Jana Riess: The Book of Mormon is ‘amazingly coherent and consistent,’ scholar says, though parts are ‘problematic’

Grant Hardy’s new annotated volume promises to enrich Latter-day Saints’ yearlong study of their faith’s signature scripture.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This scene from the Book of Mormon Video series depicts Lehi, his wife, Sariah, and their family as they sail to the promised land on the ship built by Nephi (Lehi's son) and his brothers (Laman, Lemuel and Sam).

This year brings Latter-day Saints back to the Book of Mormon in our “Come, Follow Me” curriculum, so I want to highlight some new resources that can help. Actually, I should say that they not only help but will make you slap your forehead at least once or twice and say, “How could I possibly have missed that?”

Today, in Part 1, I interview scholar Grant Hardy about The Annotated Book of Mormon, the world’s first academic study version of the Book of Mormon. It’s written from a perspective that is both believing and nuanced. At just over 900 pages, it’s chock-full of side notes, references and explanations to help readers dig deeper into the signature scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Part 2 is coming soon, too, an author interview with Margaret Olsen Hemming and Fatimah Salleh about their three-volume social justice commentary, “The Book of Mormon for the Least of These.” Stay tuned.

Tell me a little bit of the history of this project and what you’re trying to do.

Academic study Bibles really shifted the way I thought about scripture — particularly the New Oxford Annotated Bible, but also Oxford’s Jewish Study Bible and the HarperCollins Study Bible. What makes study Bibles distinct from ordinary commentaries is that you can read the scriptural text and then look down to the bottom of the page for brief annotations that explain the structure and the connections and the history behind it. These volumes all feature introductions to individual books as well as general essays. It’s a terrific way to read scripture. So I thought, could we do this for the Book of Mormon?

The annotations ended up being about 500 pages double spaced. Those went through six drafts. They will help readers see nuances and narrative connections. Some cite biblical parallels but then explain how they’re different from the Bible or what’s shifted in the Book of Mormon.

I also wrote introductions for each of the books where I identify the book’s main themes and structure and then provide a synopsis of its contents.

And there are some essays at the back as well?

Yes, there are a dozen of those that discuss larger issues surrounding the Book of Mormon’s production, theology and reception. And at the end, there’s a comprehensive list of biblical quotations, allusions and verbal parallels with about 1,800 entries. That’s never been done before, even though it seems like the most obvious thing in the world. I included a glossary as well, introducing readers to terms from standard biblical scholarship such as Deutero-Isaiah and the Documentary Hypothesis and eisegesis. Most of those entries are borrowed from other Oxford Study Bibles. I added ones that were particular to the Book of Mormon and LDS tradition.

Could you give examples of the kinds of things you are helping readers to notice?

Sure. God’s covenant with Lehi that the obedient will “prosper in the land” seems to apply to communities rather than individuals, so it’s not the same as the so-called “prosperity gospel.” We sometimes think of the Book of Mormon in Protestant terms — as an invitation for individuals to come to Christ — but it also speaks of God’s plans for ethnicities and nations. In the Book of Mormon, gathering Israel is something the Lord does in restoring the Jews to the promised land; it’s not missionary work. Priesthood among the Nephites does not exactly correspond to priesthood for Latter-day Saints. Sins that hindered the progress of the Nephite church, like materialism and pride, may also be present in the Restored Church of Jesus Christ.

What else might we have missed?

Oh, there’s a lot. For instance, I think we see some historical development in the books of Mosiah and Alma. I’m sympathetic to the Mulekites. Their story gets kind of erased by Mormon [the book’s editor]. I don’t know if it’s exactly cancel culture, but he has other priorities, a different agenda.

We often think of the Mulekites as somewhat passive, junior partners to the culturally dominant Nephites, but Mormon lets something astonishing slip in Helaman 6:10 when he reports that the Mulekite leaders traced their lineage back to King David, which from a historical perspective is huge.

The Davidic covenant gives his descendants the right to rule forever. That’s what underlies a lot of the political and military conflict we see in the Book of Alma — there are Mulekites who say, “According to the brass plates that you yourself have, we have the right to kingship here.” I think that’s actually why Mosiah ends up dismantling the monarchy; it’s no longer tenable to have Nephites ruling over Mulekites when Mulekites are the ones who should have the kingship.

I tend to treat the Book of Mormon as historical (I was invited by Oxford to edit the volume from a believer’s point of view), but I also point out anachronisms and try to keep in mind the perspectives of those who regard it as religious fiction.

You say Latter-day Saints have sometimes treated the Book of Mormon as an object rather than a subject. What does that look like?

When we treat it as an object, we’re using the Book of Mormon to do something else: to show that Joseph Smith was a prophet, the church has been restored and our present-day leaders have authority from God.

Also, the guiding principle in the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum is often: What does this mean for me? How does this apply to my life? That’s not an unreasonable way to read scriptures, but it seems to me that we should also read scripture to ask: What does this say about God? And what plans does God have for the world?

Sometimes we’re embarrassed by the Book of Mormon. We’re embarrassed by the lack of evidence for its historicity, by the racism and the absence of women, and about how it uses the King James Bible, particularly the New Testament. There are things in the Book of Mormon that are problematic, and I don’t think we should skip over those. Nephi had attitudes that we would regard as racist today. Apparently even prophets do not always live up to their ideals or to their revelations.

But the book is amazingly coherent and consistent. And just because it is the word of God doesn’t mean it’s God’s last word on everything. We can read the Book of Mormon seriously and with gratitude, and we can still be critical of it. We can say, “This detail doesn’t seem to fit in with what we know of the gospel as a whole.”

It’s such a mammoth undertaking. Did you ever find yourself thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”

It was actually a pleasure because I consider it a sacred text. I believe this book came from God. So it’s been a delight to work with so carefully. But it’s also a responsibility. I hope I’ve been able to do some justice to it.

(The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)