Monday, November 2, 2015

Methodology for interpretation

In seeking a widespread consensus about Book of Mormon historicity and geography, one of the challenges is agreeing to a methodology for interpretation of the text. Inevitably, there are multiple ways to interpret the text. Many words are imprecise; they have multiple meanings and nuances.

Ambiguity is not the only problem. Even when words have a precise meaning, they may not give us the information we want. For example, Mosiah 23:3 says "And they fled eight days' journey into the wilderness." Presumably, everyone can agree how long the journey lasted: eight days. The text is not ambiguous, but it doesn't give us the information we really want. We care how far the people traveled, not how long it took them to reach their destination.

This passage illustrates another interpretation problem. What is "the wilderness" they journeyed into? Presumably we can agree the term means an area not inhabited by humans, but beyond that, was it a forest? A desert? A jungle? A mountain?

No two people can independently come up with identical conclusions about how far a person or group can travel during "eight days' journey into the wilderness" without knowing the means of transportation, the average speed, the number of hours traveled in a day, the type of wilderness involved, the terrain, etc. At best, we can estimate ranges, based on various assumptions, that can be incorporated into a highly variable abstract map.

Does this mean interpretation of the text is hopeless? That we can never reach a consensus about geography?

Some have proposed a hierarchy of authority; i.e., that one particular approach should have priority, with other relegated to secondary or lesser importance. For example, Neal Rappleye has proposed there are three basic groups into which the various methods fall: Geographic priority, archaeological priority, and prophetic priority. (He claims--wrongly in my opinion--that all major advocates of geographic priority are unanimous that only Mesoamerica fits the geographic details of the text.) In my view, a priority or hierarchy approach is ineffective, partly because there is no principled way to achieve a consensus about which priority should be dominant, and partly because even among those who share a particular priority, there is no consensus.

But that doesn't mean no consensus is possible.

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I propose we can reach a consensus by looking at interpretive rules adopted by the legal profession. In this way, we can reconcile all the available evidence that is relevant, authoritative and credible. An interpretation process that fails to reconcile this evidence, in my view, is unsatisfactory and can never lead to a consensus.

My first job out of law school was as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico. Many of the cases we worked on involved interpretation of statutes and contracts. In both cases, judges consider the text as the starting point for interpretation.  The objective is to ascertain the objective of the legislature or the intent of the contracting parties. They follow the plain meaning of the text whenever possible. What does the statute say? What does the contract say?

If the text is plain, clear and unambiguous, the court has no need to look outside the document for assistance in interpretation (unless a literal interpretation would lead to absurd consequences).

Of course, most litigation involves texts that are ambiguous in some way. In these cases, the court considers the meanings advocated by the plaintiff and the defendant and decides between them (or announces an alternative to both parties' proposed interpretations). To interpret a litigated term or provision, courts may look beyond the "four corners" of the document and consult dictionaries and other authoritative sources, including prior judicial decisions.

In contract cases, courts may consider prior practices and prior usage of the same terms between the parties. For specialized terms, courts can look at trade usage (common usage by others in the same business).

When interpreting statutes, courts may look at the legislative history, including the purpose for the statute. Courts favor interpretations that fulfill the purposes identified by the legislature and that are consistent with other statutes and precedent.

In all cases, they seek interpretations that make the text internally consistent and that give effect to every provision.

While this is merely a brief overview of principles of judicial interpretation, it includes several elements that apply to interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

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If the text of the Book of Mormon was clear and unambiguous, there would not be so many different opinions on the setting for the narrative. As the Mosiah 23:3 example illustrates, though, many passages in the Book of Mormon are susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. These passages cannot be interpreted within the "four corners" of the document.

Like a court, if we are going to resolve the ambiguity, we have to look outside the document for assistance.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, the Bible serves as an equivalent of a legislative history or prior dealings between the parties. It gives context and background for many of the passages, such as the thirty-seven references to the Law of Moses. Whenever a passage in the Book of Mormon is unclear or ambiguous, it makes sense to see if the Bible helps explain and clarify the passage. Biblical usage of terms can help explain usage of those same terms in the Book of Mormon.

However, the relationship between the Bible and the Book of Mormon brings up an important difference between ordinary judicial interpretation and interpretation of scriptural texts. Courts look retrospectively at precedent and prior usage of terms, and in that sense the Bible helps clarify the Book of Mormon. But the Book of Mormon also clarifies the meaning of the Bible.

As President Benson stated, "The Book of Mormon, the record of Joseph, verifies and clarifies the Bible. It removes stumbling blocks, it restores many plain and precious things. We testify that when used together, the Bible and the Book of Mormon confound false doctrines, lay down contentions, and establish peace."

In other words, the newer scripture clarifies the old. The two books, together, help clarify one another. The two books of scripture are part of one whole.

In like manner, I propose that modern scriptures and teachings of Joseph Smith and his close associates help clarify the Book of Mormon. As an ancient record, the Book of Mormon text does not include any modern names or sites that can help us identify where events took place. But outside the text itself, the Lord has given us the location of at least two specific Book of Mormon sites that put pins in the map.

I propose that all the standard works, along with the teachings and history of Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses, are part of a whole and should be considered in the interpretation of the text.

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As I mentioned, courts seek interpretations of statutes and contracts that make the texts internally consistent and that give effect to every provision. Consequently, our interpretation of the Book of Mormon should be internally consistent and give effect to every provision of the text.

Because some of the geography and cultural passages of the text are ambiguous and/or lack critical details, a judicial approach to interpretation would extend beyond the text itself. The question is what "outside" sources are legitimate for aiding in interpretation.

One approach often used in interpreting the Book of Mormon simply adopts a particular real-world geography or culture as an aid to interpretation. If one consults Mayan culture to interpret a passage, one will get a Mayan interpretation that "corroborates" a Mayan setting, but that is a product of circular reasoning. A similar outcome would result regardless of what culture one assumes. It is the equivalent of a court starting its analysis by assuming one party--say the plaintiff--has a correct interpretation, then applying that interpretation to find that the plaintiff was correct after all. Such an approach mocks the interpretive process and cannot produce a reliable outcome.

Rather than adopting a conclusion first and then using that conclusion to conduct an illusory interpretive analysis, when examination of a text proves inconclusive, courts look at how a particular statute fits within an overall statutory structure. In a contract case, the courts consider how a provision fits within the contract and the overall relationship between the parties.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, interpretation of terms and passages that are ambiguous or lack critical details should extend beyond the text itself to all the standard works, as well as the others who relate experiences relevant to the question.

For example, the Book of Mormon describes final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites near a hill called Cumorah. In our day, the hill where Moroni gave the plates to Joseph has been named Cumorah. There is a significant difference of opinion about the origin of the modern name, and the question is critical to resolution of the geography issue.

The Book of Mormon text cannot answer the question because the text mentions Cumorah but not New York.

One approach would be to confine the analysis to the text; i.e., extrinsic evidence is rejected and the location of the scriptural events remain ambiguous

Another approach would be to extend the analysis beyond the text to other standard works and the teachings of Joseph Smith and two of the Three Witnesses, thereby reconciling all the credible evidence.

Proponents of a Mesoamerican setting claim the modern name is merely a product of tradition established by unknown persons and later accepted or embraced by Joseph Smith. They claim the "real" Cumorah, the scene of the final battles, was somewhere in Central America.

Proponents of a North America (labeled Heartland for ease of reference) setting claim the modern name was given by divine messengers and/or revelation, based on 1) an experience related by David Whitmer, 2) Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII that describes in detail the last battles and declares the setting in New York is a fact, and 3) Joseph Smith's endorsement of Cowdery's letter and his mention of Cumorah in D&C 127. [On this point, we should ask what the Three Witnesses were witnesses of. They say they were commanded to "bear record of it," meaning "the work." Oliver's letters to W.W. Phelps, including Letter VII, were part of his testimony about the early events in Church history, including the coming forth and the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Rejecting his letters, in my view, is rejecting his testimony.)

Given these two approaches, interpreting the text in a manner that reconciles all the available, credible evidence is preferable.
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Here are examples of how this judicial interpretation approach functions in terms of the two major proposed settings for the Book of Mormon--North America (Heartland) and Central America (Mesoamerica). Faced with ambiguity in the text, we look outside "the four corners" of the text to see how a particular interpretation fits within the framework of the whole of the standard works and other authoritative statements.

From what I've seen, the various Mesoamerican models do not and cannot lead to a consensus because they fail to reconcile so much extrinsic yet relevant, authoritative and credible evidence. The Heartland model does reconcile all this evidence (and even does a better job with the text itself, as well as with the relevant geology, geography, archaeology, and anthropology).

Authorities
Mesoamerica
Heartland
Relies on BoM text for abstract map of geography
Yes
Yes
Fits BoM text to real-world geography
Yes
Yes
Accepts entire text literally
 - Cardinal directions (N,S,E,W)
 - Animals and plants
 - Surrounded by water
 - Four seas
 - 3 Nephi change face of land
 - Law of Moses

No
No
No
No
No
No

Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Relies on Times and Seasons articles about Stephens
Yes
No
Accepts D&C on Lamanites
No
Yes
Accepts D&C on Cumorah
No
Yes
Accepts D&C on Zarahemla
No
Yes
Accepts Oliver Cowdery on Cumorah in New York
No
Yes
Accepts David Whitmer on Cumorah in New York
No
Yes
Accepts Joseph Smith on Cumorah in New York
No
Yes
Accepts Joseph Smith on mounds in Midwest as evidence of BoM people
No
Yes
Accepts Joseph Smith in Wentworth letter that Lamanites are Indians living in “this country”
No
Yes
Accepts archaeology
Yes
Yes
Accepts DNA evidence
No
Yes
Promised land is Mexico/Guatemala
Yes
No
Promised land is US/Canada
No
Yes


5 comments:

  1. I certainly hope that one day consensus can be reached on Book of Mormon Geography. What you've proposed is a significant step.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I certainly hope that one day consensus can be reached on who the Lamanites are today. What you've proposed is a significant step.

    Joseph Smith had a lot to say about it.

    In the Pres. Benson article you linked to above, he sites "five critical questions". One of those questions is "For whom was the Book of Mormon meant?" I find it curious that he states from the title page of the Book of Mormon that it is for "the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God”, but fails to mention that it is "Written to the Lamanites".

    We can count how many Jews are "convinced" because we know who they are. But how do we count how many Lamanites have become "convinced" if we don't have a consensus about who they are?

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  3. Hey, you might want to edit this: You mention "Joseph Smith's ... mention of Cumorah in D&C 127." But I think you meant D&C 128, right?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I continue to find the South American model far and above the most convincing. On so many critical matters this is the only model that fits like a glove. Dowdell is the best advocate of it right now. nephicode.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I painstakingly read the Nephicode blog and found very little of anything that might be considered substantial evidence. I will reread the passages of Scripture that are referenced to see if they are being used correctly, in context, and have anything to do with the subject at hand. I found it interesting how often he used his testimony to validate his comments of little if any relevance. Great testimony though of the Book of Mormon. Very strong statements about not taking any ones opinions as fact unless they are substantiated or scriptural. That goes for every one in this discussion. Too many questions with too many answers and they don't fit! That's why I think your consensus approach to be the most efficient and effective method. Although I agree with you that very few of the Mesoamericanists will take part in the discussion. They have too much to lose. They will probably follow along with the blog and probably discuss it among themselves but as a rule they won't acknowledge it publicly, I don't think.

      I have found the information provided by Wayne May and company to be the strongest in using actual, real locations and objective evidence. Still a lot of unanswered questions though. He still hasn't found that piece of pottery in Zarahemla that's marked, "Made in Zarahemla by Nephites"

      Delete