A Bible! A Bible! We have got a 76 Bible[s]

Sometimes I get a trifle confused at things that I really shouldn’t. The other day I got a little confused because someone left their scriptures at home beside their bed where they had last been reading them. I was a trifle baffled for a micro-second, before I remembered that most people did not have sets of scriptures for studying with, and a separate set for taking to church. And yet more sets for when working on the thesis. And more sets for when I happened to be working away from home on the thesis. And yet more sets, because that old Bible looked really lonely in the charity shop, and needed a new home…

I’ll begin again. I’m David Richards, and I have a problem…

However, while it is true that I have an inordinate number of books of scripture, and not always for the most rational of reasons, sometimes a different set can offer a genuine benefit. So I’ve used differently Bible translations from time to time. Sometimes, however, even just a different format can offer distinctive benefits. Sometimes people aren’t always aware of these, so I thought I’d share what I’m currently using for my own personal reading (I tend to change them from time to time):

IMG_20170410_160206512

For the Book of Mormon, I’m using a 1830 replica published by Herald Publishing House (the Community of Christ – formerly RLDS – publishing house). I think I ordered it some years ago, I’m pretty sure directly and it was very inexpensive, particularly since it was coming across the Atlantic. As a replica, it also reproduces some faded script and wonky pages that may have been part of the original too. However, there’s a couple of reasons that make it worth reading over a more recent edition. One is paragraphs!

IMG_20170410_160236575

Ta da!

This makes a huge difference in reading, much more than people may expect. The 1830 edition isn’t perfect in this regards: the paragraphing was largely done by the typesetter (the original manuscript was largely without paragraphing or punctuation), and sometimes those paragraphs can extend for several pages. But it still often reads better than “spreadsheet” format. It is my dream that one day the official LDS edition will also revert to paragraphs (for those looking at a modern edition that does, Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon puts the 1920 LDS edition into paragraphs, while Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text employs sense-lines).

The other significant difference is that it does not have the chapter and verse system imposed by the 1879 edition. Considering how we moderns tend to use chapters and verses to break our reading up, this means we sometimes treat the same speech, for example, as several separate disconnected parts, and miss the overarching theme. It’s as if we only listened to conference talks in 5 minute segments, and insisted on leaving 24 hours between listening. The 1830 edition has chapters which appear to stem from the original manuscript, but they are longer, and in some cases divide the text in different places. Again, that can all make a bigger difference when reading than many might suppose.

The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (in this case the personal size, which is quite affordable via Amazon, although in my case it was a much appreciated gift) is a version of the King James Version. It has modern spelling and punctuation, but most importantly (as the name suggests) it is also paragraphed!

IMG_20170410_160423867

Ta da harder?

One again, paragraphs make a big difference. While the KJV can be difficult for many people (and there are some books where it legitimately is), at least part of the difficulty is often the formatting. So far reading the NCPB is much easier on the eyes, which allows more attention to be devoted to the word itself rather than wrangling with how they are arranged. I recommend it.

2 Nephi 3

A couple of items for this chapter:

And now I speak unto you, Joseph, my last-born. Thou wast born in the wilderness of mine afflictions; yea, in the days of my greatest sorrow did thy mother bear thee.

2 Nephi 3:1

I’m impressed by Lehi’s statement that Joseph was born during “the days of my greatest sorrow”. Because when was that? At which point in the journey? Is he referring to a specific episode, or the wilderness as a whole (he doesn’t say it to Jacob). It doesn’t say, and it may even refer to an incident that isn’t recorded. Lehi clearly considered that the lowest point in his life, and we don’t from the record even know what he was referring to. As painful as it undoubtedly was for him, the record the Lord has preserved for us doesn’t define Lehi by it. At the same time, how many other people do we come into contact with who are shaped by episodes we are entirely unaware of?

Because otherwise I’m in danger of talking about nothing but affliction, I quote this verse too:

Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.

2 Nephi 3:12

This verse could practically be a mission statement: of this blog, of anything that I might hope to achieve with my thesis, with other stuff (those missionaries I commit to read the Old Testament). Because I love the Book of Mormon. I also love the Bible. I firmly believe that both are the greatest possible aid (save the Spirit) to understanding the other, and one can only obtain their full benefits by reading both. It will only be as we – individuals, church members, whoever – read, believe and apply both together that we will secure the blessings promised here.

Finally:

And out of weakness he shall be made strong, in that day when my work shall commence among all my people, unto the restoring thee, O house of Israel, saith the Lord.

2 Nephi 3:13

This is a theme found throughout scripture (I’m thinking of Ether 12:23-27 and 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 in particular): that God can make use of weakness, will use us despite (and sometimes even because) of our weakness, and that His grace is sufficient for us. One can often despair because of one’s failings. God’s grace, however, is sufficient for all and “is made perfect in weakness”.

1 Nephi 13

And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.

And they must come according to the words which shall be established by the mouth of the Lamb; and the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed, as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb; wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.

1 Nephi 13:40-41

This passage neatly describes how the Book of Mormon and Bible will work together: that the Book of Mormon will confirm the truth of the Bible, will restore those things that were omitted, and that both in unity will teach of Christ, of our need for him, and how to come to him.

I am struck, however, by the first line of verse 41: ‘and they must come to him according to the words which shall be established by the mouth of the lamb’. They, I take it, has reference to the ‘all men’ who ‘must come unto him, or they cannot be saved’ of the preceding lines. We must not only come to Christ, but we must come to him in the prescribed way; a way, fortunately, that we can find in his word in the scriptures.

1 Nephi 5

But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness.

1 Nephi 5:5

Lehi’s use of the past tense (“I have obtained”) catches my eye here. While some have pointed to this as the result of translation, I think it refers to Lehi’s confidence in God’s promise; he is so confident he speaks as if he has already been given it when he has barely left Jerusalem. I honestly wish for that level of confidence (though sometimes the question is to whether God has extended any particular promise).

That these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed.
Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time. And he prophesied many things concerning his seed.

1 Nephi 5:18-19

Nephi’s description of the Brass Plates’ contents is interesting on a number of details (its inclusion of five books of Moses before the Captivity contradicts certain composition theories held widely in Biblical studies; its history as a record held by descendants of Joseph may account for its inclusion of prophecies by Joseph of Egypt and others such as Zenos and Zenoch on the same family line). However, these verses are particularly striking as Lehi prophesies that the plates of brass will go among all nations (including his descendents) and be preserved. Does this refer to the actual collection in the Brass plates, or does it refer to the Bible and Old Testament whose contents are very similar?

The Scriptures – Harold B. Lee

I say that we need to teach our people to find their answers in the scriptures. If only each of us would be wise enough to say that we aren’t able to answer any question unless we can find a doctrinal answer in the scriptures! And if we hear someone teaching something that is contrary to what is in the scriptures, each of us may know whether the things spoken are false—it is as simple as that. But the unfortunate thing is that so many of us are not reading the scriptures. We do not know what is in them, and therefore we speculate about the things that we ought to have found in the scriptures themselves. I think that therein is one of our biggest dangers of today.

The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 153.

If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth

Harold B. Lee, The First Area General Conference for Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Spain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Munich Germany, August 24-26, 1973, with Reports and Discourses, 69.

God has spoken

Today I have came across an article, presumably by someone claiming to be a member of the Church, that makes the argument that God has never spoken on the subject of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I don’t seek these things out – I’m usually just browsing other blogs that I do like to read when I come across things like this. As it happens this article is hosted on the blog of an academic who is likewise a member, but who rejects the Church’s core beliefs and has prominent and publicly campaigned for their change. Following my general policy, I will not provide a link here to either this article or blog here, but I feel the argument itself must be addressed. This argument is based on the idea that modern revelation (including the Book of Mormon) do not address either homosexuality or same-sex marriage directly, and therefore God hasn’t said anything.

This latter claim is very wrong.

Modern revelation (at least the canonical material – the article tries to rule out both the Family Proclamation and anything said by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) indeed doesn’t address this subject directly. But that should hardly be surprising, since the Gospel encompasses so much more, and for most of us our sins, which would damn us just as surely, lie in other areas (one would think they would appreciate this sense of perspective). The only reason leaders have been and have had to have been more vocal on this issue recently is precisely because of the societal and legal pressure to deny God’s law in this area. Our personal sins, in any area, tend not to be a major threat to the Church as a whole. When people, both outside and inside the Church, do not believe that God has given commandments and campaign to change the Church’s teachings on this issue or any other issue, then the salvation of thousands is threatened. Modern scripture has plenty to say about that. But in any case it is true that our current canonical modern revelation does not comment directly on the specific issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage.

But that’s partly because they don’t need to. The article tries to quote the ninth article of faith, but in ignoring its first clause the author wrests the scriptures: “We believe all that God has revealed”. One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon itself is to confirm the truth of biblical teachings:

For behold, this is written for the intent that ye may believe that; and if ye believe that ye will believe this also; and if ye believe this ye will know concerning your fathers, and also the marvelous works which were wrought by the power of God among them.

(Mormon 7:9)

Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.

(2 Nephi 3:12)

Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;

(Doctrine and Covenants 20:11)

Since said modern revelation points to the Bible, one can’t simply choose to ignore it, as the article does (a big mistake). The article tries to claim that the only comments in the Bible on these subjects are those of Paul and in Deuteronomy. Firstly, these comments – for thousands of years – have not been considered to be remotely confusing on this topic. Moreover, not only does Paul mention the issue several times (in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6), but Deuteronomy is not the sole other reference (that the author missed Leviticus’s rather famous verse on this topic indicates at the very least profound carelessness). But most importantly, Christ himself addressed the topic of marriage, including notably in the following passage:

And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

(Matthew 19:4-6, quoting Genesis 2:23-24)

Sure Christ is using this reasoning to condemn divorce, as some commentators attempt to protest. It should surely be no surprise he’s not a fan of that either. But it is his reasons for such a condemnation that should attract our attention here: he bases this upon a divine commandment for marriage, one rooted in the fact that God “at the beginning made them male and female”, that marriage was the union of these two opposites, and such unions were intended to be permanent.

God most surely has spoken about lots of things, and will speak about many more. However, one can only conclude that God is silent upon this topic if one ignores “all that God has revealed”.

Christmas repost: Wise Men from the East

I posted my speculations as to the wise men a couple of years back, but it seemed seasonally appropriate to post again:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Matthew 2:1-2)

This obviously strikes a seasonal note, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. The story itself has had a long influence, including on ideas of gift giving and more recently in things like Henry Van Dyke’s story of “The Other Wise Man”, which perhaps encapsulates best in fictional form much of the real point of the whole thing.

However, I’ve been thinking a bit about the actual wise men themselves. Generally biblical studies tends to disregard them as fictional, as part of an overall scepticism towards the gospel narratives, but as anyone following this this blog will be aware, that’s not an approach I share. More recently I’ve come across claims of the mythicists (that is those who take the position that there was no such historical person as Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was invented out of Egyptian and Classical myth – very much a minority position), that is is some reference to an ‘alignment’ between the three stars on Orion’s belt (claimed to be called “the three kings” in Egyptian mythology, although I can only find reference to that name in modern languages) and Sirius on December the 25th – however, aside from the astronomical issues, this clearly ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not refer to three visitors (the number coming into the tradition from adding up the gifts), nor refer to them as kings. Furthermore, the nativity account precedes the actual attaching of a festival to the 25th of December by several centuries – the date is a late addition essentially for ecclesiastical convenience, not the actual anniversary. So this latter position relies on some myth making of its own.

Yet if one accepts the actual existence of the wise men, the question arises as to their identity. Where did they come from? There is little information in Matthew – that they were from the east and were ‘magi’ (Greek: μάγοι magoi, translated ‘wise men’ in the KJV). The latter term has suggested connections with Zoroastrianism, but the Greek use of the term had taken on a much wider definition many centuries before the Gospels. Some translations take this (along with the star connection) as referring to astrologers, but they are also subsequently warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod (Matt. 2:12), indicating there knowledge was not that obtained solely through stargazing. Even the timeframe is unclear – contrary to Nativities everywhere, that Hero’s killed all male children two years and younger may suggest a visit almost several years after Christ was born.

As a little thought for the season, I’d like to add one highly speculative possibility for Latter-day Saints: That at least some were connected with Book of Mormon peoples. We read in Helaman 16:14, a few short years before the birth of Christ:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

This verse has clear connection with the nativity accounts (with angels bringing ‘glad tidings of great joy’), and makes specific reference to ‘wise men’. However we also have some possible specific candidates. Samuel the Lamanite, after prophesying a specific time frame of 5 years for the birth of Christ and prophesying a ‘new star’ as one of signs of this (Hel. 14:2, 5), subsequently returns to his own people and then ‘he was never heard of more among the Nephites’ (Hel. 16:8). Likewise, Nephi son of Helaman, the year prior to the birth of Christ (and perhaps leaving time a little tight for any trips not involving supernatural assistance – though remember the extra timeframe!) passes the records to his son Nephi and then ‘he departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth’ (3 Nephi 1:2-3); unlike his great grandfather Alma, who pulled a similar trick over half a century earlier, there is no suggestion in the text here of possible translation.

Were Book of Mormon figures involved, this might also explain the facet of the story where the wise men turn up at the court of Herod in Jerusalem asking where the Messiah is born, a question Herod must ask the Chief Priests and Scribes who give the correct answer (Bethlehem) by referring to Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6). But since the only person to quote Micah in the Book of Mormon appears to be the risen Christ (3 Nephi 20-21), the people of the Book of Mormon may not have had Micah, leaving them without a vital clue. What they would have had is Alma 7:10, which prophesies Christ will be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’. This has been a frequent target for critics, who have failed to note that it specifies ‘land of our forefathers’. This is consistent both with the Book of Mormon’s habit of naming lands after their chief cities, and with Bethlehem being a village in walking distance of Jerusalem, but it would also have left travellers in need of an extra little information.

Thus, while extremely speculative, this idea does account for certain details of the story. However, I like to think that the strongest argument in its favour comes from a psychological angle. If the account be true, these men knew one of the greatest events in human history was about to occur. They knew when, and with a little uncertainty knew roughly where, and knew few others would be able to witness this. If you were in that position, wouldn’t you try to go?

Revisiting Deuteronomy #3: Deuteronomy in 1-2 Nephi

Please see the earlier posts for a description of what on earth I’m talking about, and specific criticisms of the argument that Laman and Lemuel were ‘Deuteronomists’, the hypothetical movement behind the reforms of King Josiah and which were inextricably involved in the composition and/or redaction of both Deuteronomy and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ (Joshua-1 Kings). Said ‘Deuteronomists’ also being – according to those who’ve advanced the theory – persecutors of such prophets as Jeremiah and Lehi.

In this section, I really wanted to address, albeit briefly, comments that Neal Rappleye made about the use of Deuteronomy by Nephi and Lehi. As Rappleye admits, ‘one such potential counter-argument to the thesis I have sketched above is the positive use of Deuteronomy by Nephi and Lehi themselves’.

Deuteronomy and Nephi

Unfortunately, while Rappleye goes on to state that he ‘will attempt to deal with one significant example of this’, he really doesn’t. Indeed, he doesn’t really provide a good description of the supposed example (an apparent connection between Lehi’s dying words in 2 Nephi 1-4 to the final address of Moses in Deuteronomy). He contents himself by quoting Reynolds claim that he has identified such parallels, but then moves swiftly to trying to explain it away.

There are problems with his explanation however. He begins by trying to make the claim that Lehi was not completely opposed to the reforms, and that opposing the ideology of the ‘Deuteronomists’ does not mean the same thing as opposing the book of Deuteronomy, or even Josiah. It is gratifying that Rappleye seems reluctant to throw Deuteronomy or Josiah under the bus. Unfortunately, as discussed in the last post, the supposed ideology of the hypothetical ‘Deuteronomists’ is in fact a work of reconstruction from Deuteronomy and the DH, and so their ‘ideology’ as far as is thought is inextricably connected to those books. And that reconstruction is based on the idea that those books are in fact the works of the ‘Deuteronomists’. Rappleye does not appear to share this view, apparently feeling that Deuteronomy precedes the reforms, but then the need for the existence of a school of ‘Deuteronomists’ becomes distinctly less pressing. It is likewise unclear how – if he was implementing their ideas – Josiah is likewise not to be implicated in the ideology of a group charged with suppressing vital parts of the Gospel (visions and messianic ideas) and which is charged with persecuting prophets to do it. When the most that Rappleye can allow is that Lehi saw the putative composers of the DH (as Rappleye recognises), a significant chunk of the Old Testament, as no more inspired than modern LDS may see the Protestant reformers, how can that not ultimately lead to said books, as well as potentially Deuteronomy itself (one of the books most quoted by the Saviour), being regarded as somehow less than scriptural? Unrepentant prophet-killers are not usually regarded as reliable composers or editors of scripture.

And, as much as Rappleye appears determined to avoid making that mistake, it does seem to colour his ideas of why Lehi and Nephi might make use of Deuteronomy, which appear to be nothing more in his eyes than attempts to appeal to Laman and Lemuel. Allusions to Moses are because ‘Lehi knew that Laman and Lemuel held Moses in high regard, and thus sought to use him as an archetype for his own calling.’ Stating that Lehi and Nephi were ‘certainly […] not anti-Moses’ hardly seems sufficient to capture their own attitude to someone who they considered a Prophet of God. It is Nephi, after all, who keeps mentioning Moses, not Laman and Lemuel.

As I mentioned when last discussing this topic several years ago, it is important to recognise that Nephi accepts the book of Deuteronomy as authoritative scripture. Nephi describes the plates of brass as containing ‘the five books of Moses’ (1 Nephi 5:11, my emphasis). He patterns his whole narrative according to that of the Exodus (and since Laman and Lemuel were never readers of the small plates, it wasn’t to impress them). The prominent and oft quoted refrain in the Book of Mormon that ‘inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper’ (1 Nephi 2:20) and its converse is certainly in keeping with Deuteronomistic themes. Finally Nephi explicitly quotes from Deuteronomy: In 1 Nephi 22:20 quoting Deuteronomy 18:15-19 and 2 Nephi 11:3 quoting Deuteronomy 19:15. In the former case he’s even quoting Deuteronomy for messianic purposes, one of the very ideas supposedly suppressed by the Deuteronomists (at least as asserted by Christensen). 1 and 2 Nephi do not justify any attitude that regards Deuteronomy as less than the word of God, something in keeping with the Book of Mormon’s whole approach to the Bible in which it aims to support and confirm it (e.g. in Mormon 7:9, and discussed somewhat more here). The Book of Mormon holds that the Bible is true, and contains the revelations of God. An approach that ultimately entails regarding large portions of the Bible with suspicion is not only inconsistent with what the Book of Mormon teaches about the Bible, it is also unsustainable. And yet it seems few who have played with these ideas have confronted these important consequences: that of losing scripture, a process that can rapidly deprive one of other scripture too (2 Nephi 28:29-30). If such ideas are wrong – and I believe they are and that I’ve shown significant problems with them – they can also carry a heavy price.

A final note

This last item does not perhaps contain the same importance as some of the other items I’ve addressed in the last couple of posts. The implications of believing that some of the practices suppressed by Josiah (and condemned by Jeremiah) were correct, or in regarding Deuteronomy or any of the books from Joshua to 2 Kings as having come from dubious hands, seem to me to be the most significant and problematic consequences for anyone embracing the proposed paradigm in full. But while this last point is not quite as vital, it is perhaps illustrative of some of the pitfalls in reading the Book of Mormon that this approach entails.

Right at the end of his article, Neal Rappleye suggests that, although Laman and Lemuel were wrong and Lehi and Nephi were true prophets, that ‘the contrast between Lehi and Nephi on one hand, and Laman and Lemuel on the other, no longer stands as the stark and obvious difference between good and evil’. ‘Instead’, he argues ‘it represents two competing religious ideologies’. This he feels ‘isn’t too different from our own world today’, and help us to understand how Laman and Lemuel could feel ‘that the indignation they directed at their father and brother was justified’.

People can indeed be sincerely wrong about a number of things (though sincerity, in and of itself, does not necessarily insulate one from the consequences), and its important to be able to recognise that. Yet this reading seems to so badly understate what happened with Laman and Lemuel. It’s not just that, as covered last post, they likely weren’t ‘Deuteronomists’ or particular pious (Nephi after all says they were ‘slow to remember the Lord’. 1 Nephi 17:45). But we’re talking about people who actually saw an angel (1 Nephi 3:29-30), and who heard the voice of the Lord (1 Nephi 16:39), who could not hear the ‘still small voice’ because they were ‘past feeling’, and so had God speak to them ‘like unto the voice of thunder’, and who still hardened their hearts (1 Nephi 17:45-46). It is likely that for a while there was a tension within them – for a while they do repent from time to time, after all – but they ultimately chose to become hardened. And the same can happen to us, no matter what spiritual experiences we’ve had or what things we’ve been through, if we harden our hearts. While there is a danger in being a sincere but deluded fanatic (Romans 10:2), it strikes me that Laman and Lemuel speak to a more basic problem we mortals face, that does ultimately mean a ‘stark’ choice between ‘good and evil’, the good and evil tugging at all our hearts. We should not underestimate our capacity for baseness should we succumb, nor the capacity for such mundane things as a desire for comfort, or murmuring, or jealously to drag us down. But at the same time – like Lehi and Nephi – if we humble ourselves, remember the Lord our God and keep his commandments we can be blessed more than we imagine and be blessed to be more than we imagine. And perhaps some of the best counsel on how to do that is to be found in the book of Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
(Deuteronomy 6:4–8)

The things that are written

I originally wrote much of the below as an article for another site but, as it seems they have decided not to pick it up, I am hereby publishing it anyway. With the passing of Elder Packer, this seems somewhat appropriate considering his love of the written word of God.

At the time I wrote it, there had been a lot of arguments among LDS circles online as to the ‘historicity’ of scripture, meaning the extent to which the events recorded in scripture actually happened. At the time, these had attracted some heated arguments, which is understandable because they end up carrying a lot of implications. Whether certain events happened is of vital importance to our faith. For example, whether the resurrection of Christ happened is not just a historical question of interest only to those who wonder at the disposition of the Saviour’s body, but is an event that has consequences for the future destiny of our bodies and souls. As Paul states, ‘if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen, then neither does ours.

But as important as these issues are, I noticed that there seemed to have been some other basic issues involved that escaped (and continue to escape) notice. The really big issue is what we mean by the very terms scripture and inspiration. What we mean when we say that certain books are ‘the word of God’ (8th Article of Faith) shapes our whole approach to scripture and how we read it. And this is not an academic question, but one with potentially eternal consequences. Yet some of those debating historicity appear to have used these terms without realising that others held very different, and incompatible, definitions for them. Thus one individual, who argued that the question of historicity could be separated from the spiritual worth of the scriptures, stated:

The historicity of scripture is not a matter of faith. It is an issue of critical analysis and academic inquiry. On the other hand, the inspiration of scripture, meaning its ability to assist readers access divinity, can never be a matter of critical analysis and academic inquiry. Instead, much like beauty, inspiration is found in the eye of the beholder.¹

What should be noticed here is how inspiration has been redefined as a reader-centred activity. The inspiration of a given book is to be weighed by the extent to which the reader is able to find something helpful in it (and ‘access divinity’ is a particularly woolly expression of this). But this is not a universal view. Crime and Punishment and Lord of the Rings have had a powerful effect on my life, and led me to be a better person, but I would not define them as scripture. Nor is it likely that the other participants in these discussions shared this definition of inspiration. The implications of this view follow rapidly: inspiration ‘is found in the eye of the beholder’. The suggestion is that it is what the reader does, and not an objective quality in the book itself, that makes a book scripture.

This view is not new. Liberal Protestant theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith made a similar argument in his book What is Scripture?. Claiming that ‘scripture is a human activity’ (although being careful to clarify that this isn’t a statement about authorship), Smith argues that it is the relationship between a text and a community that makes a text scripture (p.1, 17-21). Thus ‘scriptures are not texts’, because their scriptural status is not dependent upon anything innate to a work, but is rather conferred upon it by the reader treating the text in a certain way. This idea has been very influential in academia, particularly for those who wish to divorce the possible value of a text from the question of its origin.

Yet despite its influence, Smith’s approach and his focus on the reader suffers from a number of drawbacks. He appears to hold that merely because a work is referred to as scripture in an academic sense it must also be scripture in a theological sense, conflating the sociological with the supernatural. He also devalues the content of the text in favour of a vague sense of the ‘holy’ (p.230-235). Overt meanings are ‘superseded’ in favour of something ‘transcendent’ (shades here of ‘accessing divinity’) that Smith believes cannot even be articulated, the feeling of which takes priority over all other forms of engagement with scripture, including actually reading it. Thus, compared to the feelings of the reader or even non-reader, the content is ultimately left rather superfluous, a very unsatisfactory position. And the very idea that it is what the reader does that makes scripture scripture seems ill-fitting with statements from Latter-day scripture that appear to teach the opposite, such as Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 where it is inspiration from the Holy Ghost that makes something scripture, an innate quality that makes something scripture from the start.

LDS proponents of these ideas appear to have appealed to idea of the fallibility of human beings, and the admission in the Book of Mormon that it may contain ‘the mistakes of men’ (Book of Mormon Title page). It is certainly true that the Book of Mormon does not teach that scripture must be completely without any kind of error. But its depiction of the process of receiving and recording scripture goes far beyond this. A closer look is warranted.

The receiving and recording of Scripture in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is particularly vocal about the process of its own creation, far more so than the Bible. We do not know the identity of the author(s) of Joshua to 2 Kings for instance (the putative “Deuteronomistic historian”, first theorized by Martin Noth as the author of the whole unit, remains nameless and conjectural), but we are left in little doubt throughout the Book of Mormon as to who is narrating at nearly every point. Likewise the Book of Mormon also describes the creation of the very medium upon which it is recorded, the chain of transmission for its major sources and the selection of material to be written in it (e.g. 1 Nephi 6, 1 Nephi 19:1-6, Words of Mormon 1:3-7, 3 Nephi 5:8-18 and many more). The Book of Mormon’s self-consciousness about its own composition thus offers valuable insights into the process of scriptural composition.

These details have been neglected in this discussion. While – understandably – some LDS scholars have been keen to apply the possible insights of biblical studies and related fields to the Book of Mormon, insufficient attention has been given to the way in which the Book of Mormon’s claims undermine many of the key assumptions that lie behind these ideas. Now someone could conceivably reject the Book of Mormon’s own account of itself (as those who reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon must), and yet seek to try and retain some measure of ‘spiritual value’ in the work. But in that case they could not claim to accept the Book of Mormon as inspired or as scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon itself uses those terms.

For the Book of Mormon makes very strong claims in these regards. As much as the making of the Book of Mormon, with its named individuals painstakingly placing words on actual metal plates and passing them down hand by hand, is very human, it is also very divine. As just a cursory look reveals, the making of the records is stated to be under divine command (1 Nephi 19:2-3, 3 Nephi 5:14), as is the selection of the contents (W. of M. 1:6-7, 3 Nephi 26:11-12). The preservation of the records is an act of divine power in fulfilment of promises by God (Enos 1:15-16, Mosiah 1:5, Alma 37:4). The authors claim prophetic foresight of their future audience (Mormon 8:34-35), and to have been given and be writing the very ‘words of Christ’, in some cases receiving instruction ‘face to face’ (2 Nephi 33:10, Ether 12:39). Thus the opening words of the Book of Mormon claim that it was ‘written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and revelation’ (Title Page).

Perhaps the most illustrative episode of how the human and divine interact in the composition of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3 Nephi 23, where the risen Christ inspects the records kept by Nephi. The Saviour spots that a prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite had been omitted and commands its inclusion (v.9-13). What is of interest here is that a human error has occurred – ‘it had not been written’ (v.12) – but the Saviour affirms that he had commanded Samuel to utter his prophecy (v.9), the disciples that it came true (v.10), and under the direction of risen Deity the mistake is corrected (v.13). Thus the very words of Samuel the Lamanite were inspired in that they were directly commanded by God, and – despite the involvement of fallible humans – the record-keeping process is likewise under divine supervision.

In all of this, there is no suggestion that the inspiration of scripture is to be found in what the reader does to it. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Book of Mormon is keen to assert that many readers will get it wrong. ‘For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and the soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet’ says Nephi (1 Nephi 19:7), who elsewhere goes on to state that ‘there are many that harden their hearts against the holy spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore they cast many things which are written and esteem them as things of naught’ (2 Nephi 33:2). The worth of scripture is not assessed by the reader, but rather the standing of the reader by their receptiveness to scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30). Both Nephi and Moroni state that they will stand as witnesses at the final judgement that the Book of Mormon itself is true, regardless of the reader, ‘for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words at the last day’ (2 Nephi 33:11) and ‘ye shall know I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you’ (Moroni 10:27). Inspiration is certainly not in the eye of the beholder, for many beholders will get it wrong, and the Book of Mormon remains scripture whatever its readers make of it.

Nor, for that matter, are inspiration and revelation as shown within the Book of Mormon about something wholly other, ‘transcendent’ or completely beyond nature. Nephi is guided to food (1 Nephi 16:23-30), is directed to ore and given instructions on how to build a ship (1 Nephi 17:8-10) and his family led to an actual place. Alma the Elder is informed of his pursuers (Mosiah 23:24) while his son receives revelation on the location of an army (Alma 43:24). Above all, the risen Christ in 3 Nephi is not some spectre, but has an actual body, and a full crowd ‘did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet’ (3 Nephi 11:15). And these revelations and divine encounters are paradigmatic, ‘for he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as times to come’ (1 Nephi 10:19). Thus revelation in the Book of Mormon has content, beyond the vaguely ‘transcendent’, sometimes involving things in the material world, and while such accounts can have symbolic meanings too (as the Book of Mormon itself applies to the Liahona in Alma 37:43-46) the reality of these revelations is intended to serve both as a demonstration and a model for what should be happening in the lives of its readers.

While the Book of Mormon is more explicit about its own creation than it is about the Bible (and has the advantage of its translation being ‘by the power and gift of God’, Title Page), it does not hesitate to make similar claims about the Bible. Isaiah saw the redeemer (2 Nephi 11:2) and according to the risen Saviour all his words will be fulfilled (3 Nephi 23:3); Malachi was given his words by the Father (3 Nephi 24:1). Like the Book of Mormon itself, Isaiah is seen as writing towards future audiences, for it is particularly in ‘the last days’ that people shall understand his prophecies (2 Nephi 25:7-8, a claim that conflicts with the assumptions about the “intended” or “contemporary” audience). The Book of Mormon aims not to challenge the Bible, but to ‘establish the truth’ of it (1 Nephi 13:39-40); it ‘is written for the intent that ye may believe that’ (Mormon 7:9). The difficulty with the Bible as described in the Book of Mormon is that ‘plain and precious things’ have been removed (1 Nephi 13:28), not that the remainder has been corrupted (attempts to suggest Jacob 4:14 to imply more thoroughgoing changes fail to note that the verse is referring to God’s actions relative to scripture, not man’s). According to the Book of Mormon the Bible is incomplete, but is true and inspired by God in the same sense that it talks about itself. Any approach to the scriptures which preserves the former but marginalises the latter runs into severe difficulties with the Book of Mormon’s own claims, including that the two shall ‘grow together’ (2 Nephi 3:12).

Finally, too much can be made of those passages in the Book of Mormon that make allowance for human weakness. Most couple the admission with warnings to ‘condemn not the things of God’ (Title Page, see also Mormon 8:12, Mormon 8:17 and Mormon 9:31), suggesting that the sight of human involvement should not cloud the view of the divine hand in both the book’s composition and compilation. Certain passages make allowance for error but without requiring it, as Mormon 8:17 does with ‘but behold, we know of no fault’, though other passages do concede ‘imperfections’ (Mormon 8:12). However, when we examine examples where allowance is made for specific sorts of flaws, these flaws have a more limited scope than it seems some have assumed.

Thus although Nephi admits the possibility of error in his selection of the sacred in 1 Nephi 19:6, his warning in verse 7 that men fail to recognise and ‘trample’ the sacred turns this passage more into a warning that readers may fail to acknowledge and obey the voice of God. 3 Nephi 8:2’s dating of the death of Christ appears to acknowledge the possibility of error with its caveat that ‘if there was no mistake made by this man [meaning Nephi son of Nephi] in the reckoning of our time’, but this is a minor matter of chronology, the exact dating of the death and resurrection being minor matters of no consequence compared to its actually occurring. Similarly, Moroni laments that the ‘Gentiles’ will mock ‘the placing of our words’ (Ether 12:23-25) and states that some ‘imperfections’ are due to their choice of language for: ‘if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have no imperfection in our record’ (Mormon 9:32-33). He is thus speaking of syntax and grammar, again comparatively minor matters. There is no suggestion in this that there are any doctrinal errors or mistakes in the Book of Mormon’s teaching. Just because the Book of Mormon does not support inerrancy (the idea that scripture must be without any error, no matter how minor in its grammar or mathematics) does not mean that it automatically provides justification for some theory of errancy where its divine message is inseparably corrupted with the ideas of men. It certainly doesn’t support the idea that the message is so blended that the divine elements can only be sifted out by professional scholars relying on human learning.

In conclusion, the Book of Mormon does not cooperate with Cantwell Smith’s conception of scripture. It makes its demands on the reader (whom, on occasion, it addresses directly) on the basis of the innate qualities it claims for itself, as a work that was written, compiled, transmitted and translated by divine means, regardless of the readers’ reactions. Revelation and inspiration are considered to be objective phenomena that contain content. While the Book of Mormon makes allowance for minor human error it also fiercely maintains the truth and divinity of its message, and its consequent authority over its readers, so much so that it will be an issue at the final judgement.

It is instructive in one passage where Moroni is anxious about his ‘weakness in writing’ how the Lord chooses to respond to his concerns. Amid the Lord’s reassurances, the Lord states that his ‘grace is sufficient for the meek’, meaning not Moroni, for the meek ‘shall take no advantage of your weakness’ (Ether 12:26, my emphasis). Rather, as he goes on to state, for those who recognise their weaknesses and humble themselves and have faith before God, the Lord’s grace will ‘make weak things becomes strong unto them’ (v.27). This has often been read as referring to our personal weaknesses (and surely the principle applies), but the ‘weak’ thing Moroni is asking for reassurance over are not personal faults, but the very book he is writing. It is as we the readers recognise our own weaknesses and humble ourselves that the Book of Mormon becomes strong to us. For as the Book of Mormon teaches elsewhere, ‘out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged’ (3 Nephi 27:25-26). At the end of all days, we are not going to be measuring scripture, but will be measured by it. If we take scripture seriously, as the word of God, we must begin to let scripture judge us.

 


¹ I’ve chosen to omit names, my usual practice for this blog at moments like this, primarily because I’m trying to make this about the ideas rather than something more personal.

Reasons to read the Old Testament #4

Confused at the genealogies in the Gospels? Wonder at who these Jews are, and what they are expecting, and why the Christ was born among them? What is this Temple place? Do you wonder where the titles “son of David” and “son of man” come from, and why they are important? Do you know where Christ got the two great commandments from?

I don’t recall ever reading the New Testament without some familiarity with the Old, so I have trouble imagining what that is like. I do know one is likely to miss a lot, though. The history of the people of the New Testament is established in the Old. The New quotes the Old frequently (often without saying so), and the meaning of many key phrases can only be understood in light of the Old. Christ and the Apostles were immersed in the Old Testament, teaching many people who were likewise immersed, and about things that are the culmination of the Law and many of the prophecies and hopes of the Old Testament writers. One reason for Latter-day Saints to read the Old Testament then is simply because it will allow them to better understand the New Testament.