Similarities and Differences
Quite reasonably, the current “Introduction” to the Book of Mormon begins, “The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible.” And so it is. Both volumes were written by prophets, they are divided into smaller books generally named for their authors, they use similar language, and they witness of Christ. Most importantly, they are both the word of God, given to us for guidance, testimony, and judgment. To highlight these similarities, the official LDS editions are presented in a nearly identical format, with double columns of individual verses and extensive cross-references. “If you like the Bible,” we tell our friends and neighbors, “you’ll like the Book of Mormon. They have the same spirit about them.”
Yet in slightly more detailed conversations, we are likely to point out some significant differences as well. Parts of the Bible seem to be missing, the oldest manuscripts are still only copies of copies, and even careful translations can sometimes introduce errors or distortions. The distance between our English Book of Mormon and its ancient text is quite small by comparison. The original record-an abridgment written by Mormon and Moroni themselves, -was buried for 1400 years and then given directly to Joseph Smith, who translated the gold plates “by the gift and power of God.”
All of this is both true and familiar. But when we read the Book of Mormon closely, it is evident that there are still more distinctions. The Bible is more of a library than a single book, and there are tremendous differences in genre. Just within the Old Testament, we find the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the law code of Leviticus, the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, the poetry of the Psalms, the narrative of Joshua through Kings, and the proverbs of, well, Proverbs.
At first glance, the contents of the Book of Mormon appear to be similarly diverse-there are sermons and letters, war stories and missionary journeys, visions and allegories, and even a psalm by Nephi. On closer inspection, however, the Book of Mormon turns to be entirely narrative. The whole book takes the form of a story told by narrators, who may insert previously written records or documents into their account to make particular points, but we know who is responsible for every word in the Book of Mormon. It’s either Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, or Moroni (plus a few minor authors at the end of the Small Plates). This means that the Book of Mormon, as a whole, is a much more integrated and deliberately constructed volume than the Bible.
A Distinctive Type of Narrative
Yet even when understood as narrative, the Book of Mormon operates by very different literary principles than the Bible. Consider the characteristics of Old Testament narrators as described by Shimon Bar-Efrat, formerly of Hebrew University at Jerusalem:
“The narrator in most biblical narratives appears to be omniscient”
“Biblical narrators do not usually mention themselves”
“Biblical narrators [generally] make no reference to their activity in writing the narratives”
“The narrators do not . . . address their audience directly”
“Outside the books of Kings there are very few instances in which the narrator passes judgment”(1)
How many of these statements are true of the Book of Mormon? None of them.
Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni are named, human narrators writing from their own historical, human perspectives (though they can claim prophetic inspiration). Indeed, they often were participants in the stories that they tell. They interrupt their narratives regularly to tell us about their lives, their testimonies, and their desires. They worry about their “weakness in writing” (Eth. 12:23, 40; cf. 2 Ne. 33:1, 4). And they do not hesitate to address readers directly to explain their intentions, their editorial techniques, and their emotional responses to the events they recount. Mormon, for instance, famously inserts “thus we see” comments so that readers can plainly understand his message.
These sorts of direct connections are not simply reserved for formal comment sections, such as 1 Ne. 9, 1 Ne. 19, 2 Ne. 11, Hel. 12, 3 Ne. 5, 3 Ne. 26, Mormon 9, and Moroni 10. They occur subtly throughout the Book of Mormon, from the very first chapter, where Nephi writes, “But behold, I Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen . . .” Who do you think the you in that sentence refers to?
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Extended first-person narrative (of the “I, Nephi” variety) occurs in the Old Testament only in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
And even though the book of Acts has some mysterious “we” passages where the writer slips into the first-person plural (16:10-17, 20:5-15, 21:1-18, and 27:1-28:16), nowhere does he say things like My name is Luke; I grew up in such-and-such a place; or This is how I became a Christian. Narrative in the Book of Mormon is more much personal and specific than in the Bible, which means that the primary narrators of the Book of Mormon are accessible to readers in a way that the dominant narrative voice of the Bible is not.
Why Does It Matter?
The experience of reading the Book of Mormon closely is fundamentally different from analyzing the Bible with the same level of scrutiny. The two volumes speak to us in distinct ways, and in many respects the Book of Mormon has the advantage (though to be fair, students of the Bible can work with the original languages of Hebrew and Greek). Here are four ways in which the particular narrative style of the Nephite record makes a difference.
1. Mormon and Moroni wrote for a very particular audience-us! Coming at the end of their civilization, they realized that their words would go to a readership in the far distant future. Through revelation, they knew quite a bit about our cultural and moral situation and were thus able to tailor their message accordingly. Moroni confides to his readers, “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing” (Morm. 8:35). He then goes on to say “Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” These are not just timeless truths; he is explicitily describing our society.
Isaiah’s words have been applied to peoples across the globe and across the centuries. Paul, dictating letters to struggling congregations of new Christians, was focused on the problems at hand rather than how his explanations would be interpreted two thousand years later (or he might have written a little more clearly about faith and works). But as President Benson used to remind us, the Book of Mormon “was written for our day. The Nephites never had the book; neither did the Lamanites of ancient times. It was meant for us. . . . Under the inspiration of God, who sees all things from the beginning, [Mormon] abridged centuries of records, choosing the stories, speeches, and events that would be most helpful to us.”(2)
2. We can have a relationship with the narrators as we come to know them as individuals-men who struggled with disappointment and frustration, yet who remained faithful in troubled times. We can look up to them and follow their examples. I have been impressed by Mormon. As his people seem headed to inevitable destruction, he confessed that though he poured out his soul to God on their behalf, “it was without faith, because of the hardness of their hearts” (Morm. 3:12), and he was “without hope, for [he] knew the judgments of the Lord which should come upon them” (Morm. 5:12). Yet even without faith and hope, he never lost the third element of the trinity of virtues made famous by Paul, love: “notwithstanding their wickedness I had led them many times to battle, and had loved them, according to the love of God which was in me, with all my heart” (Morm. 3:12).
The Nephite writers can become our spiritual guides, not just in the way they lived their lives, but also in how they sought and discovered more Christ-like perspectives. Their invitations to us are urgent and personal, and our salvation is at the forefront of their thoughts. In fact, the possibility of a personal connection to the Nephite writers is not just a literary conceit. Nephi, Jacob, and Moroni all promise that they will meet their readers in the flesh, after the resurrection, standing before the judgment bar of God (2 Ne. 33:11, Jacob 6:13, Moro. 10:27, 34). Nothing in the Bible is quite so confrontational, whether one views this future meet-the-authors event as a comfort or a warning.
3. Because individual editor/narrators are responsible for large sections of the text, we can read similar language and words as intentional, internal allusions.
Mormon, in particular, uses distinctive phrasing to signal to his readers significant connections.
For instance, when Mormon tells the story of Nephi2 and Lehi4’s deliverance from prison in Helaman 5, he describes how the earth shook “as if it were about to divide asunder,” a cloud of darkness was dispersed, a voice came three times which was “still” and “did pierce even to the very soul,” how the people looked up to see “from whence the voice came,” and how they saw celestial beings come down “out of heaven.” All of these narrative elements appear again in 3 Ne. 8-11, when Mormon writes of Jesus’ arrival in the New World.
All of these common terms indicate that Mormon is here telling his readers to pay attention, that the deliverance of Nephi and Lehi and those with them in the prison was a foreshadowing of the more extensive deliverance of the Nephites at Bountiful from the darkness and destruction preceding Christ’s coming. He is testifying of a God who speaks to individuals in the depths of darkness and fear, not just once, but again and again. Since Hebrews and Psalms, for instance, were not written by the same person, any similar language the two books may share does not have quite the same significance. The New Testament writer quotes Psalms extensively, and by so doing reads new meanings back into those ancient hymns, but the links do not work in the opposite direction. The Psalmist did not phrase his thoughts specifically so they would be recognized and understood by the readers of Hebrews. The fact that most of the Book of Mormon was edited by one person-who knew the end from the beginning-means that literary connections can be made both forwards and backwards.
4. We are assured that the Book of Mormon, as we have it today, is in the form intended by God’s prophets. By contrast, the canonization process of the Bible was long and messy. Undoubtedly, some degree of inspiration guided the process, but many truths, covenants, and texts could have been lost from the time of Jesus and his apostles until the year 367, when Athanasius of Alexandria wrote the first list we have of exactly the twenty-seven books that are in our current New Testament (see 1 Ne. 13:26-28). The Book of Mormon is more like what the Old Testament would have been like if it had edited and shaped from beginning to end by Ezra, or if the New Testament gospels and letters had all been selected and arranged by Paul.
Because the various books of the Bible were written by many different authors over the course of many centuries (and then were often edited and revised as they circulated independently), it is unfair to expect that those authors will speak with a single voice. Their understanding of the gospel was colored by their historical circumstances and particular concerns, and truths became clearer over time through the process of continuing revelation. The Book of Mormon, however, was produced by just three main narrators, which allows it a clarity and unity that is somewhat foreign to the Bible, where readers constantly must deal with ambiguities, inconsistencies, and divergent perspectives. Indeed, Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni each testified that the Lord personally directed the writing process (2 Ne. 33:10-11, 3 Ne. 26:11-12, Ether 12:22-41). It’s no wonder that Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book on earth” (Book of Mormon – “Introduction”). Yes, the Book of Mormon is sacred scripture comparable to the Bible, but it is also different in ways that allow it to speak with its own distinctive voice, thanks to its remarkable narrators.
1 Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 17-30.
2 Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon-Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 6.