Thucydides and the Book of Mormon editors

Records of conversations, arguments, preaching, and other interpersonal communications are found in scriptural and non-scriptural ancient works. Scholars naturally ask critical questions about the source and accuracy of these passages. Are they “genuine,” are they purely constructs of what the author wanted them to say, or a mix? Thucydides gives us an interesting look into his methodology-

Some speeches I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

-History of the Peloponnesian War (1:22).

This principle is also at work with the Biblical conversations, as evidenced by several introductions to the Bible, and sources like the NIV Study Bible’s introduction to Acts, which notes, “The speeches are obviously not verbatim reports.”

Was this meant to mislead ancient readers into thinking these were word-for-word quotations?

“… the challenge of the Hellenistic historian was to create speeches that, on the one hand, were appropriate to the speaker and occasion and, on the other hand, served to advance the author’s own narrative aims. Ancient readers knew this, and were not expected to believe that such speeches were merely reproductions of what was really said on a given occasion.”

-Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, ?? (My electronic source lacks page numbers, but it’s in chapter 6.)

Since the Book of Mormon authors labored under the same pre-modern disadvantages (no tape-recorders) and advantages (oral culture with better memories?), I think it reasonable to assume that a similar process was at work in the record-keeping of the sources Mormon and Moroni edit in producing the Book of Mormon. (In contrast to the Bible, in which the editorial process must be carefully teased out, Mormon frequently gives us the sources he used- such as the records of Alma, letters, the names of plates.)

Alma provides us an explicit example of what Thucydides describes. Everything we know from Abinadi’s preaching of the Gospel comes from Alma Sr., who had heard it first-hand and then fled. Safely “concealed for many days, [Alma] did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken.” [Mosiah 17:4]

That Alma may not have accurately capture all of Abinadi’s words doesn’t necessarily invalidate the principle that such passages in scripture are inspired, unless you believe that we cannot rely upon the scriptures unless they are 100% accurate in all they say, as generally expressed in the following selections from letters to Biblical Archaeology Review.

if the account of Ai is not just as the Bible says it was, then the writer of the Book of Joshua was misleading, deceptive and void of any inspiration from God.

BAR 11:04 (July/Aug 1985).

Either a person believes the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of the Living God, or it is the work of man and of no value or help in anyone’s life!

BAR 12:01 (Jan/Feb 1986).

I’m glad that LDS are not doctrinally bound to such un-meetable criteria of inspiration in the scriptures or to the false dichotomy expressed above.

Further reading:

1)Thomas MacKay, “Mormon as Editor: A Study in Colophons, Headers, and Source Indicators” JBMS 2:2 (1993). (Covers the sources Mormon indicates.)

2)Grant Hardy. “Mormon as Editor†in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991): 15-28. (Covers Mormon’s editorial shaping of the records. Recommended.)

14 thoughts on “Thucydides and the Book of Mormon editors

  1. Um, no. I’m setting forth information on part of the formation process of the scriptures, using this as an argument for the larger issue that we shouldn’t assume the scriptures capture events the way a videocamera and microphone would have, and that further, giving up this assumption should not negatively affect our testimonies.

  2. Disclaim it as much as you want, Ben, but you’re little “information” has convinced me never to open the scriptures again. From here on out, it’s conference report all the way for me.

  3. Nice post, Ben. I do find the lengthy verbatim discourses and conversations set forth in the BoM to be a problem. I’ll read the Grant Hardy article on your site and mull it over.

  4. This falls under the Hugh Nibly statement that we don’t claim the Book of Mormon to be 100% perfect; it’s about the message, not the accuracy of the words. I love that the introduction says that there may be errors, but they are the errors of men, therefore don’t condemn God for that.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alma was inspired, and so was able to write the exact words of Abinadi. Either way, though, it doesn’t make much of a difference, what’s important is what the things he said mean and how they can change my life.

  5. Aaron L. M. Goodwin wrote: I love that the introduction says that there may be errors, but they are the errors of men, therefore don’t condemn God for that.

    AMEN to that!

  6. Ben, is it possible that the issue you raise is, at its core, one more reflection of the tension between orality and literacy? We read Alma and wonder about the authenticity of the reported speech, but recording that speech completely and accurately may not have been the primary intent–if writing was thought of not as a way to record speech, but as an aid to memory, then we may be looking for an accuracy that was never there. Instead, perhaps, Alma was constructing an aid for his own memory so that he could teach the words of Abinadi to others. Did he ever intend words on a page to transmit Abinadi’s teachings, rather than his own voice?

  7. Jonathon: That’s not a question I’m capable of answering, since I’m not up on the scholarly literature of oral societies.

    I assume that Alma was trying to represent Abinadi’s words (since they had had such an effect on him personally) but I think you probably have a point in saying that accuracy, as we understand it, was not his prime concern. On the other hand, Herodotus clearly shows awareness that he is not reproducing his speeches accurately, but as closely as possible to the sense of what was said. Can we detect a hint of apology in his statement? I don’t know.

    Excellent question, though. We’re frequently unaware of our assumptions until someone else points them out.

  8. I think the BoM itself shows us that we should assume that the speeches that are given are what the Lord wants us to know at this time. When Jesus came to the Americas, he reminded the Nephites that they had left out important parts of what Samuel the Lamanite had said. (3 Nephi 23). I think we can assume that He may have appeared to Mormon and Moroni as they were compiling the records to help guide them to include the writings that were intended to be included. On other occasions, they were probably inspired by the Holy Ghost. So, even though Alma may not have captured Abinadi’s speech word for word, it is definitely inspired — and the Book of Mormon has shown us the process of inspiration.

  9. Ben: I can’t answer the question either, because I’ve just started reading my first book on the subject. But it’s raising all sorts of interesting questions without easy answers.

  10. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never taken any of the dialog in the Book of Mormon to be transcript-like in form or intent. Perhaps it is because I have a terrible memory for such things, and generally paraphrase when I report a conversation. Or maybe it’s the problem I have with keeping track of whose voice is speaking through the text of the Book of Mormon. Maybe I’ve been jaded by reading self-serving autobiographies which purport to be accurate to the word in their reporting of conversations that took place decades previously. Whatever the reason, I don’t find a word-for-word transcription of a dialogue always to be the most effective means of understanding what happened in that dialogue.

  11. I just read Alma 30 in our morning reading with my daughters. Of course, Alma wins the argument with Korihor, but one is left to wonder whether Alma wins the argument for the same reason that Socrates always wins all the arguments in Plato’s dialogues (well, all the arguments except the one in Parmenides, where Socrates as a younger man takes up the Eleatic doctrine of being with Zeno and Parmenides).

    I guess I should have stuck to the conference report.

  12. Why would we need The Book of Mormon? The Bible gives us everything God wants us to know. Our salvation is based on whether or not we believe in Christ. Acts 4:12 There is no other name by which we can be saved.” 1 Timothy “Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Not Joseph Smith. No Church organization has the power to save. Only Jesus Christ and Him alone. Titus 3:4-5 “He saved us , not because of righteous things we had done, but because of mercy.” Gal. 5:4 “When we try to be justified by the law, we are alienated from Christ and fall away from Grace.” John 6:28 ” What works does God require? To believe in Jesus. Hebrew 1:1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets. In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. Its all about Christ not us. I lift thy name up high, My Lord and my savior.

Comments are closed.