The World and the Word: History, Literature, and Scripture

John S. Tanner

John S. Tanner, “The World and the Word: History, Literature, and Scripture,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 217–36.

John S. Tanner was a professor of English at Brigham Young University when this was published.

Scriptures are by nature preserved in words. Words alone, however, cannot contain the full reality of the worlds they represent. As sacred texts, our scriptures are overwhelmingly historical, presenting factual accounts of things that happened in time and space. But because they are written, scriptures are also inherently textual, possessing literary qualities that contribute to their witness. The aim of the writing of sacred history is different from that of history writing in general, because scripture seeks to bear testimony while it seeks to preserve events. To read the record without feeling the testimony is to misread. To be understood properly, scripture requires both the companionship of the Holy Ghost and a keen sensitivity to the inspired objectives of the author. Often those objectives are not seen fully without reading the scripture as sacred literature as well as history.

I have entitled my essay “The World and the Word” because I wish to focus on the relationship between sacred events and their representation in sacred script. My basic point is simple: scripture has textual as well as historical dimensions, and these twin aspects of scripture are not necessarily in opposition, although they are often complexly related. Sound scriptural exegesis should give due weight to both the historicity and textuality of the word of God.

Scripture is overwhelmingly historical, for the most part describing people and events that existed in time and space. When we speak of scripture’s historicity, we refer to the truthfulness of its factual claims. Scripture is also inherently textual, consisting of words that inscribe sacred experience. When we allude to scripture’s textuality, we refer to the attributes it possesses as a verbal artifact. Scripture’s textuality may be appreciated in many ways, including through literary analysis. Whether, however, one attends to the historicity or textuality of scripture, due deference should be given to scripture’s special authority. The proper way to read scripture is neither as history nor as literature alone, but as scripture. As Peter states, scripture is given to “holy men of God . . . as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21). It should be read by the Spirit as well.

Res and Verba

My title “The World and the Word” recalls the ancient distinction between res and verba—between things and words. Words (verba) are not the things they stand for (res) but point beyond themselves. Thus I am not my name, but my name points to a real person. Language is representational; it re-presents the world in words. The distinction between res and verba (or signified and signifier) is a perennial and fundamental philosophical concern. It is, moreover, critical to any discussion of historicity, lest we mistakenly suppose that a verbal representation of the past is fully identical with the historical experience it describes.

Let me illustrate this point with an anecdote from Gulliver’s Travels. When Gulliver journeys to the floating island of Laputa, he discovers a land populated by “natural philosophers” (or scientists), heirs of Sir Francis Bacon and, like Bacon, obsessed with the project of perfecting language. To this end, they concoct various madcap schemes. One is to “shorten discourse by cutting polysyllables into one, and leaving out verbs and participles, because in reality all things imaginable are but nouns.” [1] An, even more radical scheme is “for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever.” “Since words are only the names for things,” these sages reason, “it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on.” [2] Although this proposal did not catch on with the common people, Swift wryly notes that “many of the most learned and wise [did] adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things, which hath only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in proportion to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us; who when they met in the streets would lay down their loads, open their sacks and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burthens, and take their leave.” [3]

Swift’s satire serves to remind us that however fully and accurately language captures reality, it does not deliver up actual events or living authors but translates the world into words. We depend on words to communicate efficiently about even concrete “things,” to say nothing of ideas, which require predicates and prepositions. Our access to the world is mediated through words.

This access, of course, is not perfect or complete because language can never be exact or full enough to convey the totality of our experience. Some find the incommensurability between the world and the word to be a cause for despair at being trapped in a “prison house of language.” I find, rather, cause for wonder and gratitude that words, imperfect though they may be, allow us such remarkable windows not only into the past, but also into the thoughts and feelings of those with whom we share this divine gift of language. And I am persuaded that however darkly reality is refracted through the prism of words, language can, with the help of the Spirit, make us substantially present to each other and give us a foretaste of what it is to know even as we are known (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12).

For this to occur, the Spirit can and must enable the process of understanding. I believe that the Spirit is prerequisite to understanding all utterance, [4] but especially the inspired language of scripture (cf. D&C 50:17–22). Of course the Spirit, which has the power to reveal the meaning of all things (John 16:13; Moro. 10:5), can communicate directly to the soul without the medium of language. From this point of view, the written word may seem to be dispensable. But this is never the way the Lord perceives scripture. Rather, it is something precious to be examined, pondered, and preserved. The Lord regularly chooses to mediate his mind and will through the language of scripture, enfleshing the Word in words. He commands his prophets to record their witness in the written word and invites his children to read and ponder their words to gain access to inspired understanding. In the process, prophets become writers, their records become texts, and their audience becomes readers.

Given the textuality of their task, it is not surprising that scriptural authors are daunted by the same dilemmas that vex all writers. For example, the apostle John confesses that his subject, Jesus’ life, is far more complex and full than he can portray—or than could ever be captured in print, even if he were to fill the whole world with books (John 21:25). Likewise, Book of Mormon historians frequently rue the fact that their narratives contain less than a “hundredth part” of the information available from what they have witnessed or what is reported in historical records (e.g., Jacob 3:13; W of M 1:5). They are overwhelmed by the challenge not only of selecting but also of structuring their material. Moroni seems to speak for every writer who has struggled over syntax when he laments, “When we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words” (Ether 12:25). In a fallen world, ungraced by the Adamic tongue, the gap between res and verba provides ample occasion for such stumbling. Not even prophets attain such a fulness of utterance as to eliminate all traces of incommensurability between the truths they apprehend, feel, and experience, and the words they must use to represent this reality, even though their records best tell of “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13) in language empowered to help us become who we really ought to be.

Reading Scripture Aright

So prophets are also writers and scriptures are also texts. Hence, while we must staunchly defend the historicity of scripture, we must not disregard its textuality. It is this quality that complicates the task of drawing clean, bright lines between even such useful and important dichotomies as fact/fiction or history/story. Such binary oppositions point to critical distinctions. Yet these minimal pairs are not mutually exclusive—even their etymologies attest to some continuity between categories. “Fiction,” for example, derives from the Latin verb “to fashion.” All texts, however, must be made, not only those one finds under the label “fiction.” While not made up with the freedom of a novel, historical writing must mold the facts into intelligible forms, as anyone knows who has tried to set forth a coherent, orderly account of the past. Historical narratives thus require fashioning; they demand careful attention to structure, emphasis, significance, and the like. In this sense, factual writing is not unlike the writing of fiction. Similarly, “story” and “history” derive from the same root. This common etymology reminds us that a historian is, among other things, a storyteller who, while being faithful to the historical record, must make narrative choices about sequence, characterization, diction, significance, and so forth in order to make sense of the past. Thus, even factual writing inescapably entails fiction in the sense that it too must be fashioned (fictio); likewise, narrative history requires attention to the demands of a story. Hence, historical writing possesses not only the dimension of historicity but also of textuality, including qualities associated with literary texts.

The same general point applies not only to history but to every scriptural genre, such as preaching, prophecy, poetry, and even parable. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, may be analyzed as to both its historicity and its textuality. Thus one may properly, and with no contradiction, affirm the historicity of the sermon (e.g., its attribution to Jesus) as well as explicate its textuality (e.g., its rhetorical patterning, its hyperbole, and its intertextuality with the law of Moses or with other discourses within Matthew or across the entire canon). Similarly, an explicitly fictional genre, such as Zenos’s allegory, not only invites literary interpretation but also makes numerous crucial claims to historicity. For example: there was a prophet Zenos; there were brass plates; an ancient Book of Mormon prophet named Jacob transcribed the allegory onto Nephi’s small plates; Jacob’s transcription was much later translated from gold plates by Joseph Smith; and Zenos’s prophecies correlate to actual historical events. Any satisfactory reading of Zenos’s allegory must be clear about its historicity and account for the verbal resources the author mobilizes to convey his meaning and make it resonate in our hearts.

Sound scriptural interpretation thus gives proper weight to both the historicity and the textuality of the word of God. As faith steers between the Scylla of skepticism and the Charybdis of credulity, Latter-day Saints should, on the one hand, resolutely resist the sophistry of those who describe miracles and revelations as fables or human invention, taking as our watchword Peter’s testimony of the transfiguration: “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16); and, on the other hand, recognize that prophets characteristically record a particular kind of history. Scripture typically aspires to be more interpretive than mere chronicle and less comprehensive than the Cambridge History of the World. It aspires to the condition of testimony. Well does the Joseph Smith Translation retitle two of the Gospels “The Testimony of St. Matthew” and “The Testimony of John.” As John freely admits, many details about Jesus’ life are “not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:30–31). Scripture is best regarded as testament. Testaments are, to be sure, essentially and overwhelmingly historiographic, written by prophets and telling of events which not only can be coordinated with time and space but which often order and give meaning to time and space. At the same time, testaments are also the record of testators or witnesses, whose purpose is not merely to record facts but to bear witness. They bear the imprint of human testators and display the textual characteristics of all writing.

Hence, it is clearly a distortion to dismiss scripture’s historical claims, as, for example, the Jesus Seminar does virtually wherever a Gospel describes supernatural events. Likewise, it is a mistake to deny scripture’s textual qualities, as fundamentalists sometimes do when faced with evidence of rhetorical patterning in sacred texts. After all, there is no logical contradiction in believing simultaneously that scripture records the word of God and that the Lord reveals His word to his servants “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24; cf. 29:33; 2 Ne. 31:3). Thus to read scripture aright is, as I noted at the outset, to give due weight to both the historicity and the textuality of the word of God.

Reading Scripture Amiss: The Liabilities of the Literary

Much contemporary scholarship reads scripture amiss by denying its fundamental historicity. Let me illustrate some of these errors by referring to modern biblical studies. As a Miltonist and erstwhile lecturer on “The Bible as Literature,” I occasionally exploit biblical criticism to elucidate the Bible or Milton’s works. This always requires special care because some scholars do not accept the historicity of essential biblical events, such as the Fall or the Resurrection.

For example, a few years ago in a leading journal of literary criticism I published an article on Paradise Lost that relied heavily on the work of the contemporary French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur is a brilliant thinker; his work develops trenchant insights into the symbolism of evil, insights that open up Milton’s epic in truly remarkable ways. Nevertheless, for several years I sat on a draft of my essay, uncertain if and how to proceed, because Ricoeur’s understanding of the Fall derives explicitly from the premise that the biblical story is unhistorical. Ricoeur asks, “What does it mean to ‘understand’ the Adamic myth?” He answers his own question thus:

“In the first place, it means accepting the fact that it is a myth. . . . It must be well understood/row the outset that, for the modern man who has learned the distinction between myth and history, this chronicle of the first man and the first pair can no longer be coordinated with the time of history and the space of geography. . . . It must be well understood that the question, Where and when did Adam eat the forbidden fruit?, no longer has meaning for us; every effort to save the letter of the story as a true history is vain and hopeless.” [5]

Ricoeur thus brackets the “Adamic myth” from history. Although his intent is not to dismiss Genesis as fable but to honor and elucidate it as a richly symbolic myth that “has more meaning than a true history,” he clearly does not believe in Adam the way a Latter-day Saint does. [6]

Consequently, it was troubling for me, as a believer, to ground my interpretation of Paradise Lost on Ricoeur—even though his disbelief in an actual Adam is utterly commonplace. (Indeed, critics tend to fault Ricoeur not for his skepticism but for his belief in such Christian “myths.”) After much hesitation, I determined at last to send off my article with a caveat in my opening paragraphs proclaiming my own belief. “Too confessional,” said the editor, and struck the offending passage. Try as I may, I could not prevail upon the journal to keep a direct disclaimer. Finally, I hit upon an indirect way to signal my convictions. I wrote a footnote citing a comment by the only other Miltonist to refer to Ricoeur, William Kerrigan, in which he distances himself from Ricoeur’s “faith in the Christian myth.” I exploited this opening to insert my own demurral: “I share Kerrigan’s indebtedness to Ricoeur, though not his skepticism about the Christian myth.” [7] This note made it past the editor. But I wondered if it would sufficiently signal my belief to my readers. One of the more satisfying moments of my professional career occurred when a colleague I had never met approached me at a conference, complimented me on my Ricoeur article, and said, “I read your footnote. I am a believer, too.”

This anecdote illustrates the difficulty of dealing seriously yet faithfully with modern biblical scholarship. I experienced similar difficulties as a doctoral candidate and newly minted Ph.D. assigned to teach courses in “the Bible as Literature” at two different state universities. These assignments pushed me toward taking a false position vis a vis scripture. As C. S. Lewis quipped, “Those who talk of reading the Bible ‘as literature’ sometimes mean . . . reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense.” [8] It did to me, too. Nor were my misgivings dispelled when I read the scholarship purporting to explicate scripture under the rubric of “the Bible as Literature.” Until about twenty years ago, this approach yielded sorry and often trivial results. The deficiencies resulted in part from its practitioners’ reluctance to engage seriously the truth claims made by the Bible and in part from their innocence of ancient languages, history, archaeology, theology, or other prerequisites of traditional Biblical studies.

“But,” Lewis continues, “there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature.” [9] For me, as for Lewis, the saner way is to read scripture first and foremost as scripture, attending to literary, historical, and even doctrinal matters as they constitute dimensions of the witness. The past couple of decades have witnessed the emergence of a number of truly noteworthy literary interpretations of scripture that do just this. Yet Latter-day Saint critics must consult even this scholarship warily because, like Ricoeur’s work, much of it proceeds from premises that either deny or downplay the fundamental historicity of scripture.

The work of Robert Alter provides a case in point. Alter may be the single most significant contemporary literary critic of the Bible. His books on biblical narrative and poetry develop engaging, textured, telling readings of the Old Testament. Moreover, like Ricoeur, Alter is generally regarded as sympathetic to the Bible’s truthfulness, if not to its literal truth. There is much to be admired in Alter. Nevertheless, his interpretive stance leans precariously toward denying the literal historicity of biblical narrative and narrators. For example, Alter famously asserts that “prose fiction is the best general rubric for describing biblical narrative.” [10] This echoes the position of Herbert Schneidau, another contemporary critic, who similarly claims: “What we are witnessing in Genesis, and in parts of the David story, is the birth of a new kind of historicized fiction, moving steadily away from the motives and habits of the world of legend and myth.” [11]

This fudging about the fundamental historicity of scripture is well answered by Meir Sternberg, an Israeli biblical scholar who, like Alter, deals very intelligently with the poetics of biblical narrative but expresses far firmer conviction as to its truth claims. Having roundly reproved Alter for denying the historicity of biblical narrative, Sternberg affirms his own position: “So does the Bible belong to the historical or the fictional genre? The mist enveloping the question once dissipated, . . . the answer becomes obvious. Of course the narrative is historiographic.” [12] Sternberg continues: “Were the narrative written or read as fiction, then God would turn from the lord of history into a creature of the imagination, with the most disastrous results. The shape of time, the rationale of monotheism, the foundations of conduct, the national sense of identity, the very right to the land of Israel and the hope of deliverance to come: all hang in the generic balance. Hence the Bible’s determination to sanctify and compel literal belief in the past.” [13]

Few literary scholars of the Bible as intelligent as Sternberg argue as forthrightly for the “literal belief in the past” it records. Literary approaches to scripture still regularly downplay or deny its historicity. It is no wonder therefore (but it is also unfortunate) that literary readings are often regarded with suspicion by Latter-day Saints, who rightly insist on the literal truth of prophecy, miracles, and revelations. After my early experience in state universities, I too came to mistrust literary approaches to scripture, vowing not to teach another course in “The Bible as Literature.” Since then, however, I have adopted a more conciliatory position, for the literal and the literary are not necessarily opposed to each other. Now I apply to my reading of biblical criticism the Lord’s advice on reading the Apocrypha: “There are many things contained therein that are true. . . . There are many things contained therein that are not true. . . . Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth” (D&C 91:1–2, 4).

Reading Scripture Amiss: The Limits of the Literal

Just as literary interpretations of scripture can miss the mark by undervaluing the literal, so literalistic readings can miss the point by undervaluing the literary. The New Testament illustrates the latter peril in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. When Jesus tells him, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus replies incredulously, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:3–4). Of course reentering the womb is not what Jesus intends at all. The Savior rebukes Nicodemus’ literalism as obtuse and wrongheaded: “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (3:10).

This pattern persists throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus repeatedly describes Himself or His mission in metaphors that baffle His literal-minded interlocutors. For example, Jesus explains to the woman of Samaria that he would give her “living water”—to which she prosaically responds, “Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?” (John 4:10–11). Jesus later compares Himself to manna, telling the multitude: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever”—to which His hearers woodenly respond, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:51–52). And Jesus informs His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep”—to which His uncomprehending disciples answer, “Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well” (11:11–12). These and similar incidents remind us that scripture itself sometimes exposes a literal reading as spiritually myopic and insists on being read symbolically by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear (cf. Jer. 5:21; Matt. 13:13; 2 Ne. 9:31).

Yet knowing when and how to read symbolically is not easy. Moreover, the ontological status of figurative language in scripture is not always clear. It requires considerable tact—more than Nicodemus demonstrated—to know how to take the magnificent metaphors employed in the revelations. What does it mean, for example, that Christ is the light of the world? What looks like metaphor in the New Testament may encompass material realities according to modern revelation (e.g., D&C 88:6); in this case, the potential for misreading arises not from being too literalistic, like Nicodemus, but from not being literal enough (cf. 1 Ne. 22:1–3).

To cite another example of how complex the ontological status of figurative language can be, consider the passages in the Doctrine and Covenants in which the Lord indicates that the world groans under sin: “And the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin” (D&C 84:49); “the whole earth groans under the weight of its iniquity” (123:7). In these passages “groaning” appears figurative, personifying the earth as a sentient being with human feelings. Few readers, however, would likely stumble over the ontological status of this personification—which is not only unobtrusive but reprises a similar sentiment in Romans: “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain” (8:22)—unless, that is, they read these verses in light of a remarkable colloquy between Enoch and Mother Earth in the Pearl of Great Price: “And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me?” (Moses 7:48).

This passage never fails to move me deeply. Yet it also raises interesting questions about the nature of nature: How should we understand the ontological status of the voice? In what sense is the earth as a whole a sentient being? In what sense is the earth the “mother of men”? In what sense does it feel pain, become wearied, need rest, and require moral cleansing? And in what sense can the earth actually speak in an audible, presumably female voice? When metaphors come alive, as they appear to in Enoch’s vision, we are compelled to reconsider the presumption that figurative language is only figurative and to open ourselves up to the possibility that “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.” [14] This can be disorienting for modern readers, who are predisposed to regard both metaphors and miracles with coolly rational, naturalistic presumptions. Scriptures such as Enoch’s vision of Mother Earth can and should make us skeptical of our skepticism; they should tune our ears to hear, with the ancients, the voice of the earth and open our eyes to see in the stars, sun, and moon “God moving in his majesty and power” (D&C 88:47; cf. 45–47).

At the same time, modern revelation may just as readily restrain readers from taking metaphors as more than metaphor. This can be seen in perhaps the most controverted, symbolic language in scripture, Jesus’ famous invitation to His disciples at the Last Supper: “This is my body, take, eat” and “this is my blood, take, drink.” Vast quantities of ink have been expended over just how to interpret these simple statements. Modern revelation makes it clear that the doctrine of transubstantiation takes them too literally. The Joseph Smith Translation and other Latter-day Saint scripture indicate that the copulative verb “is” does not establish identity but analogy between subject and predicate; that the bread and wine represent rather than become the Lord’s body and blood; and that the sacrament is intended to memorialize rather than reenact the Atonement. Note how much hangs on what could be described as a literary question. In a sense, the great Reformation debates over the nature of the Eucharist centered on whether to take Christ’s words as something more than metaphor or as something closer to simile.

Evidently, modern revelation provides no single rule for sorting the factual from the figurative. Indeed, it demonstrates that these are often deliberately and sometimes inextricably intertwined. Thus when Nephi’s brothers ask if Isaiah’s prophecies describe spiritual or temporal realities, Nephi responds that they are “both temporal and spiritual” (1 Ne. 22:3). Similarly, when the Saints asked the Prophet Joseph to interpret passages in the book of Revelation, the Prophet construed some images as literal, some as figurative, and some as both. It took revelation to understand Revelation. Hence, even for Latter-day Saints who accept without dispute the essential historicity of scripture, it is no easy task to disentangle the literary and the literal in scripture. Nor, I believe, is it wise to insist on sharply dualistic dichotomies between the literal and literary, historical and textual, world and word. To relentlessly pursue the “facts” behind the scriptural accounts of, for example, the Resurrection or First Vision, may be to look “beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14) no less than to doubt that there were no miraculous events giving rise to the scriptural accounts.

Furthermore, rich meaning may inhere in factual events just as much as they do in literary inventions. I came to feel this keenly while writing a book on Paradise Lost. Too many critics presume that if something is symbolically significant it must be historically untrue. Not so. Adam and Eve’s transgression can and does symbolize various aspects of human existence even though it happened. The literal may function symbolically without ceasing to be historical. “Can literary artifice be true?” asks an evangelical critic. “The answer is yes. To ask whether the Bible is literature or history is to set up a false dichotomy. The Bible is both—and much more.” [15]

Let me illustrate this with a mundane example from the Gospel of John. When Judas leaves the Last Supper, John observes, “And it was night” (John 13:30). I assume that this is factually accurate reportage. On one level, this sentence is John’s way of marking the time. But on another level, the words do more than tell the time. As Elder Talmage notes, this “terse” statement feels “ominous.” [16] For the night into which Judas flees seems to foreshadow his dark deeds, express his moral condition, and presage the spiritual darkness toward which he and the narrative are moving. Furthermore, this sentence seems to signal a dramatic turn in the narrative, from darkness to light. When Judas leaves the room, something dark and sinister seems to have been cast out, enabling the Lord to speak more freely, intimately, and lovingly with the faithful followers who remain. The sublime discourses on discipleship that follow in John 14–17 stand in shining contrast to the tense table talk that had preceded them in John 13. Outside, Judas is mobilizing the forces of darkness. Inside the upper room, the remaining disciples are bathed in light and love. All these connotations and more are plausibly implied by the simple statement “And it was night.” A novelist could not improve on this narrative detail, which, though prosaically true, is also pregnant with symbolic significance.

Concluding Coda: An Allegory of God’s Love

As should be clear by now, my views on the subject of the historicity of scripture are complex. But I hope they are not ambiguous—especially as to the fundamental point. I unequivocally affirm the historicity of the miraculous events on which Christianity and the Restoration are founded. In doing so, I echo the words of an evangelical scholar who asserted, “As Christians we can never forget that ours is a historical faith, our salvation a salvation in history, and the written Word of God a collection of documents composed by prophets in specific times and places.” [17] This assertion applies a fortiori to Latter-day Saints, who add modern revelation and acts of apostles to the canon. We proclaim that the voice of God has spoken not only to ancient prophets in Palestine but to other prophets, ancient and modern, at very specific times and places in the Americas. Hence, we testify that the Book of Mormon is a historical document. We believe that on 22 September 1827, an angel named Moroni gave gold plates to Joseph Smith declaring “glad tidings from Cumorah,” and we bear record of “a voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette, Seneca county, . . . [and] the voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna. . . . [and] the voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river. . . . [and] the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette, Seneca county, and at sundry times, and in divers places” (D&C 128:20–21). I love the precise topicality of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s exultant catalogue of theophanies. There can be no gainsaying that ours is gloriously and inescapably a historical faith.

At the same time that I celebrate the historicity of my faith, I revel in its textuality. I treasure the texts that preserve ancient and modern witnesses. These are of inestimable value. Not infrequently, I am absorbed by the verbal particularities of these witnesses—by their grammatical, rhetorical, and literary texture, which for me often appear inseparable from their meaning and message. Much insight comes from attending to scripture’s textuality. Hence, my desire in this essay has been to articulate a measured “both/and” position with respect to the question of history vs. literature in understanding scripture.

In this spirit, let me conclude with one final example of how a literary reading of scripture can complement historically preoccupied interpretations and thereby open up a fuller, more complete appreciation of the text. My text is Zenos’s Allegory of the Olive Tree, an explicitly literary genre whose literary quality, oddly, has been underappreciated. I have heard this allegory discussed in countless classes, sermons, and scholarly papers. [18] Almost always the interpretation focuses on working out correlations between the allegory and historical events. This seems a useful and important thing to do, but one that also risks missing the emotional center of the allegory, which is so moving and potentially redemptive for readers. Preoccupied with figuring out the allegory as a sort of literary puzzle, readers frequently seem to miss what Jacob implies they should feel from the experience of reading Zenos. Jacob points to the emotional heart of the text when he exclaims, “And how merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long; and they are a stiffnecked and a gainsaying people; but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you” (Jacob 6:4–5).

To feel what Jacob intends his people to feel, we must read this great allegory not only as a detailed prophecy of world history but as an allegory of God’s love. [19] Jacob intends to move his readers to cleave unto a God who cleaveth unto His people, despite repeated provocations. Such an effect from reading is not only possible but more likely if the allegory is read as literature. A literary reading of the text attends to the characterization of the Lord of the vineyard as revealed in his repeated expressions of love. A literary reading cannot miss the Lord’s repeated heartfelt, anguished cries of the Lord, which echo like a leitmotiv across the allegory, revealing the depths of desire in God’s heart even for his backsliding chosen people: “It grieveth me that I should lose this tree.” The Lord of the vineyard utters these words again and again, eight times over, building in intensity and cumulatively serving to characterize the astonishing loving-kindness of the God we worship. Let me cite these repetitions found in Jacob 5:

It grieveth me that I should lose this tree (7)

It grieveth me that I should lose this tree (11)

For it grieveth me that I should lose this tree (13)

And now it grieveth me that I should lose this tree (32)

And it grieveth me that I should lose them (46)

And it grieveth me that I should hew down all the trees of my vineyard, and cast them into the fire (47)

Yea, I will spare it a little longer, for it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard (51)

For it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard (66)

Woven throughout the allegory, this repeated emphasis on the Lord’s grief reveals something unforgettable about the very character of God. The allegory functions like the parable of the Prodigal Son, vividly enacting the Lord’s love for His errant children—in this case by comparing God not to a forgiving father but to a long-suffering gardener. Or, even more closely, it resembles Isaiah’s “song of my beloved,” testifying that the Lord does everything in His power to nurture his people, though they persist in bringing forth the bitter fruit of rebellion: “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?” asks the Lord through Isaiah (2 Ne. 15:4; Isa. 5:4). Likewise, Zenos records in Jacob 5:

And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard? (41).

But, behold, they have become like unto the wild olive-tree, and they are of no worth but to be hewn down and cast into the fire; and it grieveth me that I should lose them. But what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, . . . and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long, and the end draweth nigh. And it grieveth me that I should hew down all the trees of my vineyard, and cast them into the fire that they should be burned (46–47).

And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto the servant: Let us go to and hew down the trees of the vineyard and cast them into the fire, that they shall not cumber the ground of my vineyard, for I have done all. What could I have done more for my vineyard? But, behold, the servant said unto the Lord of the vineyard: Spare it a little longer (49–50).

These descriptions of a fictional character called the Lord of the vineyard conduct us, by means of allegory, into the heart of the Almighty himself. His tears remind us of other tender, sacred moments in scripture in which the Lord sorrows over his sinful people (e.g., Matt. 23:37; 3 Ne. 17:14; Moses 7:28). What is more, as we witness the juxtaposition of his tears and anger, we understand better that divine love is linked to divine punishment. In this sense, Zenos’s allegory provides a more complex portrait of redemption than the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the allegory’s artistry, like Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” comprehends a righteous master, whose love prompts him at once to preserve and prune, save and burn his beloved vineyard.

In the same fashion, the servant’s pleadings reveal much about the role of prophets, like Moses and the Savior Himself, who, like this servant, act as intercessors on behalf of a beloved but flawed and recalcitrant humanity. When the exasperated Lord first commands His servant to “pluck off the branches . . . and cast them into the fire,” the servant responds, “Let us prune it, and dig about it, and nourish it a little longer, that perhaps it may bring forth good fruit” (Jacob 5:26–27). Similarly, when the Lord determines again to burn the vineyard, the servant pleads, “Spare it a little longer” (5:50). If the Lord is characterized by the refrain “it grieveth me that I should lose this tree,” perhaps the servant may be typified by the words “a little longer.”

By such literary means, Zenos helps us understand the character of God and His servants, feel their love for us, and resolve to cleave more fully unto the Lord who cleaves, so patiently, unto us. The meaning of the allegory’s symbols is not exhausted once their correspondence to specific events in sacred history has been ascertained. Indeed, if history is all we learn from the allegory, we have learned little that could not be taught more directly and clearly by a straightforward synopsis of the dispensations. But we are meant to learn more and to feel more. We are meant to be supplied with a memorable way of conceptualizing God, His prophets, and ourselves—as a gardener, a servant, and a beloved tree—and with a moving narrative that dramatizes the Lord’s persistent loving-kindness toward us and His servants’ intercession on our behalf. We are meant to be the better from reading prophecy embodied in parable. For if we let the symbols work on our hearts, as well as inform our minds, we will feel truths that apply not only to particular historical moments but to all times, all places, and all people.

Thus in Zenos’s allegory, as elsewhere in scripture, the literary must be appreciated with the literal, the textual with the historical, and the word with the world it represents. Both sides of these pairings are fundamental to the meaning of scripture. Surely to understand scripture aright is to give each its proper weight and due attention.


[1] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels and Other Writings, ed. Louis A. Landa (Boston: Riverside, 1960), 150.

[2] Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 150.

[3] Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 151.

[4] I agree with George Steiner “that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence.” Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 3.

[5] Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 235.

[6] Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, 236.

[7] John S. Tanner, ‘“Say First What Cause’: Ricoeur and the Etiology of Evil in Paradise Lost” PMLA 103.1 (January 1988): 54 n. 3.

[8] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958), 2–3.

[9] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 3.

[10] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 24, and throughout chap. 2.

[11] Herbert N. Schneidau, Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 215.

[12] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 30.

[13] Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 32.

[14] William Shakespeare, Hamlet 1.5.166–67.

[15] Tremper Longman III, “Storytellers and Poets in the Bible: Can Literary Artifice Be True,” Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate, ed. Harvie M. Conn (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1988), 149.

[16] James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1916), 599.

[17] E. Earle Ellis, “Historical-Literary Criticism—After Two Hundred Years: Origins, Aberrations, Contributions, Limitations,” The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy, 1987 (Nashville: Boardman, 1987), 415–16.

[18] See The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1994) for a fine collection of essays that greatly enrich our understanding of this remarkable allegory. My interpretation was stimulated many years ago in a class from Arthur Henry King and finds support in his essay in this collection entitled “Language Themes in Jacob 5: ‘The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel (Isaiah 5:7),’” 140–73.

[19] I briefly sketch this interpretation of the allegory in “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,” Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thome (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1991), 52–66.