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Grant Hardy
Monday, June 28 2010

How the Book of Mormon is Not Like the Bible (and Why We Should Celebrate That!)

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Similarities and Differences

Quite reasonably, the current “Introduction” to the Book of Mormon begins, “The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible.” And so it is. Both volumes were written by prophets, they are divided into smaller books generally named for their authors, they use similar language, and they witness of Christ. Most importantly, they are both the word of God, given to us for guidance, testimony, and judgment. To highlight these similarities, the official LDS editions are presented in a nearly identical format, with double columns of individual verses and extensive cross-references. “If you like the Bible,” we tell our friends and neighbors, “you’ll like the Book of Mormon. They have the same spirit about them.”

Yet in slightly more detailed conversations, we are likely to point out some significant differences as well. Parts of the Bible seem to be missing, the oldest manuscripts are still only copies of copies, and even careful translations can sometimes introduce errors or distortions. The distance between our English Book of Mormon and its ancient text is quite small by comparison. The original record—an abridgment written by Mormon and Moroni themselves, —was buried for 1400 years and then given directly to Joseph Smith, who translated the gold plates “by the gift and power of God.”

All of this is both true and familiar. But when we read the Book of Mormon closely, it is evident that there are still more distinctions. The Bible is more of a library than a single book, and there are tremendous differences in genre. Just within the Old Testament, we find the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the law code of Leviticus, the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, the poetry of the Psalms, the narrative of Joshua through Kings, and the proverbs of, well, Proverbs.

At first glance, the contents of the Book of Mormon appear to be similarly diverse—there are sermons and letters, war stories and missionary journeys, visions and allegories, and even a psalm by Nephi. On closer inspection, however, the Book of Mormon turns to be entirely narrative. The whole book takes the form of a story told by narrators, who may insert previously written records or documents into their account to make particular points, but we know who is responsible for every word in the Book of Mormon. It’s either Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, or Moroni (plus a few minor authors at the end of the Small Plates). This means that the Book of Mormon, as a whole, is a much more integrated and deliberately constructed volume than the Bible.

A Distinctive Type of Narrative

Yet even when understood as narrative, the Book of Mormon operates by very different literary principles than the Bible. Consider the characteristics of Old Testament narrators as described by Shimon Bar-Efrat, formerly of Hebrew University at Jerusalem:

“The narrator in most biblical narratives appears to be omniscient”

“Biblical narrators do not usually mention themselves”

“Biblical narrators [generally] make no reference to their activity in writing the narratives”

“The narrators do not . . . address their audience directly”

“Outside the books of Kings there are very few instances in which the narrator passes judgment”(1)

How many of these statements are true of the Book of Mormon? None of them.

Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni are named, human narrators writing from their own historical, human perspectives (though they can claim prophetic inspiration). Indeed, they often were participants in the stories that they tell. They interrupt their narratives regularly to tell us about their lives, their testimonies, and their desires. They worry about their “weakness in writing” (Eth. 12:23, 40; cf. 2 Ne. 33:1, 4). And they do not hesitate to address readers directly to explain their intentions, their editorial techniques, and their emotional responses to the events they recount. Mormon, for instance, famously inserts “thus we see” comments so that readers can plainly understand his message.

These sorts of direct connections are not simply reserved for formal comment sections, such as 1 Ne. 9, 1 Ne. 19, 2 Ne. 11, Hel. 12, 3 Ne. 5, 3 Ne. 26, Mormon 9, and Moroni 10. They occur subtly throughout the Book of Mormon, from the very first chapter, where Nephi writes, “But behold, I Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen . . .” Who do you think the you in that sentence refers to?

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