“The Book of Mormon stands up to close scrutiny”—Jana Riess on the 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar

08.20.2015 | Guest

The 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up in New York City (see here). We asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences, offering a glimpse at what the Seminar’s all about. (See here for other posts in the series.) This post features Jana Riess, who holds a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University. A fuller version of this article appeared at Religion News Service on June 15, 2015. This excerpt is used with permission.—BHodges

Jana Riess

In June, I had the privilege of spending many hours a day studying and talking about a single chapter of the Book of Mormon. Every day for two weeks, eight scholars researched and wrote five-page papers about a few verses of Jacob 7, this summer’s chosen text. Then we gathered for four or five hours to read our papers aloud and talk about them.

It was absolutely exhilarating, and not just because New York in June is every bit as likeable as the old song says.

You might think that mining the same territory so closely so many times would result in eight people saying the same thing every day in our papers, but it didn’t at all. Every day, when the other seminar participants presented their findings, I would think, “Wow. How could I have missed that connection?”

That’s how rich the text turned out to be.

Throughout the seminar, I experienced a deep sense of gratitude that I could be part of this experience—not only for the whip-smart, kind and funny people who were there, but because what we were doing needed to be done. At the beginning of our discussions someone mentioned that it was safe to say that no group in the history of the world had ever dug so deeply into this particular chapter of the Book of Mormon before.

That’s likely true but startling, because this kind of close scripture study happens in every upper-level grad school Bible course, yeshiva, and seminary, with people comparing how a single verb is used in one passage with other ways it appears in ancient texts, or debating the possible reasons for a tense switch or clause construction.

Meanwhile it still seems, nearly two centuries after its publication, that all Mormons have to say to the outside world about the Book of Mormon is to reiterate again and again that Joseph Smith didn’t make it up. Many Latter-day Saints are still more concerned about proving the book’s divine origins than we are in decoding its meaning.

The irony of this to me is that every time I have engaged in the hard work of burrowing deeply in the Book of Mormon, the center has always held: The book stands up to close scrutiny.

But proofs and apologetics are not the point of close readings; improved understanding is. And that’s what this seminar was about.