In the pursuit of clarity, charity, and understanding, this post reviews some principles of interpretation.
We seek clarity not because it leads to only one possible interpretation, but instead because it helps us understand the range of possible interpretations and how they are derived.
We embrace charity because we assume everyone acts in good faith.
And we seek understanding, not persuasion, coercion, or conversion, because we trust everyone to make informed decisions once they have all available, relevant information.
My first job out of law school was as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico. I was responsible to analyze the appellate briefs from both sides, suggest questions for the Justices to ask during oral argument, and then draft the Court's opinions. In some cases, the Justices adopted my drafts with few if any edits; other times they changed them completely.
Appellate cases often involve statutory construction (interpretation), which follows basic principles, including these (although there are many nuances and different philosophies of interpretation):
- interpretations should follow the plain meaning of the law (if it is plain)
- interpretations should be consistent with precedent, common law, and the Constitution
- interpretations should be harmonious with other laws and the statutory scheme
- interpretations should be consistent with clear legislative intent
Interpreting statutes in an appellate context is obviously different from interpreting the text of the Book of Mormon, but there are similarities.
The question for us is, are there any parameters to guide our interpretation?
I think there are. In my view, the text doesn't, and cannot, speak for itself. That's why we rely on the teachings of the prophets. I think interpretations of the text should be consistent with the teachings of the prophets.
Others disagree. Which is fine, of course, but we should all be crystal clear about our assumptions, inferences, etc.
IOW, we can follow the FAITH model to achieve clarity. We all start with the FACTS we can agree upon. In this case, the FACTS are the words of the text and the teachings of the prophets related to the text.
Next we look at our ASSUMPTIONS, INFERENCES, and THEORIES to reach our overall HYPOTHESIS.
Many people claim they interpret the text as it stands, without reference to externalities. That claim is ignorant, delusional or dishonest because every interpretation involves making assumptions that are not in the text.
People disagree about even the meaning of words themselves. Some people apply modern definitions of terms, while others refer to the 1828 Webster's dictionary or other contemporary usage of terms, while others look to Early Modern English, all of which lead to a range of rational possibilities for interpretation, depending on what assumptions and inferences we make.
Years ago when I was working in Korea I had access to a translator's edition of the Book of Mormon, which includes a large appendix that defined English terminology to aid the translator. Despite this extensive guidance, I've shown in previous posts how in many cases, translations do not adhere closely to the English text but instead incorporate external ideas and concepts that mislead readers.
Separate from defining terms, people make contextual assumptions. We've seen, for example, how M2Cers simply assume there are no "double definitions" (meaning no two separate locations with the same name). Paradoxically, they also simply assume that different terms refer to identical locations (such as narrow neck, small neck of land, and narrow neck of land all refer to one place).
Those assumptions are not irrational, but they are also not mandatory. Alternative interpretations are also rational. We choose among rational alternatives according to our respective values, preferences, worldviews, etc.
When I read the text of the Book of Mormon, it seems obvious that the text itself asks us to refer to outside sources for understanding. This involves intertextuality.
For example, the text refers to the law of Moses 43 times, but never defines or explains the law of Moses beyond alluding to offering sacrifice and burnt offerings. (The Bible refers to the law of Moses only 22 times but sets it out in detail.) A Book of Mormon reader unfamiliar with the Bible would have no idea what the law of Moses involved.
Another example: the Book of Mormon refers to the children of Israel and some of their experiences without explaining them. Readers must consult the Bible to understand these passages.
It is well known that much of the Book of Mormon incorporates language and concepts from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Cross references in the text help readers compare and understand the meaning of terminology, but you have to actually read the biblical references to appreciate their significance and relevance.
In my view, most of the non-KJV language in the text was influenced by Joseph Smith's familiarity with the work of Jonathan Edwards. Comparing this language to Edwards' work offers insights comparable to comparisons with the KJV. For examples, see https://www.mobom.org/jonathan-edwards.
Without the assistance of guidance from modern prophets, Christians have devised innumerable variations of interpreting the Bible, leading to mass confusion and even contention.
Beyond intertextuality and ordinary principles of interpretation, the text also leaves us without specific guidance on the basic issues of its origin and setting. The origin and setting of the Book of Mormon are important keys for understanding the text, and modern prophets have given us specific guidance on these issues.
Ignoring the teachings of the prophets about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon has led to similar confusion and contention among Latter-day Saints and other believers in the Book of Mormon.
Here are some examples of how the text is not self-fulfilling.
Moroni wrote instructions to the future translator of the abridged plates but did not identify the translator:
4 Therefore I do not write those things which transpired from the days of Adam until that time; but they are had upon the plates; and whoso findeth them, the same will have power that he may get the full account. (Ether 1:4)
Moroni explained that the text and its interpretation would be sealed but did not explain who would be allowed to use the interpreters.
5 Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord. (Ether 4:5)
1 And now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me, according to my memory; and I have told you the things which I have sealed up; therefore touch them not in order that ye may translate; for that thing is forbidden you, except by and by it shall be wisdom in God.2 And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work;3 And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true. (Ether 5:1–3)
Moroni told Joseph that "the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place remove the Grass and moss and you will find a large flat stone pry that up and you will find the record under it laying on 4 pillars <of cement>."
Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County New York, being dead; and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.
Oliver Cowdery corroborated Joseph's account when he explained that
Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.' (Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)
People can believe whatever they want, but it makes a big difference in interpreting the text if the text came directly from a supernatural stone in a hat, or if Joseph actually translated the engravings on the plates "after the manner of his language."
Claims of anachronisms and errors are difficult to refute if each word in the text was provided by SITH. But if Joseph actually translated the engravings as he claimed, we would expect to see exactly what we do see in the text, given Joseph's background, environment, and preparation.
Joseph later carefully revised the text, which makes sense if he was the actual translator but doesn't make sense if the original text was provided by SITH.
This is all very simple.
- If we accept what Joseph and Oliver claimed, the origins of the Book of Mormon are solid, rational, and easily understood. In that context, we can interpret the text with more confidence and clarity.
- If we reject what Joseph and Oliver claimed, then there are all kinds of arguments against the divine authenticity of the text. Even faithful interpretations based on SITH require complicated explanations based on speculation.
The setting of the Book of Mormon implicates similar issues.
In terms of FACTS, everyone can see that Oliver explained it was a fact that the Hill Cumorah/Ramah is the very hill in western New York from which Joseph obtained the plates.
When describing that hill, Oliver wrote,
At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.
In 1842, Joseph explicitly invoked his first meeting with Moroni in 1823, four years before the record actually came forth, when he wrote, "And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed." (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20)
Those who jettison the teachings of the prophets because they disagree are obviously free to do so, but they owe it to their followers to clearly explain why they do so.
And the rest of us are equally free to embrace the teachings of the prophets and interpret the text accordingly.