Q&A with Traditions of the Fathers Author Brant Gardner June 30 2015
Q: You've already commented extensively on the Book of Mormon, first in your multi-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. How does this volume differ from these previous volumes?
A: Second Witness was an attempt to provide a comprehensive commentary on the Book of Mormon that included multiple perspectives, including a historical context. There is so much in Second Witness, that only the most persistent reader could gain a chronological understanding of how the Book of Mormon fits into a particular time and place. Traditions of the Fathers concentrates on the story rather than the doctrine. It pulls together the history in a more compact and more easily readable form. It also includes information and insights available since the publication of Second Witness.
Q: There are many volumes dedicated to investigation and study of the Book of Mormon, including the questions of its historicity. What makes this book stand out from those?
A: Even the best of the previous volumes on the history and historicity of the Book of Mormon use somewhat of a shotgun approach to understanding the text. Some have had better aim, but the process has still been to rely heavily on proposed similarities--that sometimes are not that similar. Traditions of the Fathers looks more closely at tying together multiple types of information belonging to the same time and location, as well as providing some in-depth analysis of some previous suggestions that were more enthusiastic than correct. In addition, the intent of the book is not necessarily to provide proofs of the Book of Mormon, but rather to give it the kind of historical and cultural background that we have for the Old and New Testament. Understanding those historical and cultural contexts can deepen our understanding of the Bible, and the proper historical and cultural background for the Book of Mormon should similarly deepen our understanding.
Q: What is most valuable about this book for the believing Latter-day Saint? What is there to recommend it for the interested reader who is not a believing Latter-day Saint?
A: The believing Latter-day Saint should begin to see the people and actions recounted in the Book of Mormon in new and more human ways. The characters and events of the Book of Mormon should become more real, and therefore we should be able to see our own humanity transformed in similar spiritual ways. For those who are not believing Latter-day Saints, Traditions of the Fathers can provide a way to understand why Latter-day Saints accept it as history, even when many assume that it doesn't seem similar to known populations. Those similarities and the way to see the Book of Mormon in history should be easier to understand.
Q: Can you give us an example or two of the work you do in teasing out the culture and context for where the Book of Mormon is said to take place?
A: There are two important aspects to placing the Book of Mormon in time and space. The first is to find the right place, since the text provides the timeframe. Geography is only a first step to that determination. Other major factors deal with the people discussed in the text. For example, there is no direct communication between Jaredites and Nephites. There is the last king of the Jaredites who lives with the people in Zarahemla before the Nephites arrive. That tells us that there must be a physical separation between the original Nephite lands and those of the Jaredites.
Once there is a time and place, the culture of the area is compared to the events in the Book of Mormon to see if there are correspondences where the Book of Mormon is reflecting the culture or events at the appropriate times. That comparison leads to insights elaborated in Traditions of the Fathers about why Nephi's people wanted a king, why Mosiah fled at the time he did (and in the direction he did), why Mormon is so interested in the Gadiatons, and why the Nephite final battle occurred when it did and not earlier (or later).
Q: What are some of the ways of discussing the Book of Mormon and historicity that you find are not helpful or are even detrimental?
A: When the approach to discussing Book of Mormon historicity doesn't have sufficient controls on the evidence presented, it is too easily dismissed. It is also dangerous when believers start to base testimonies on fundamentally flawed approaches.
Q: How might you describe the current state of Book of Mormon studies? What do you hope to see in the future?
A: This is a very interesting time for Book of Mormon studies. There are a wider number of serious studies looking at a larger number of aspects of the text. The work on the critical text of the Book of Mormon helps answer some simple questions that help understand certain confusions. The work on poetic and other literary features of the text look at it in new ways. There are new aids in deepening our understanding of the theology behind the text. There are studies looking at the place of the Book of Mormon in our own modern history. We are seeing more and better correlations between the text and the ever-increasing amount of information coming from archaeology and history, both in the Old and New Worlds.
The future should see a continued expansion of and refinement of all of these fields. Personally, I'd love to see a continued shift away from attempts to prove the Book of Mormon to better understanding the Book of Mormon--to see it in history not to prove what only spiritual witness can prove, but to bolster that spiritual witness by better understanding the real people who lived the lives behind the Book of Mormon stories.