Thursday, September 15, 2011

MIchael Otterson: From the Bible to the Book of Mormon: How do Latter-day Saints interpret Scripture?

By Michael Otterson, Head of Public Affairs, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, printed in the Washington Post,

"From the Bible to the Book of Mormon: How do Latter-day Saints interpret Scripture?

Sitting between bookends atop a filing cabinet a few feet from my office is an assembly of books, all with the same title and content but each one rendered in a different language. “Le Livre de Mormon.” “Das Buch Mormon.” “El Libro de Mormón.” There are several in non-Latin scripts. Chinese in simplified characters. Russian in its Cyrillic. Japanese with its blend of ancient and modern alphabets. A few are in languages most people haven’t heard of. Quechua. Chamorro. Fante.
The Book of Mormon-- translated fully or partly into more than a hundred languages and with 150 million copies in print to date - may be the most readily identifiable factor that sets members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apart from other Christians.
In the 181 years since it was first published, the Book of Mormon has been praised and parodied, vaunted and vilified. To some it is an enigma. To others heresy. To those who have embraced it, it is a powerful, life-changing force -- literally new scripture - that brings people to Jesus Christ.
During this time of unusually high public interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this column provides a forum for explaining key elements of the faith. My objective is not to persuade others to my point of view. Rather, it’s to explain simply and factually some of the basics of the Latter-day Saint perspective for those outside the faith who know little about Mormon beliefs and want to know what makes us tick.
First, what the Book of Mormon is not. It isn’t a book about Mormons. Neither is it a “Mormon Bible” - a substitute for the Bible of the Christian world. It is not allegory. Nor is it primarily a history.
The way Mormons view the Book of Mormon is parallel to the way other Christians view the New Testament, and Jews the Old Testament. It is not a single book. Rather, it is a collection of narratives written by prophets who lived in the Western hemisphere, mostly within a roughly thousand-year period from 600BC. It takes its overall name from one of those prophets who abridged the record. Other than the differing geography and timeline, the idea of the Bible and the Book of Mormon are the same - they are both a collection of prophetic writings set against the historical backdrop of their day, and passed down through generations because of the value of the religious teachings and witness that they embody.
It’s beyond the scope of a short column to analyze the Book of Mormon or even to describe its content and origin in any detail. For those who want more, it’s easy to get a copy, and volumes have been written about it, dissecting its 500-plus pages from beginning to end. To understand what it is and why it was written, and how it has so profoundly affected millions of people who have read it, we need go no further than the title page. It says in part that the Book of Mormon was written “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” The book is saturated with references to Jesus Christ, but nowhere more so than an absorbing episode two thirds of the way through the book which recounts the literal visit to the indigenous inhabitants of the ancient Americas of the resurrected Jesus Christ soon after his crucifixion. In a ministry with parallels to his sermons and messages in Galilee and Judea, Jesus teaches the people, appoints twelve apostles and establishes his church. The period of his ministry, while short, triggers peace among the previously warring tribes that lasts for 200 years.
So if the Book of Mormon is so important, where does the Bible fit in Latter-day Saint thinking? The subtitle of the Book of Mormon is “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” And it works together with the Bible to affirm and teach about him. Mormons believe that both compilations were written under the inspiration of heaven and serve us in profound ways. Most Latter-day Saint homes have at least one copy of the Bible, probably several. In homes where English is spoken, it is almost always the long-popular King James Version.
Like other Christians who have made that sacred scripture a central part of their lives, Mormons are literate and knowledgeable about the Bible. We study it a lot - in our four-year cycle of Sunday school curriculum, two years are devoted to the Bible. In addition, it is read and studied in our homes. We move from a verse in the Book of Mormon to a corresponding theme in the Bible and back again with the same ease and comfort that other Christians flick from Matthew to Mark, or Romans to Hebrews. To us, the word of God is the word of God, and having the Book of Mormon delivers insight and understanding of the Bible in the same way that the revelation to the apostle John enhances the gospel of Luke.
When I have an open Bible in my hand, it’s like connecting with a friend. The language is familiar, the spirit of it embracing and the content both motivating and humbling. When I’m reading the Book of Acts or the synoptic gospels - particular favorites of mine - I feel I could never tire of them.
But like most members of my faith I don’t take every word of the Bible literally, Old Testament or New. My embracing of the Bible allows room for human errors of translation or omission, or indeed of interpretation. In that, I’m typical of most Latter-day Saints. What I do take literally is the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the accounts of his ministry and the witness of his resurrection. For Latter-day Saints, those issues are non-negotiable.
Mormons are thankful for the herculean efforts made through the centuries to preserve and propagate the Holy Bible. Our Church leaders have expressed the debt we feel to “those who in many countries and languages have sacrificed, even to the point of death, to bring the word of God out of obscurity. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude.”

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