The Greek and Roman Testaments: A Scriptural Analogy

John Hamerbook of mormon, community of christ, conference, Culture, historicity, history, Mormon, scripture 25 Comments

Trojan HorseOne of the interesting panel discussions at last weekend’s Restoration Studies Symposium was entitled “The Future Status and Use of the Book of Mormon in the Community of Christ.” The essential question raised is: if you aren’t sure (or don’t believe) that the Book of Mormon is a literal history, do you have to throw the book out with the bath water? (Community of Christ leaders apparently don’t think you have to…)

This discussion got me to thinking about scriptures in general and I came up with an analogy that I wanted to bounce off folks. I think that the Book of Mormon’s relationship with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible can be compared to the relationship between the Aeneid (the great Roman epic) and the earlier Iliad and Odyssey (the great epics of ancient Greece).

The Iliad and Odyssey told heroic stories about a historic event, the Trojan War, but they are not literal histories. Fundamentally, the Greek epics were stories that transmitted inspirational teachings, values and models for living life in harmony with Greek religion. The Roman epic did the same for the Romans, but interestingly it did so by connecting Rome to the earlier Greek epics. In the Aeneid, the ancestors of the Romans are revealed to have been Trojans who fled to Italy after the events of the Iliad. Thus the Romans carved out a space for themselves in the world-view constructed by the Greek epics.

In the early 1800s, Americans were steeped in the stories of the Bible and their picture of the world was largely based on reading it literally. They knew the story of Noah and the Flood and imagined it recorded a history of the world covered in water. From that vantage, all the peoples of the world were believed to have descended from Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japeth. Common tradition held that Shem’s sons had settled Asia, Japeth’s Europe and Ham’s Africa.

This picture of the world included a gaping hole for Americans on the frontier. The whole New World around them had been unknown to the writers of the Bible and was not accounted for in the scriptures. How did American Indians fit into the Biblical world-view? There was no clear answer. From which of Noah’s three sons were Indians descended and how did they get to America after the flood? Were they one of the peoples scattered at the time of the Tower of Babel? Were they a remnant of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel? Were they the children of Gog and Magog or were they something else entirely? These and other questions loomed.

However, the Book of Mormon created a place within the Biblical world-view for the Americas by connecting ancient inhabitants of the New World to Bible stories like the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. For believers who imagined that all the world descended from the family of Noah, the Book of Mormon created a particularly august lineage for American Indians, who were numbered among chosen people of the house of Israel.

We can draw one more comparison from the Greek and Roman epics. The Iliad and Odyssey were the product of pre-literate tradition, whose poetic forms were dictated by the nature of its oral composition. They sound like oral epic poems because that is what they are. The Aeneid, by contrast, was a literary composition, written by a single author. However, to create the same resonance and reverence, the author imitates the forms and language of earlier oral epics.

The Book of Mormon similarly uses the style and forms of the Old and New Testaments and the language of the King James translation of the Bible to invoke the spirit of scripture. And though the Biblical Testaments were compiled over the centuries from diverse sources, the Book of Mormon was revealed through a single conduit, just as Vergil was the sole author of the Aeneid.

What is the defining characteristic of scripture? If Job was not a historical person, is the message of the Book of Job diminished?

Comments 25

  1. If one is a scriptural transformationalist (or at least strongly influenced by the position) one finds the power of scripture to transform subsequent peoples, times and cultures as the most powerful indication of divine origin. One does not dismiss scripture because many matters in it are not completely historical; nor does one dismiss such as mere myth. The power of scripture is that it is rooted in both history, religious instruction, and myth, coalescing into a narrative that invites interpretation and transformation.

    The trouble with the Book of Mormon for Jewish or Christian transformationalists is that its history is not well rooted nor consistent in the evidence we can see for biblical times, places and cultures, nor for Mesoamerican times, peoples and cultures. It really is rooted in period New England reformationalist revivalism and American patriotic and divine nationalism and its culture. Nor is the Book of Mormon well rooted in ancient myth, putting forward historically anachronistic messianic or christological development where it pertains to what we know of Hebrew and Christian myth, as well as that of Mesoamerican cultures. Therefore, its origins don’t persuasively point ancient. Hence Christian or Jewish transformationists don’t accord it the respect they would for the Tanakh or the Christian Bible.

    That said, some liberal transformationalists would certainly seem to accord the Book of Mormon as a modern piece of literature as transformationalist as evidenced by the effect it has on those who believe in it. On that level you have to accord the Book some respect even if one doesn’t believe its origin is ancient nor divine.

    I’ve been re-reading Ron Miller’s “Hidden Gospel of Matthew” lately. While Miller is more apt to disbelieve the literal divinity of Jesus, where other transformationalists see the resurrection as more historically cogent, he addresses very persuasively the case for a transformationalist use of scripture. Also check out N.T. Wright’s essay on biblical authority that also has a persuasive and provocative transformationalist angle: This latter article is of particular interest because of Holland’s reference to (and noncontextual misuse of) it in his recent General Conference address.

  2. I can leave room for people to believe in the Book of Mormon without believing it as literaly history. Hurlbut’s Spaulding theory, Vogel’s pyschoanalytical theory, a View of the Hebrews, and even the fringe elements of Ed Decker’s evil mystical explanation are all not very convincing to me. Cetus Paribus applies if one applies Jospeh Smith to what we know about natural phenomenon. Taking the historical record into play (Joseph’s education, translation into a hat with a stone without and other odd translation oddities, and the witnesses, the Cetus Paribus would conclude for me to be that it was produced under a mysterious process). Outside of that, I can give room for other explanations that involve mystical processes. I think as long as we give way for this mystical, we can make religion from it, because religion invariable involved mysticism. I, for one, thanks to the presence of plates in the historical record, makes me conclude that it relates to an historical era.

    Plus I prayed about him being a true prophet and I felt that he was a true prophet. Mormon, that is, I believe Mormon was a true prophet 😉

  3. Peter Brown said, “Outside of that, I can give room for other explanations that involve mystical processes. I think as long as we give way for this mystical, we can make religion from it, because religion invariable involved mysticism. I, for one, thanks to the presence of plates in the historical record, makes me conclude that it relates to an historical era.”

    Good point. If one concedes a mystical process, one leaves room for religion. I also think it is useful to keep the Hebrew and Christian scripture in mind as a standard, assuming one is going to argue a Christian world-view (and evaluate the Book of Mormon at its word of being a history and another testament of Christ). One reason we see the gnostic Christian writings as unadmitted for canon is that they fail to meet the coalescing point that is more consistent when we evaluate the canonized books. The gnostic writings appear later and deliberately, per the gnostic world-view, take a step away from historical grounding (the most important of which is to accept Jesus’ literal divinity). Yes, these gnostic books are mystical. Yes, mythic even. But much less so grounded in the history and doctrine that raise Christian scripture to the level of canon. So do we count the Book of Mormon as a “gnostic” scripture? Interesting, transformative but not effectual canon? This may be valid.

    It may seem unfair, but, IMO, this is a valid and logically consistent (though critical) reason, among others, for Christians to reject the spiritual effectuality and veracity of the Book of Mormon. (Among those others reasons is that plainly there is no presence of plates in the historical record.) People have spiritual or emotional experiences with all sorts of books and rites. Yet the Bible teaches we must hold all up to a standard of evaluation if we are to grant them as valid and effectually of Christ and not false. Still, since I am sympathetic, though not allied, to liberalized transformationalist interpretation, I’m willing to grant that the Book of Mormon, in a New Agey “what works for me works for me and what works for you works for you” has powerful value to those inclined.

  4. John,

    Brilliant. I have wondered though, what function the Book of Mormon performs for Mormons outside America. Does it fill a narrative space for Filipinos and Ghanaians as well do you think?

  5. Re:Fundamentally, the Greek epics were stories that transmitted inspirational teachings, values and models for living life in harmony with Greek religion.

    The Pentateuch mirrors this in many ways. It is commonly held that Moses did not write these books, that they are a compilation of works by numerous writers over an extended period of time. According to one theory, the Pentateuch reached its current form around the time of Ezra or about 400 B.C.

    During my Women’s Studies course in college, the instructor taught that at the time the version of the creation story was transcribed in the form that most closely represents the modern Book of Genesis, one of the major issues of the time was the form of goddess worship that existed. Namely the goddess known as Ashtoreth. Even though the themes and structure of the creation account may have followed an existing template, the precise wording may have been tinged by a desire to make goddess worship look bad, primarily in the treatment of Eve. What follows over the centuries are studies of the Eve story relating to different issues of the times, following wording that was originally geared more toward suppression of goddess worship. Ashtoreth and Baal were both objects of Idolatry as described in Judges 2:13.

    The Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price Book of Moses present a different treatment of Eve; one of wisdom and heroism. With a restorationist view, one can look at this account as a blessing of the restoration. I took a challenge from the instructor of the class to look at this from the perspective of whether the wording of the translation was intended to correct any doctrine that existed at the time of the Book of Mormon publication. Maybe “original sin”?

    In spite of the supposed suppression of goddess worship of the Genesis account, there remains the language such as, “And God created man in his own image in the image of God created he him, male and female he created them.” Others have read this and made conclusions such as the following:

    “Since man [male and female] was created in the image of God, it logically follows that this god was both male and female. The word our implies more than one, so, in effect, what we have is a god-pair consisting of a male god and a female god.”
    This author even suggests Asthoreth to be the female god suggested in this interpretation.

    My instructor’s theory that the account was toned to suppress goddess worship, if correct, was ultimately quite effective. References to a Heavenly Mother are still quite rare, even within LDS doctrine. What is the defining characteristic of scripture? That is a very good question, and I think it is definitely different now than the time the Pentateuch was compiled. Preservation seems to be a strong theme. Much like keeping a family history before the knowledge that exists drifts into embellished fables.

  6. John, this is an intriguing topic. Studying Greek and Roman mythology is what caused me to seriously re-examine the OT stories I had taken as literal history for so long. One can’t read ancient mythology without seeing its striking parallels to the OT in particular.

    I love your last question: “What is the defining characteristic of scripture? If Job was not a historical person, is the message of the Book of Job diminished?”

    My answer is: the defining characteristic is that it is inspired and therefore inspiring, and that a lack of historicity does not diminish the power of the principles that scriptures contain. For example, the story of Jonah is one of the most beautifully simple and perfect metaphors of mankind’s fallen state, the need for a sacrifice to save humanity, Christ’s burial for 3 days, and resurrection, etc. Even if it’s all a whale of a tale, its beautiful message remains intact.

    We tell our children nursery rhymes and folk tales and legends to teach them moral truths; why can’t our Heavenly Father do the same with us?

  7. Rigel said, “The Pentateuch mirrors this in many ways. It is commonly held that Moses did not write these books, that they are a compilation of works by numerous writers over an extended period of time. According to one theory, the Pentateuch reached its current form around the time of Ezra or about 400 B.C.”

    My understanding is that the Talmud (the instruction, commentary on the Torah) was compiled in written form in Babylon in the 400s BC (5th century BC) but existed for centuries prior in rigid, disciplined oral for for centuries prior. The Torah existed for easily a millennia before that, though Jewish tradition is that is came into being in the time of Moses. Westerners are wont to count the “history” of the Tanakh by when it was written down, and not giving due weight and sobriety to the oral culture that predated it, and continued far after that of transcription. It is the significance of this oral culture that gives a lot of the historical weight behind confidence in the veracity of the Christology of Paul and the cogency of Jesus’ resurrection.

  8. John,

    To answer your original question, if Job was not a historical person, for me, the lessons I learn from the book of Job are enhanced. Like Lowell Bennion, I have a hard time seeing the story of Job as a literal occurrence. Particularly the wager between God and the Devil at the beginning and the untrue to life superabundant blessings Job receive in the end ring false to me. But taking the core of Job’s dialogues with his neighbors as a lesson in patient suffering through afflictions, trusting God and not cursing him day and night, seems like a noble ideal to aspire to. The fact that people believed that this story was literal and have tried to emulate its model of theistic living is an inspiration to me.

  9. The Book of Job is likely a parable or myth for two good reasons.

    First, the Hebrew text (Job 1 begins with the word for man “ish”, “a man there was”. This is a significant change in the normal Hebrew word order of verb-subject-object. Here the order is object-subject-verb. The significance is found in the fact that there are only two genuine parallels to this inverted syntax and they are found in the opening lines of Nathan’s parable (2 Samuel 12:1) and Joash’s fable (2 Kings 14:9). This syntax is an introductory Hebrew formula or idiom for the parable that follows, akin to the modern introductory phrase “once upon a time”. Thus, the author The Book of Job is telling the reader from the start that this book is and should be read as a myth or parable about humankind.

    Second, all the speeches of Job and his friends in the three cycles of speeches (Job 3:1-37:24) are highly stylized poetry suggesting that book itself is parable or myth. Real persons do not speak in poetry, certainly not for 35 chapters.

    The meanings a reader draws from the text remain the same whether you regard the book as a wholes as fictional or not.

    You might be interested in this online commentary “Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” ( as supplementary or background material for any study of the Book of Job. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.

    Robert Sutherland

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    Great responses, folks, thanks. Lots to think about. 🙂

    I have wondered though, what function the Book of Mormon performs for Mormons outside America. Does it fill a narrative space for Filipinos and Ghanaians as well do you think?

    John Nilsson (#4): Well, I’d say that I don’t have to be a Roman to appreciate the Aeneid and its messages, but it does help that I know Latin and have studied & TAed Roman history. Although it’s ostensibly about ancient Trojans, Greeks and Phoenicians in the 11th century BC, the real insights it gives you are about how Romans pictured themselves in the era of Augustus (in the decades just prior to AD 1).

    Likewise the Book of Mormon can give you real insights into the religious imagination of Americans in the early 19th century — just prior to the Restoration. So you can have that level of interest, even if you’re from the Eastern Hemisphere. And you also have the content value of the inspired stories themselves, as you have with the Bible.

    Even more important, the Book of Mormon has the ability to give us a general insight into what scripture is and what it is not. It’s not history. If we had a perfect history of the Hittites, that wouldn’t be scripture.

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    JfQ (#1): I like that idea. The Book of Mormon definitely transformed Mormons into a people — or was at least one of the crucial causes in that transformation into peoplehood.

    Peter (#2): If you don’t want to give up literalism, I’m not arguing that you need to. There are lots of people who believe the Tower of Babel is historical rather than mythical, and they seem to do just fine. My thoughts here are probably more relevent for people who don’t share that world-view and who have consequently concluded that the Book of Mormon does not actually describe actual ancient peoples.

    You’re right that the plates are a potential sticking point, but if when one looks at the sources for the early Mormon period, one is struck by how much less physical and how much more mystical the plates were than we think of them today. Any modern painting that shows anyone (including Joseph) interacting with the plates uncovered is a modern interpretation that doesn’t fit the contemporary 1820s narrative. In fact, all of the important experiences with the plates were visionary: the angel showing them to Joseph, Joseph’s translation of them (which was conducted without their uncovered, physical presence), and the angel showing them to the Three Witnesses. There was a physical object, which Joseph used to focus his and his contemporaries’ visions. People felt this object through a cloth and they lifted it up when it was sealed in a box. But no one saw the physical object with their physical eyes and the text of the Book of Mormon was inspired without direct physical/optical reference to the object. Understanding the plates as spiritual can be helpful in dealing with the problem of Book of Mormon historicity.

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    Robert (#9): I thoroughly agree, which is why I used the example. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Book of Job is a parable. John N (#8): I love your take on why that makes the scripture better than if it were a literal history.

    Rigel (#5): Exactly. I love mining the Pentateuch for the ur-texts and looking threw the myths for what they can tell us about the real history. (I love the inspired stories too, and I’m using “myth” in a positive sense.) Have you read The Book of J? I think you’d like Harold Bloom’s argument that the author of the J source was a woman. (You’re probably already aware of that theory.) I love Ashtoreth too. I’ve been contemplating elaborating a Mormon cosmology/angelology and I definitely think Ashtoreth is a fitting name for Heavenly Mother.

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  14. John…I do not have much background at all in Greek and Roman mythology. I think the naturalistic argument is well structured and explains much. I am rather agnostic but take the middle ground if that is at all possible. I like to think that inspiration was involved just as Mozart or Verdi were inspired but it might not have been as literalistic as we think.

    I really like your analogy and it helps to frame things in a universal setting. Great Post Hamesy…very engaging.

  15. There are lots of books, fiction and not, that I read and am inspired by. We teach our children fables to teach them lessons, and read them simple stories to teach them. I don’t think anything has to be 100% truth and cannon for us to learn from it. If someone believes the BOM isn’t ‘true’ but helps them lead a better life in some way… ok.

  16. John “There was a physical object, which Joseph used to focus his and his contemporaries’ visions. People felt this object through a cloth and they lifted it up when it was sealed in a box.”

    To me, the physical covered plates sitting on Joseph’s kitchen table in a very non-mystical way, as well as hefting them around, sticking them in barrels of beans, etc. help to corraborate the mystical experience of the three witnesses and the eight as actual object that wasn’t imagined by over 15-16 persons. The fact of the matter are, to me it seems there must be plates, we just don’t know if they were ancient. That’s the mystery.

    Yes I’m not giving up literalism, but my point was to agree with you that you don’t have to be a literalist either. I think there’s room for both.

    But there’s the rub. My paradigm puts faith outside history. Now, I’m no historian per se, but I am a thinker, to quote Glenn Beck, and from what I can deduce, history is as much of an art as it is a science. History puts its faith and trust in written history based on journals, third-person scribes, oral stories, and archaology. the further we get from an event, the more the facts are lost, and the greater opportunity a single interpretation becomes ensconced in the books of time. Many events are lost forever. Unless you have a time machine, discovering historical facts is the art of probability guesswork. Thus, I try to base my faith on the here and now. Makes my faith much more real and palatable.

  17. John Hamer :—

    There is more to the Greek myths than you’re letting on to. Much of it is historical (as you say) and genealogical.

    For example, Iapetus is Japheth.

    The real Spartans under Menelaus (who — along with the Achaeans, Argives, and Danaans under Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon — besieged Troy for 10 years and didn’t return home to their cities afterward) are Irish Vikings, not pansy Greeks or Romans!

    King Leonidas and his 300 are counterfeits who kick people into holes and dine in hell. Real Vikings go to Valhöll (the highest of 3 heavens in Asgård)!

  18. The question of the Book of Mormon being history is a no brainer. If it is not history, then there was no prophet Mormon to write the book in the first place. That means that whoever wrote it was a 19th century novelist.

    If a Community of Christ priest says the Book of Mormon is not historical, the first question I would ask him is this: When is the CofC going to canonize “Ben Hur”?

  19. John, Community of Christ doesn’t even teach the Book of Mormon in their overseas missions and congregations. It, to us, is an American experience and does not relate well to people in Europe, Africa and Asia. People like me who do not believe it is a literal history anyhow are not bothered by that fact. In fact, I consider it a good thing. The development of the Bible is confusing enough without trying to explain the folk magic of the Book of Mormon.

  20. I do have one problem with the mormon church up until 1975 the mormons forbid black to hold the priesthood. At least the RLDS never had such restrictions. In fact Joseph Smith himself ordained a black man (forget the name) to the priesthood and made him a member of the Quarm of the 70 before he was lynched and hung he was also the first matyer to the execute for his faith in the book of mormon. If any of you want to e-mail me my address is I promise to respond within 24 hours or less and I am very good at getting back to people as I love to get e-mail.

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