insufficient for most Mormons. (It certainly is unacceptable for me) That’s because what is demanded is inspiration of a real sort. (i.e. something more than what Harold Bloom will allow)

  10. John F, I don’t think it takes a lot to understand why Mormons give the default view to the OT. First many are converts and even those who aren’t converts are typically second generation. Thus the Bible as trustworthy is the default position. Second there’s simply a long tradition in the 20th century for it. (I think in the 19th century the Bible was used more than the Book of Mormon but there was also more overt distrust of it – just read some of BY’s sermons)

    As I said there’s a tension. We have a lot of theological reasons to distrust the OT but give it the benefit of doubt perhaps because there’s even more reason to distrust a lot of secular interpretations. (Sorry guys, I know there’s a lot of logic behind scholarly writings but honestly there really is the rejection of some overarching inspiration behind things)

  11. I’m coming in awfully late on this discussion, but I found it very interesting. This is a dilemma that I’ve thought about, as I tend to favor the idea that Deuteronomy was composed in the time of Josiah. I guess you could salvage a traditional view of early authorship of the book by saying that perhaps it was an older text and was merely heavily edited by the Deuteronomist(s) as they put together their history (especially if it was a “lost” text that not many were familiar with).
    That speculation aside, I would agree with Clark (#1) and put the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Mormon in separate categories.
    Joseph Smith said: “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (DHC, vol. 6, p. 57.)
    This creates, for LDS, an expectation that not everything is always as it should be in the Bible. You say the Book of Deuteronomy is a pious fraud? Designing and corrupt priests? Okay, I can believe that!
    However, for most LDS at least, this can’t be the case for the Book of Mormon. The only translator involved, while perhaps “ignorant” by some people’s standards, translated the book by the gift and power of God. There may even have been some “careless transcribers” who introduced some “errors” into the text, but these are considered minor and inconsequential. We do believe that it is “the most correct of any book on earth”, at least in terms of the principles it teaches.
    Based on these considerations, there is not much room to believe that the Book of Mormon is likewise a “pious fraud” in the sense that Deuteronomy may be, unless, perhaps, we also see either Joseph or the Nephite prophets as “designing and corrupt priests” or something roughly equivalent.
    In short, I see room in orthodox Mormon thought for seeing Deuteronomy (or other biblical books/sections) as “pious fraud”, but not the Book of Mormon. I know I’m simplifying things here, but coming from this angle, I don’t see any conflict in using the apologetic argument you describe.

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