The Problem of Decontextualization

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Joseph Spencer gave two interesting papers at the Mysticism conference of the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities meeting last week.  In them he proposed (if I understood him correctly) that there is a “way forward” in studying the Book of Mormon that can transcend or bypass the ongoing debate over modern or ancient origins for the Book of Mormon.  A second aspect of this type of proposal is often described as “bracketing” truth-claims about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.  Of course, in reality, neither of these is a new approach.  Furthermore, this type of approach does not actually bracket truth-claims about the Book of Mormon.  In reality it brackets certain types of truth claims–is the book an ancient record of a historical people; was Joseph an authentic prophet; is Jesus really the Christ–in order to try to more easily deal with other truth-claims about the book.  This “bracketing” approach is simply a rhetorical means of privileging certain truth claims over other truth claims.  The assumption here is that if we ignore the question of historicity, and if we bracket religious truth-claims of authenticity, we can better: 1- answer certain types of questions about the Book of Mormon (e.g. literary), and 2- engage in fruitful exchanges of ideas about the Book of Mormon with non-Mormons.

I should emphasize here that if one group of scholars approaches the Book of Mormon with questions about historicity, archaeology, or authenticity, it in no way prevents other scholars from bracketing those truth claims or asking other types of questions.  It always perplexes me when someone objects that debates over historicity somehow prevent them from asking all sorts of other non-historical questions about the Book of Mormon.  The subtext of these objections often seems to me to be that if people would just stop debating historicity and authenticity, then we could at last study the the really important issues of the Book of Mormon, like how many literary voices we find in the book.  The reality is, if scholar A debates scholar B about historicity, it in no way prevents scholar C from studying the Book of Mormon as literature, or examining its theological or thematic issues.  Historicity debates in no way prevent people from ignoring those debates, and using different approaches to the text.

There are, of course, many different legitimate ways to approach any sacred text, including the Book of Mormon.  In addition to the historical, one can examine the allegorical, mystical, textual, higher critical, archaeology, philosophical, esoteric, literary, theological, linguistic, geographic, social, etc.  None of these approaches is wrong or right.  Rather, these approaches are methodologies designed to answer certain types of questions one brings to the text.  A scholar poses a question, then chooses a methodology (or several methodologies) that best help answer that question.  An archaeological question, for example, cannot be answered by literary methods.  No one I know objects or tries to hinder approaches to the Book of Mormon that fail to engage issues about historicity or authenticity of the text.

The problem of contextualization, however, is not a method that one can choose or not choose to employ.  Rather, contextualization is meta-method that is necessary for every methodological approach one employs.  A text is not intelligible without contextualizing assumptions.  At the most basic level, one must assume the Book of Mormon is in English in order to understand it.  Of course no one disagrees with this, or even considers any alternative, but it is still a necessary though hidden contextualizing assumption that cannot be avoided, even if unreflectively, when one approaches the text.

As an example of this issue, Spencer posed an interesting argument that the figure of the brother of Jared is presented in the Book of Mormon as the ideal gentile.  Setting aside the issue that the book of Ether never calls him a gentile, a contextualizing problem arises.  If we contextualize the Book of Mormon only within the world explicitly expressed in its own text, then Spencer can make his argument.  But if we begin to further contextualize the Book of Mormon, the theory runs into problems.  First, gentile (goy) is a Hebrew term meaning “nations/peoples/ethnic groups” (The same meaning as the Greek ethnos.)  Technically speaking, the Israelites themselves are a nation/goy/ethnos, just like the others (e.g. Gen. 17:4 where Abraham will be a father of a multitude of goyim.)  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the term goy/goyim is often used in contrast to Israel.  The point being, if there is no Israel, there can be no gentiles in theological apposition to Israel.  In a theological sense, the brother of Jared, as a pre-Israelite, can’t be a goy.  The other problem is that the Book of Ether implies the brother of Jared was a Sethite by alluding to the biblical genealogies (Ether 1:3–5), and by having his brother named Jared, who is the Sethite father of Enoch.  Thus, if one contextualizes the text historically, then the brother of Jared is a Sethite, not a gentile.  Only if one decontextualizes the text, as Spencer does, can one argue that the brother of Jared is a gentile.  In this case, the assumed context of the Book of Mormon determines meaning.  Meaning cannot be severed from context.

(I might addd here parenthetically, that the appearance of Christ to the brother of Jared would be considered an avatāra (descent) of deity in Hindu conceptualization.)

Another example can be found in the Book of Moses.  The term “temple” never occurs in the Book of Moses.  If one assumes a nineteenth century contextualization of the Book of Moses, the absence of temple in the text is because Joseph had not yet invented his temple theology, which only develops later.  On the other hand, if one assumes an ancient origin of the text, then the city of Enoch is not a communitarian social and economic organization   Ancient cities were, in fact, communities gathered together by shared worship at a central temple.  All ancient cities were temple cities.  If the city of Enoch was a real ancient city, then it was necessarily a temple city.  In that case, language of “high place” (Moses 7:17), Zion (Moses 7:18), City of Holiness (Moses 7:19), and the city as “mine [God's] abode forever” (Moses 7:21) are all examples of clear temple-language, demonstrating that the city of Enoch was a temple-city.  Trying to decontextualize or transcend context in this case does not make the text more clear, it makes it unintelligible.

Thus, I maintain that if a scholar claims that he can approach the Book of Mormon without contextualizing assumptions, he is deluding himself.  He is simply unreflectively privileging his own unexpressed or unrecognized contextualizing assumptions.  Good scholarship requires that we understand what our contextualizing assumptions are, and that we present them clearly and precisely to our readers.

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About William J. Hamblin

William J. Hamblin is Professor of History at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah, USA),
 specializing in the ancient and medieval Near East. He is the author of dozens of academic
 articles and several books, most recently, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History, with David 
Seely (Thames and Hudson, 2007). In the fall of 2010 his first novel was published (co-
authored with Neil Newell): The Book of Malchus, (Deseret Book, 2010). A fanatical traveler and photographer, he spent 2010 teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center, and has lived in
 Israel, England, Egypt and Italy, and traveled to dozens of other countries.

13 thoughts on “The Problem of Decontextualization

  1. The reality of most LDS approaches to the Book of Mormon is that historicity is posited, then bracketed. That is, we believe that it is an authentic record, but we do very little textual interpretation against that background. Joseph Spencer also implicitly accepts historicity, but treats the texts ahistorically. Of course, his approach is significantly advanced compared to most who read the text, but it is still a reading that doesn’t attempt to demonstrate historicity.

    However, given that this can be a strength for those who similarly pay scant attention to historical issues, it also leads to an approach that works only if we ignore history. It can create arguments that depend upon intertextualities that the text should preclude on the more historical orientation of how the text was constructed.

    Spencer has a lot of very interesting insights, and some of them work best if you don’t think too much about history. For many, that is just the kind of added richness that makes sense. For those of us who are so subsumed by the assumption of historicity, it means that some of those insights become theologically interesting, but only as they are tangential to the historical text.

    • Interesting points, Brant—and helpful ones. Certainly my work (on Isaiah, for instance, in my book) depends on intertextualities that the text should preclude on historical grounds. In part that’s because I’m so in love with what the text of the Book of Mormon does with, say, Second Isaiah, that I’ll take the less-historically-interpreted Book of Mormon a hundred times over the more-historically-interpreted Book of Mormon if it means I can’t ask in full rigor what the book wants me to think about when it comes to Isaiah. :)

      But yes, I realize that the sort of work I’m doing works best if you don’t get too hung up over history, where history means something like “what lies on the other side of the event of translation that has provided us with the text of the Book of Mormon.” For my own part, as a theologian, I’ll confess I can’t get terribly excited about history except where it helps to clarify the dialectic between the text and the world we inhabit. I do think history can help us in that regard, and so I draw as best I can on what historical work is available on scripture, but the theological imperative drives me with an urgency that won’t wait for all the historical results to come in.

      Theology remains a disease, but one I enjoy a good deal. :)

      • Joe, perhaps your response highlights the reason that there is any kind of perceived gap in the two approaches. It rather similar to two different languages. Both communicate, but vocabularies and syntax can be different in each. We can even benefit from translation. Both languages have value even though they approach meaning and understanding in slightly different ways.

    • I have also noticed that most Latter-day Saints accept and insist on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but simultaneously fail to consider the implications that might have on the meaning of the text. To me, it seems many of us read the book like a fairy-tale, despite believing that they are true stories. This why some run into challenges when the Book of Mormon is compared to the real world via archaeology or whatever. The real world will never reflect back the fairy-tales. If a person wants to take the Book of Mormon seriously as history, her or she must first stop reading it as if it were a fair-tale.

      (I am not saying this is what Joseph Spencer does, but am just adding to the thought in Brant Gardner’s first two sentences.)

      • I believe Hamblin’s critique is the methodological and contextual concerns of scholarship. The average Mormon sunday school does not concern itself too much with historicity, not only of the Book of Mormon, but of all the other books of scripture as well. In fact, the D&C sunday school manual is set up almost entirely outside the historical context of the passages it discusses. This does not mean people cannot discuss historical context in class (and they do, tending towards romanticism) but that we teach it within a devotional context, what princples and doctrines can we get out of it now? This apporach is ubiquitous, but oft times limiting. It can be depressing to bracket one’s platitudes.

  2. Bill,
    While it is true that Joe Spencer said that historicism closes the possibility of studying other features of the text, I thought he meant that assertion to be taken in the context of historicism crowding out other, crucial perspectives (sucking up all the oxygen in the room). I thought we all agreed there and then that there is nothing at all wrong with Grant Hardy bracketing out the historical questions in his wonderful Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, which is reminiscent of Northrop Frye’s The Great Code, and both successful for similar reasons. One does not have to be a believer to enjoy those perspectives.

    On the other hand, we did witness Kristian Heal saying online this past February that “Nibley, IMHO, did not read texts in their own terms. He mined them for parallels or other canon fodder. The results are evocative, beautifully crafted narratives that seem to be about ancient texts but really are only about Mormonism.” Neither side should be privileged or preferred.

    Another thing: When Joe Spencer was delivering his paper comparing Arjuna and the Brother of Jared, I understood him to say that Moroni classified Jared as the exemplary gentile, i.e., not part of the covenantal people of Israel. And yet, the Brother of Jared’s remarkable faith requires the subsequent vision.

    I think that you misconstrued Joe’s comment there. For, surely a Manassite like Moroni can classify a gentile as such, in the same way that Judaism has come to classify Noah as a gentile — from whom we obtain the Noahide Laws applicable to all gentiles, rather than the rules of Jewish kashrut.

  3. In response to Brant Gardner’s comments. I appreciate Grant Hardy’s scholarship and his excellent introduction to Royal Skousen’s, “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text,” except for one item. By not dealing with historic geography, he also left the door open a crack that the Book of Mormon might not be real history. This is troubling and should be avoided in this scholarly forum. I felt the compromise, pandered to the academic publishers at Yale and Oxford to better reach non-Mormon audience. Richard L. Bushman has done the same thing. But Terryl L. Givens was successful with Oxford without compromising his convictions of Book of Mormon historic authenticity. I don’t make a big issue of this, because it can also get us out of apologetic ruts that can stifle sincere and open scholarly engagement. Until we have completed the case for a Mesoamerican historic geographic setting for the Book of Mormon history, we can’t point fingers. But there are no viable alternatives. It is either a Mesoamerican chronicle or it is fiction. And their is a mountain of evidence accumulating, both geographic and archaeological for the affirmative. Can this be at least a stated working hypothesis for this forum to guide all research?

    • If you are using Mesoamerica in the normal meaning of Mexico to Guatemala then I completely disagree with you. I do not believe that the Book of Mormon has anything to do with Mesoamerica but instead is much further south in Central America and had more contact with known South American civilizations then with the ones of Mesoamerica.

      I think you are falling into the common trap of thinking that the civilizations that we know now from the Americas are all there were and that we know a great deal about anything of what was happening in the Americas other then the ceremonial urban cores of a few civilizations. Both of those are false assumptions, we don’t know all of the civilizations that existed in the Americas, likely from even within the last thousand years, and the majority of what we do know comes from ceremonial urban centers that are exciting to loot, I mean excavate.

      • I can’t answer for anyone else, but I am aware of the advanced civilizations in Central and South America. Depending upon your definition of advanced, we find them along the Mississippi as well. The correlations to Mesoamerica are based on a tight integration of a number of factors, including geography, topography, and hydrology–in addition to interrelationships among disparate cultural groups and times. There are some wonderful cultures during Book of Mormon times that lived outside the area where the Book of Mormon took place.

        • I think you are missing my point, there have been previously undiscovered ancient civilizations in the Americas that have been found in the last ten years and there is no reason to believe that there weren’t other ones.

          I completely disagree that a north-south neck of land that is completely impossible to be cross in a day and a half, even by the top ultramarathon runners, is the east-west neck of land that is a day and half journey mentioned. There are multiple other narrow necks of land which are much better fits to that description, being actually east sea west sea, and which are cross-able in a day and a half.

          Further, both metals and metal working are not common in Mesoamerica while at the time period in question there were civilizations in Peru which had bronze casting. Now noting that when the Bible talks of steel it is often referring to hardened bronze should make the existence of bronze casting in northern South America during the time period of inquiry a very interesting point to consider.

          The type of warfare described in the Book of Mormon does not match with the warfare found in Mesoamerica, but is closer to the type of warfare found in South America. Even the Terminal Preclassic collapse of El Mirador, which collapse appears to include conflict more typical of that described in the Book of Mormon then that normally found in Mesoamerica happened 100 A.D to 250 A.D, which is too early for Book of Mormon time frames.

          Then there is Teotihuacan founded ~100 BC which had political, cultural, and military influences as far south as Tikal, Copan, and others.

          • I don’t think I have missed the point at all. I am at least generally familiar with the discoveries. I understand that you have a different opinion of the geography and that is certainly something that can and should be discussed. My only point is that focusing on Mesoamerica is not the result of ignorance of other options.

            If you have a write up of the way you believe the geography to fit lower Central-South America, I would love to see it.

  4. William, please forgive what are possibly some belated pedantic remarks but I have some questions about what you have written above which may be tangential to your main thread but I think have bearing upon it.

    You state, “At the most basic level, one must assume the Book of Mormon is in English in order to understand it. Of course no one disagrees with this, or even considers any alternative, but it is still a necessary though hidden contextualizing assumption that cannot be avoided, even if unreflectively, when one approaches the text.”
    Might this not depend upon how you define ‘English’? If perhaps you are thinking of language at the level of code then maybe you have a point, but if you are considering language at the level of discourse then what other discourse features might have been entextualised in the Book of Mormon other than those of the forms of English you are envisaging? I, for one, do not approach the text with such a wholesale assumption.

    You state, “If we contextualize the Book of Mormon only within the world explicitly expressed in its own text, then Spencer can make his argument.” I didn’t get the impression that this was Joseph’s focus, indeed I thought his primary goal (intended or otherwise) was not to do this: both in the employ of the Gita as an intertextual surface against which to construct the view, and in the enlargement of the identity of the brother of Jared beyond the immediate text. (but perhaps this is clarified in your follow-up)

    You state, “An archaeological question, for example, cannot be answered by literary methods.” Prima facie this would seem to be the case. But in respect of Book of Mormon archeology the central guiding reference is textual, arguably the literal encoded as the literary. It might be assumed that there is something to be gained by exploring links between literary forms and their habitations.

    Your notion of ‘decontextualisation’ suggests one can simply remove a text from a context into a non-context. When is a text ever not in a context? We might re-contextualise but I find it difficult to imagine a text without a context, it’s always somewhere, doing something in relation to something else. Context as you later illustrate is not an independent variable but a product of particular ‘methodological’ behavior.

    I read your point as being more about which ‘contextualising assumptions’ count and which do not, is that a fair reading?

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