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?