One of the things that fascinates me in my role as a co-editor for the Interpreter Foundation’s journal, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, is seeing how different scholars using different methods and working independently come up with new concepts that fit nicely together. A new article published today illustrates this effect. I refer to Val Larsen’s outstanding advance in Book of Mormon scholarship in “Josiah to Zoram to Sherem to Jarom and the Big Little Book of Omni,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 44 (2021): 217-264. There’s so much that this article does to help us appreciate the ancient setting of the Book of Mormon, including the conflicts between different religious factions in Jerusalem that may have carried over into the New World. This article is especially interesting when combined with another recent work of scholarship published just a few weeks ago, Clifford P. Jones, “That Which You Have Translated, Which You Have Retained,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 43 (2021): 1-64.
A key theme in Larsen’s article is the clash between Mantic and Sophic views, or the views of Lehi with a living God with a Son, with angels and a divine council, a God who provides ongoing revelation prophets, versus the views of God as a remote, distant Entity who has given statutes and laws for the scribes and scholars to figure out. A clash that was well underway in Jerusalem of 600 B.C. continued throughout the Book of Mormon.
Larsen frames the situation nicely in his abstract:
The first 450 years of Nephite history are dominated by two main threads: the ethno-political tension between Nephites and Lamanites and religious tension between adherents of rival theologies. These rival Nephite theologies are a Mantic theology that affirms the existence of Christ and a Sophic theology that denies Christ. The origin of both narrative threads lies in the Old World: the first in conflicts between Nephi and Laman, the second in Lehi’s rejection of King Josiah’s theological and political reforms. This article focuses on these interrelated conflicts. It suggests that Zoram, Laman, Lemuel, Sherem, and the Zeniffites were Deuteronomist followers of Josiah. The small plates give an account of how their Deuteronomist theology gradually supplanted the gospel of Christ. As the small plates close, their last author, Amaleki, artfully confronts his readers with a life-defining choice: having read the Book of Mormon thus far, will you remain, metaphorically, with the prophets in Zarahemla and embrace the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, or will you return to the land of Nephi and the theology you believed and the life you lived before you read the Book of Mormon?
Val Larsen’s article explores some of the literary methods that relate the book of Omni and particularly the words of Amaleki in that book to the rest of the Book of Mormon. There’s so much more going on in that small book than I had ever realized. The parallels and other relationships that Larsen explores suggest that Mormon deliberately drew upon small plates material, but this should be unlikely in the standard model that has emerged for the production of the Book of Mormon and especially the writing of the Words of Mormon.
In that model, after the 116 pages were lost, the translation continued with the book of Mosiah and on until the very end of the large plates, followed by the translation of the added small plates of Nephi and finally the Words of Mormon, which tell us that Mormon has just discovered the small plates and felt inspired to add them for a wise purpose (which we now know was to make up for the loss of the 116 pages), even though it overlapped with what he had already written from the large plates.
That standard model has the Words of Mormon being just about the last thing Mormon would write, apparently written right after he added the material from the small plates. That would seem to come after the large plates material had been abridged. How, then, can we understand Larsen’s well-supported proposal that the book of Omni was influential in Mormon’s writings? You can say it was just because Joseph made it all up himself, so everything should be related, but as always, the artfulness of the relationships seems beyond what one would expect from Joseph Smith just making things up on the fly.
Clifford Jones’ essay provides background that fits in perfectly with Larsen’s work. Clifford does some remarkable sleuthing and concludes that we’ve been looking at the Words of Mormon in the wrong way for many years now. He provides strong evidence that what we call the Words of Mormon was actually an editorial insertion by Mormon in what originally was part of the book of Mosiah. It was in reading about the transfer of the small plates from Amaleki to King Benjamin that Mormon was motivated to search and find the small plates record, and that is when he was inspired to not only add it at the end of his compilation, but to draw upon its teachings in the rest of what he would write.
Jones provides annotation and emphasis for Words of Mormon 1:6, where Mormon writes, “I choose these things [these prophecies recorded on the small plates] to finish my record [the balance of my abridgment] upon them [making these prophecies the subject or theme of the rest of my record — it will be about them], which remainder of my record [the balance of my abridgment] I shall take from the plates of Nephi [the large-plate record].” There Jones notes that The Oxford English Dictionary lists one sense of upon as “Denoting the subject of speech or writing.” So it seems that Mormon is indicating that he is so impressed with the content of the small plates that he will finish his record drawing upon them for influence or guidance as he completes the abridgement of the large plates. In other words, the Words of Mormon are actually the earliest text from Mormon in the Book of Mormon, and they signal his deliberate intent to draw upon the small plates in the rest of his work. Some of the evidence for such influence is brought out in Larsen’s analysis.
It is amazing how much work was required to bring out a clearer understanding of these intricate details, beginning with the life’s work of Royal Skousen in poring over the details of what survived from the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the Printer’s Manuscript to help us understand what was dictated, followed by the Joseph Smith Paper’s project which has made those documents more readily available to scholars, which played an important role in Clifford Jones’s discoveries. Drawing upon that scholarship, others have now sought to develop an understanding of what happened when in the translation of the plates, and then Val Larsen built on that as did Clifford Jones with painstaking evaluation of many clues from diverse sources to give new hypotheses which shook up old ways of thinking. What we are left with is a stronger vision of how intricate, consistent, and carefully crafted the Book of Mormon is, and how closely related it is to the impact of Josiah’s reforms and other sources of religious conflict in pre-exilic Israel. The combined effect of Larsen’s and Jones’ works is an abundance of new evidences for the divinity and antiquity of the Book of Mormon.
A Choice to Make: Do We Read the Book of Mormon through a Sophic or Mantic Lens?
Larsen wraps up his article by pointing out that the dichotomy of religious views in Nephite culture, the Sophic vs. the Mantic, is what we also face today. With a Sophic faith to inform us, we can read the Book of Mormon as the work of a lone man, Joseph Smith, whose personal views, environment, and vocabulary stand as the source of parallels, allusions, and intertextuality in the Book of Mormon. We can choose to see its prophecies and sermons as sloppy injections of modern views into an allegedly old record, its language as Joseph crude dialect and awkward grammar warped into a KJV twang, giving little more than simplistic axioms from Joseph’s imagined anthropomorphic God in the form of pious fiction. That may be how many of the Nephites viewed the teachings and writings of the prophets of their day.
Larsen’s beautiful concluding words remind us that there is another way to view things:
But if, having read the small plates, we exercise Mantic faith, we will live in a world suffused with the presence and power of God, where to restore lost truths the corporeal Father and Son appear in pillars of fire to prophets, ancient and modern. Elohim will be for us behind the temple veil in the most holy place. Yahweh will be for us an unblemished lamb, sacrificed for our sins upon the altar of the temple, and he will be the atoning Christ suffering for us in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. We will have a Mother as well as a Father in Heaven. We will see richness in the relationships between Book of Mormon authors, Amaleki being a close reader of Nephi and Jacob, Mormon and Moroni close readers of Amaleki. We will adhere to a living faith, animated by manifest gifts of the Spirit and guided by prophets who still walk among us.
While the small plates, as they close, imply that we get to choose which of the two lands we will live in, Sophic Nephi or Mantic Zarahemla, Amaleki makes it clear that we do not fully determine what we encounter in those metaphorical lands. And the outcomes he briefly describes are much more fully revealed by Mormon in the Book of Mosiah. The land of Nephi becomes the debauched, sensual kingdom of King Noah. The temple in the land of Zarahemla becomes the holy place where inhabitants of the land are reborn as purified sons and daughters of Christ through the valedictory ministrations of their prophet king, Benjamin. Decide, Amaleki implicitly tells us, where you want to live.