This post is a summary of the article “Alma’s Prophetic Commissioning Type Scene” by Alan Goff in Volume 51 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Goff responds to charges of plagiarism in the case of Alma the Younger’s conversion experience, arguing that similarities to Paul’s conversion story reflects alignment with ancient literary archetypes rather than theft. He also suggests that modern scholars are committing a commonly-acknowledged logical error when asserting that Alma’s story—or any other story that molds its narrative to fit literary convention—must have been plagiarized or fabricated.
In this article, Alan Goff begins a series of targeted responses to claims of plagiarism in the Book of Mormon, focusing first on the accounts of Alma the Younger’s conversion, which is usually framed as a straightforward copy of Paul’s experience in the New Testament. Countering accusers from Fawn Brodie to Wayne Ham (who himself appears to plagiarize Brodie), among numerous others, Goff works to discredit a common assumption–that stories which make use of literary forms are inherently suspect in terms of communicating authentic history. Demonstrating that the themes used in Alma’s accounts are far from unique to Paul’s conversion, Goff instead frames both stories as examples of a prophetic commission narrative common to the Old Testament and other ancient texts.
Goff points out that conversion narratives, whether ancient or modern, or whether into or out of the church, can themselves be treated as a literary genre, and that adherence to the conventions of that genre should no more discount the reality of Alma’s or Paul’s conversion than it does Vogel’s or Brodie’s deconversion. Goff here emphasizes the importance of context in understanding and evaluating those stories, as the history of such narratives can furnish explanations for their content that go beyond simplistic charges of theft.
It is here that Goff thoroughly recounts the historic separation of history and literature, wherein Enlightenment-influenced historians came to see objectivity as the most trustworthy bar for identifying true history. Though a focus on objectivity can have its merits, it’s application within biblical criticism, as densely packed as the Bible is with archetypes, allusions, and literary motifs, can lead to a wholesale rejection of its historical value. That this rejection applies to critical perspectives on the Book of Mormon should go without saying, but Goff takes the time to say it anyway.
Yet most scholars of the ancient world take a different approach, based on the postmodern understanding that history and literature are not mutually exclusive. “Historians are stuck with stories,” Goff notes, and these stories “can be both figural and literal at the same time,” with assertions to the contrary appearing hopelessly out of date. All historical narratives, including those based closely on authentic historical events, are “fictive” (as distinguished from “fictional”) in the sense that they involve narrative choice, selection, and construction. This especially applies to the historical narratives of the Bible, which, according to Grant Hardy, were constructed “in dialogue with existing compositions known to their audience.”
These ideas serve as pretext for Goff’s examination of Alma’s conversion story, which he suggests is a sophisticated application of biblical prophetic commission stories, of which Paul’s is but one. Drawing from Blake Ostler, Goff recounts the thematic elements present in such prophetic commissions, based on Old Testament examples such as Moses, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Though none of these examples are identical, allusions to and commonalities with these stories can be found in both Paul’s and Alma’s divine call, as Goff demonstrates in two handy tables.
Paul’s conversion, for instance, most clearly recalls Isaiah 49, and would itself become the frame through which later Christians would understand their own authentic conversion stories, including that of Augustine. Alma’s, similarly, includes common commissioning themes such as divine reproof, hunger and fasting, warning of the difficulty of the task, as well as the offering of intercessory prayer, a theme common to non-biblical theophanies that isn’t found in the Bible. Goff further highlights the theme of remembrance, as well as the various chiastic elements scattered throughout Alma’s accounts.
For Goff, understanding Alma requires looking not just to Paul (or to Maccabees, to which it shows much stronger parallels), but to Lehi (whom Alma quotes)and Abinadi. Goff pays particular attention to the latter, whose narrative, despite not including an explicit commission, includes a number of common elements found in other commissioning stories, such as concealment, theophany, and prophetic succession (i.e., to Alma the Elder), all of which sets the stage for Alma the Younger’s own commissioning later in the narrative.
Goff closes by emphasizing the importance of foundational assumptions to the interpretation of ancient (or modern) texts. For Goff, and many others, all interpretation proceeds from a position of faith in those core assumptions, and the key assumption in this case–that historical truth can be accurately divined (or dismissed) on the basis of textual similarity–is one we should think about more deeply before swallowing.
Goff insights here are important, and ones that should instill humility in anyone seeking to make strong claims about the historicity of ancient texts. It’s not particularly difficult for people on either side to see parallels or find common language and then use that evidence to draw conclusions about where those parallels came from. Goff’s critiques remind us that such parallels could come from any number of places, including genuinely ancient literary motifs.
One might wonder why we don’t see Goff’s arguments being made more often in the context of the Book of Mormon. I think one reason might be that the critiques can feel uncomfortable for both sides. They apply just as much to assumptions of scriptural inerrancy as much as they do to critics’ assumptions of fabrication, and though we don’t believe scripture is inerrant, we often act as if scripture captures what “really happened” with near-complete accuracy. But as real people, Nephi and Alma and Moroni would’ve brought their own perspectives to the text—Nephi’s story of the journey from Jerusalem would’ve probably differed in important ways from Laman and Lemuel’s version of the same events, and we would have no way of knowing which version was actually “correct,” if any. Living with that sort of tension can be tough for those that aren’t used to it.
I also think that Goff’s analysis is missing at least one important piece of the puzzle. If Alma’s and Paul’s narratives are based on real events, that means that there’s at least one other common element linking them besides their shared biblical context, and that element is God. If Christ ultimately interacted with both of them, either directly or through his servants, it should be no surprise that he should choose similar methods and messages when seeking to alter the life-course of these soon-to-be prophetic figures. Though we can’t objectively know how much of their stories are grounded in God’s own agentic behavior rather than in archetype, we shouldn’t forget the potential for God to be operating at the roots of these divine experiences.