Goff addresses the charge that Ether’s story of a young woman dancing for Akish represents plagiarism of Salomé dancing for Herod Antipas in Mark. He shows how many of the themes present in Salomé’s narrative allude to even more ancient tales from Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Old Testament. Goff suggests that these consistent details do not mean that these stories are pure folklore, and that they’re best understood in the backdrop of ancient literary practice.
In this article, Alan Goff presents the second in a five-part series relating to charges of plagiarism in the stories of the Book of Mormon. This one, focused on the story of a young girl dancing for Akish in the book of Ether (ostensibly borrowed from the story of Salomé dancing for Herod Antipas) follows an article from last year on Alma’s conversion narrative, and will eventually include discussions of Aminadi’s interpretation of writing on the wall of the temple, the abduction of the daughters of the Lamanites, and Ammon defending the sheep with sword and sling.
These essays respond to Fawn Brodie and others’ straightforward charge that Joseph Smith copied these stories from biblical narratives, with Goff suggesting that the existence of shared detail does not itself demonstrate whether a story is historical. Both in the Bible and elsewhere, repetition and allusion is a common feature of ancient history and literature, and Goff frames the distinction between history and fiction as a false dichotomy. A deeper look at the ancient record reveals even more stories from early antiquity with similar details as the story of Salomé (e.g., murder or beheading at the request of a young lover). These stories span a number of cultures, including Rome, Greece, and the biblical and extra-biblical stories of Esther. In particular, the story of Salomé shares important themes with the story of Esther, and those connections were likely intentional on the part of Mark. For him, an understanding of those connections is an essential part of how both stories should be read, placing John the Baptist as a “successor to Israel’s prophetic tradition”.
That the Book of Mormon includes similar allusions suggests that Ether’s ancient authors were also working to adapt and update ancient traditions, and not necessarily from Esther or Mark—it purports to draw from even older patterns of the (murderous) succession of Mesopotamian kings, which in itself is a common trope throughout all ages of history and literature. To expect originality would be to misunderstand the genre of these ancient texts. According to Goff, these allusions adjudicate historicity no more than do modern adaptations of historical events, which themselves are often rife with allusion to past themes and tropes. A more rigorous and nuanced reading of the text leads us to go beyond the mere attempt to identify parallels. The Ether narrative includes important differences from the Salomé narratives that critics often fail to take into account, and a fair reading suggests that the story uses and subverts these themes in clever ways.
Goff suggests that it’s mistaken to treat this kind of intertextuality as evidence for an ahistorical Bible. He instead suggests that the Book of Mormon’s deep patterns of allusion should bolster the idea that the biblical narratives are also historical, claiming itself as the history of a real people in spite of being shaped by literary elements. As he concludes:
“The Book of Mormon is just at the beginning of a similar scholarly revolution in understanding and appreciation, such as both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament underwent in the last two decades of the 20th century…However, such an apotheosis requires readers to match the text…exhibiting a competent understanding of the relationships between history and literature in both the ancient and modern worldviews.”
That there are similar ancient stores to that of Salomé isn’t surprising—human creativity is infinite, but there are only so many stories that humans produce, and a story that combines violence and sex in such a visceral way is one that seems likely to have been produced early and transmitted often, may have been produced independently in several areas, and, unfortunately, may have had analogs in true historical events. The evidence for this specific type of story in ancient Mesopotamian appears to be lacking (or else I assume Goff would’ve included it), but the idea seems plausible on its face.
As I pointed out in the summary for the previous entry in this series, the tension between history and folklore can be legitimately difficult to navigate for the uninitiated. It suggests that the historical truth of a Book of Mormon passage may exist in some unknown state between pure folklore and pure historical description, and that there will inevitably be elements of these stories that didn’t happen or that happened very differently than described. I can see how that kind of uncertainty might lead some to jettison the entire enterprise—if I can’t trust if Jared’s daughter danced for Akish, to what extent can I trust the events of 3 Nephi 11, or Moroni’s core promises in Moroni 10? It might be harder for some to form a stable orientation of faith when they have to constantly make judgments about trustworthiness with every verse they read.
This is where I think both (1) the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and (2) the power of the Spirit are of prime importance. They give us, respectively, an intellectual and a spiritual foundation for the basic claims of that scripture. The unexpected features of the book strain credulity in naturalistic explanations for its origin, and the Spirit provides us a first-hand connection to the divinity of the work. With both those things in hand, lending strength to the core claims of the Restoration, we can probably tolerate a little ambiguity in the details. I look forward to further examples of this as Goff continues along this path.