Grant Hardy majored in classical Greek at Brigham Young University, then earned a Ph.D. in Chinese literature from Yale.

Now a professor of history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (where he formerly chaired the Department of History), he specializes in pre-modern historical writing. Columbia University Press published his "Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History" in 1999, Greenwood issued his co-authored "The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China" in 2005, and his co-edited "Oxford History of Historical Writing, Volume I: Beginnings to AD 600," will appear later this year.

But there is more. The University of Illinois Press issued Hardy's "The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition" in 2005, and Oxford has recently published his "Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide," in which this superbly trained scholar applies his expertise to a book that has seldom been read so carefully and intelligently.

Hardy pronounces the Book of Mormon "an extraordinarily rich text," "a carefully constructed artifact," "more intricate and clever than has heretofore been acknowledged." "My basic thesis," he writes, "is that the Book of Mormon is a much more interesting text — rewarding sustained critical attention —than has generally been acknowledged by either Mormons or non-Mormons."

Although himself a believer (of an admittedly skeptical sort, as shown in his entry on MormonScholarsTestify.org, he sets the question of historicity or authorship aside: "It does not matter much to my approach whether these narrators were actual historical figures or whether they were fictional characters created by Joseph Smith; their role in the narrative is the same in either case. After all, narrative is a mode of communication employed by both historians and novelists."

"I want to demonstrate a mode of literary analysis," he explains, "by which all readers, regardless of their prior religious commitments or lack thereof, can discuss the book in useful and accurate ways. "I will leave it to others," he remarks, "to prove or disprove the historical and religious claims of the book; my goal is to help anyone interested in the Book of Mormon for whatever reason, become a better, more perceptive reader."

He seeks to enable discussion of the Book of Mormon even among those who differ over its origin and religious importance. "If we shift our attention away from Joseph Smith and back to the Book of Mormon itself, a common discourse becomes possible."

The principal feature of his method is to treat the three main authors of the book — Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni — "as if they were real people." And it turns out, under his meticulous and fruitful analysis, that "Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni are major characters themselves, and each has a distinctive life story, perspective, set of concerns, style, and sensibility."

I don't labor under Grant Hardy's self-imposed neutrality. I say that his analysis powerfully supports the Book of Mormon's authenticity. "Under close scrutiny," he writes (and demonstrates), "it appears to be a carefully crafted, integrated work, with multiple narrative levels, an intricate organization, and extensive intratextual phrasal allusions and borrowings. None of this is foreign to fiction, but the circumstances of the book's production are awkward: the more complicated and interconnected the text, the less likely it is that Joseph Smith made it up spontaneously as he dictated the words to his scribes, one time through."

1 comment on this story

"Clearly," Hardy comments regarding Nephi, "there is an active mind at work here, one that is colored by his experiences, his sense of audience, and his desire for order. Readers will always be divided on whether that mind is ultimately Nephi's or Joseph Smith's, but it is possible to recover from the text a coherent personality within the multiple time frames, the different levels of narrative, and the extensive intertextual borrowings." And yet, when, with Mormon (as, later with Moroni), "it turns out that there is another mind at work in the text," the most reasonable interpretation of the evidence Hardy so carefully marshals is that these are indeed distinct persons. Moreover, when, as Hardy also demonstrates, Mormon struggles to conform his historical data to his moralistic view of the past, that strongly suggests that Mormon was dealing with real, recalcitrant history, not fiction.

Those inclined to disagree should read this important book.

 

Daniel Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.