The academic disciplines of history and literary criticism were in their infancy in the early 19th century. Although Christians were becoming aware that some Biblical passages, read literally, were in error (cf. Joshua commanding the sun to stand still), Joseph Smith’s own work at Bible revision (the “Inspired Version” or “Joseph Smith Translation”) illustrate the hope that these errors could be corrected with minor edits. Many Christians naively assumed that the Bible was the direct word of God, spoken in God’s own voice to prophets, apostles, and evangelists whose role was functionally equivalent to a dictaphone. As such, any errors found in the text must be the work of Medieval scribes and copyists.
After centuries of study, as history and literary criticism have matured as disciplines, it has become clear that the Medieval scribes and copyists were relatively faithful and skilled. The errors in Biblical text came from the original authors: the flawed prophets, apostles, and evangelists, who were subject as all humans are to the limitations of their own time and place in history. It is now very clear that the Bible is not a history book and many of its stories from Genesis to Jesus’ nativity have no historical basis. It’s ever more clear that if the dichotomy is between “history” and “fiction,” much of the Bible’s component texts are fictional. Many of these fit within the definition some scholars have given for “pious fraud.”
Although the Book of Mormon describes a “history” of ancient America widely accepted among European Americans in the early 19th century, it’s central narrative (the “Moundbuilder” thesis) has subsequently been proved false. In composing the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, Joseph Smith was not recovering actual history, spoken to him by God’s own voice like a dictaphone. Instead the stories are his own, human composition. If inspired, these are human responses to the Divine, just as the works of ancient authors, if inspired, are human responses to the Divine. When Joseph Smith composed original stories about Abraham and Moses, he was not recovering history. Neither figure existed in history. However, he may have been doing something quite similar to what the ancient authors of Genesis and Exodus were doing in composing their own stories about Abraham and Moses.