One 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?