Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History-preliminary

I have been looking forward to Brant A. Gardner's book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History, for some time now. I will provide a review once I get a chance to read the entire thing, but here are my initial thoughts based on the first excerpts I've seen.

1. Well researched. Gardner's narrative contains a lot of quotations and references to a variety of sources, which is a good sign. It shows he has considered a range of perspectives on how to approach a translation of an ancient text. He has set out some excellent parameters for the analysis and interpretation.

2. Well reasoned. Gardner's reasoning appears sound. He acknowledges the potential pitfalls of an analysis based on correspondences--his section on Parallels as a Problematic Methodology is quite good--and promises to avoid those. He notes, "The problem with the fallacy of parallels is that it doesn't protect against false positives." I'm eager to see how he handles this in the Mesoamerican context.

3. Faulty premise. Despite the promise of his research and reasoning, Gardner appears to have overlooked the problem with his fundamental premise. Predictably, he cites the Times and Seasons editorials about Mesoamerica. He dismisses the views of Joseph's contemporaries with this: "At the time when the Book of Mormon was first published, there was no assembly of evidence to support faith in its historicity, although the early Saints quickly adapted popular speculations. The idea that Native Americans descended from the lost ten tribes had been circulating in books and community lore by that time.11 Those ideas worked themselves into the stories the Saints told as evidence to support faith." Oddly, Gardner's footnote 11 cites Bennett's observations about Dr. Mitchill's theory of Australasians being destroyed by Asiatic people, a theory detached from the lost tribes tradition. And I'm not aware of any early Saints who "adapted popular speculations" anyway; that was the argument of the critics, refuted by the text of the Book of Mormon and the statements of Joseph and Oliver Cowdery, who unequivocally set the Book of Mormon in North America, from New York to Missouri. True, the early Saints pointed to the mounds and piles of bones throughout the area as evidence of the Book of Mormon, but that is archaeological evidence, not "stories" based on legends of the lost ten tribes. Footnote 11 also cites Vogel's book, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, which suffers from the same superficial analysis as Gardner's comments here.

It is not a surprise that Gardner would attribute the statements of Joseph and Oliver to "speculation" because that is the basic theme of the Mesoamericanists; i.e., their comments reflected their own speculation, not any insights gained from revelation or angelic ministry. Gardner has relied on and cites the usual list of Mesoamericanists: John Sorenson, John E. Clark, Matthew Roper, Dan Peterson, Neal Rappleye, Grant Hardy, Stephen Smoot, Mark Alan Wright, etc. I had hoped to see something new from Gardner, but it appears he is sticking with the unexamined consensus about Mesoamerica. I'll call this the "Traditions of the Fathers."

While he notes the problem of false positives, Gardner also writes, "The iterative process is perhaps even more important in a Mesoamerican context than for much of the rest of world history. While we do have the advantage of a literate people, we don’t have the luxury of many texts." This makes it appear he takes the Mesoamerican context as a given. This seems to be confirmed when he writes, "I am interested in the story of the Book of Mormon as part of the historical and cultural changes that have occurred in a limited region of Mesoamerica appropriate to the times covered in the Book of Mormon. The vast majority of Mesoamerican archaeology deals with peoples and cultures that were probably not directly involved with the Book of Mormon." (Page 52). (italics mine)

So Gardner is only interested in Mesoamerica, after all. But that's okay. His analytical framework offers guidance for others to assess the North American setting more completely.

On page 36, he writes, "Of course, reading the text against a cultural background necessarily requires that we define what that background might have been. For that reason, the initial assumption that the Book of Mormon might be historical requires that we resolve the question of Book of Mormon geography. Only by locating the Book of Mormon in space (the Book of Mormon declares the applicable timeframe), can it be located in a cultural context. No proper understanding of an ancient Book of Mormon is acceptable without correlating the way the ancient composition layer interacted with its environment. (See Chapter 5)." (italics mine)

That is an excellent statement of the problem that remains.

Last year, Brant A. Gardner wrote a review of Earl Wunderli's book, An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself. Gardner titled his review this way:

The Book with the Unintentionally Self-Referential Title

Because the Mesoamerican theory itself amounts to the "Traditions of the Fathers," now it appears we have another book with an unintentionally self-referential title.

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