What’s Wrong with Ancient Research in Mormon Studies

Mormon Studies has become a relic area for outdated ideas about texts and their transmission. That becomes clear in reading a number of contributions to Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy (FARMS, 2005).

For most of the last 2000 years, the central concern of textual interpretation lay in determining how to properly read the Bible. The variety of manuscript readings represented a significant problem for people who believed in biblical inerrancy. The scholarly solution of previous centuries was to assume that copyists’ mistakes had crept into the text over time, replacing the original textual unity with corrupt variant readings. Scholarly editions were strongly influenced by the idea that careful analysis of the variant readings could recover the original text, and that the purpose of an edition was to restore the author’s original intent. (For a brief overview of the history of textual criticism, see the first sections of this article.)

Alas, attempting to recover lost original texts ultimately fails, both in theory and in practice. For epics as well as for Exodus, there is no original, pure, perfect text. Instead, the earliest textual witnesses often show a high degree of variation. Not only do authors tend to tell a tale more than once and vary the form each time, but many, perhaps most texts have no authors in the modern sense at all; they circulate as community property that can change at each retelling. Textual unity comes only later through a process of canon formation. At each stage of its transmission, a text has to meet the needs of its momentary readers, not an absent or long-dead author. While there were certainly careless scribes, most were conscientious readers who often knew two or more versions of the text and made conscious choices about what to include or omit. Even access to an unblemished original would not answer every question about a text, because reading and writing are forever and always interpretive acts. Meaning arises when readers engage with texts, and even an autograph manuscript is not semantically self-contained.

Different forces come into play with scriptural transmission, of course; textual authenticity and authority become paramount and interpretation takes place in an institutional framework. But the New Testament was not scripture, and not subject to the forces of scriptural transmission, until the various processes of canon formation (with all its compromises between competing interests and institutional needs) had taken place.

The realization that there was no original papyrus containing Matthew, all of Matthew, and nothing but Matthew does not undermine the whole project of textual criticism. In fact, it is only possible to do textual criticism once one takes into account the actual history of texts, rather than a flawed model of stemmatic descent. It is still possible to argue that one sentence reflects an earlier stage of the text, and another is a later addition, while the question of authenticity is a different matter entirely: whether a particular verse was in the earliest manuscripts of John does not settle the question of its authenticity as a witness to early Christian belief. A spectacular archeological discovery is not going to put an end to controversy.

But Mormon scholars writing about ancient texts still assume the existence of inerrant originals. In “The Corruption of Scripture in Early Christianity,” John Gee argues that textual corruption consists of the “deliberate or unintentional changing of the text, either through the expansion, deletion, or alteration of the passage’s faulty interpretation (either exegesis or translation), and manipulation of the canon (which books are considered scripture).” Not only is this definition impossibly overbroad, but it gets the nature of textual transmission backwards: there was no early Christian scripture, no books of the New Testament, until after processes of expansion, deletion, alteration, interpretation, translation, and, finally, canonization (the ultimate manipulation of the canon!) had brought it into existence.

Noel Reynolds, in his introductory essay to Early Christians in Disarray, “What Went Wrong for the Early Christians?” notes that Nephi, in his vision of a great and abominable church, saw that “the devil’s church took away many parts of the gospel, and later took away many precious things out of the Bible.” To this Reynolds adds an anecdote:

A few years ago I had a personal experience that confirmed Nephi’s account in a dramatic way. I was a guest of the director of the Vatican Library in Rome, and he brought out their fourth century copy of the complete Greek Bible for me to see – Codex Vaticanus B. The first page we looked at had numerous erasures, additions, and changes written right on the page in different inks and different hands I asked, pointing to some of these, ‘What is that?’ The reply: ‘Oh, that’s where they made corrections.’

Curiously, this anecdote is offered as a debunking of the myth that the Roman Catholic Church is the diabolical organization of 1 Nephi. Even more curiously, Reynolds notes recent scholarship on the development of the New Testament canon, yet he still sees manuscript corrections as evidence for the devil’s handiwork in corrupting an original text.

John Welch’s contribution, “Modern Revelation: A Guide to Research about the Apostasy,” suffers from a similar view of textual transmission. With reference to the same passages from Nephi’s vision, Welch analyzes the parable of the wheat and the tares as reflected in its telling in Matthew 13:24-30, its interpretation in Matthew 13:37-43, emendations from the JST, and D&C 86:1-8. It is a reasonable exercise in scriptural interpretation. Unfortunately, Welch wants to do textual history: “Consideration of six differences between the wording of these four texts sheds light on how these texts relate to each other and which is more likely the original version of the parable given by Jesus during his Galilean ministry.” Welch suggests later that the “modern revelation might reflect a restoration of the original.” But this is the textual equivalent of Creation Science. There are, first of all, the groundless assumptions that Christ told the parable only once, and that it was recorded only once, and that there were no other versions of the story already known to the evangelist – all of which are very possibly mistaken. Also, as a matter of textual criticism, D&C 86 is not a tenable witness to an Aramaic parable spoken many centuries previously. Devotional insights from the scriptures are welcome, but contrary to the chapter’s title, they are not a guide to research. Nephi’s vision of an uncorrupted Gospel does not compel Mormon textual scholars to accept an antiquated notion of uncorrupted gospels or a hopeless agenda of recovering them.

Mormon teaching is actually quite well prepared for the complexities of textual transmission. After all, Mormonism may be the only religious movement named for an editor, and our defining work of scripture proclaims itself an abridgment of other records. We understand that scripture is not inerrant, that it can be marred by human error, that it is not complete, and that multiple accounts of God’s actions in the world represent a welcome improvement over biblical singularity. Mormon truth claims rest on belief in continuing revelation, not on the possession or recovery or interpretation of an original text. The scriptures that we have, for all their imperfections, still merit divine approval, canonical status in the church, and our own careful study. Although Mormons sometimes think of the JST as a recreation of the original text, it is much more a prophetic commentary on an existing text, adding to the stock of possible readings rather than reducing the variants to a single possibility – that Joseph Smith’s notes on the Bible consist of English words and not Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic ones makes clear that his concern was how we understand the scriptures, not the recovery of a lost original. Possessing the original manuscript of Matthew, if such a thing existed, would not make the Bible more or less the word of God, nor would translating it correctly be any less necessary, or contentious. It’s a good thing that Mormon scholars are working on ancient documents, because I think Mormonism can bring a unique and valuable perspective to the task. I just don’t see that a Mormon contribution to textual scholarship entails clinging to an outdated notion of textual descent.

57 comments for “What’s Wrong with Ancient Research in Mormon Studies

  1. I see that reading Early Christians in Disarray has been on my list of things to do since Julie’s review from a while back. There are quite a few good essays in the book that are well worth your time, especially not that the whole thing is available online.

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking exercise. I think you raise some excellent points here but would respond with a hope that you, likewise, are not overreaching in this analysis.

    For example, in critiquing John Gee’s essay, you note the following:

    Not only is this definition [of textual corruption] impossibly overbroad, but it gets the nature of textual transmission backwards: there was no early Christian scripture, no books of the New Testament, until after processes of expansion, deletion, alteration, interpretation, translation, and, finally, canonization (the ultimate manipulation of the canon!) had brought it into existence.

    Although you make a valid point about the inadvisability of overbroad definitions and generalizations, this sweeping statement appears to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Do “modern” approaches to textual scholarship and textual descent really require rejection of the notion that at some point in real time, there was an original (perhaps the word “first” would cause less objection?) manuscript of e.g. the Book of Matthew, which first manuscript was copied but then destroyed or lost (or not) but the copies of the first were distributed, copied again, distributed more widely, memorized, written down again, circulated, and eventually collected together with other similar copies of other first manuscripts of other New Testament books hundreds of years after the authors of the first manuscripts had written them? You state A spectacular archeological discovery is not going to put an end to controversy. It might be true that controversy would still exist about the meaning of Christian doctrines and beliefs if we discovered a first-century manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew but wouldn’t that document make a difference if its wording and doctrines more closely resembled LDS wording and beliefs than post 350 A.D. wording and beliefs?

    Common sense seems to demand that at some point there was a first manuscript of each of the books that now constitute the New Testament, even if they weren’t each contained in a single papyrus containing just that one “book” and nothing else. I doubt you are really taking issue with this but rather with the notion of trying to somehow divine the content of such first manuscript from what exists today. But as long as we think there was a first manuscript, and our faith teaches us that the content of what exists today does not coincide with the content of that first manuscript (even acknowledging, as I think Mormons must, that even the first manuscript would not be considered “inerrant” and “sufficient” in the way that creedal Christians have deified the Bible), then I believe that there will always be an urge to try to figure out what the first manuscript contained. This is the impetus, I would think, behind e.g. Welch’s article — an impetus that is not only not misplaced in our faith tradition but actually, when informed by our faith, perhaps one of the most probably courses to take in deciphering what might have been included initially but is now lost. This does not necessarily presuppose an inerrant original but rather simply an original. The inerrant angle here seems like a red herring, actually.

    These articles are written with Latter-day Saints as the audience, rather than as an apologetic against the attacks of Church critics. As such, the shared faith of the audience and the writers should be factored in here, even if it forces the book into the category of devotional literature, as you note in appropriate in the original post. It is still informative and educational for believing Latter-day Saints, which I think is the purpose. I doubt that any of the writers involved in the book think that the essays here will be persuasive to anyone, whether scholars or lay people, who do not believe that a Great Apostasy occurred and that a Restoration happened.

    But please don’t misunderstand this comment — I think you have aptly described the problems with trying to recover original content, particularly where an “inerrant” original is concerned. Luckily, we as Mormons should not view ourselves as obligated to believe in an inerrant original, believing as we do that even prophets are only people and that even scriptural texts are the products of editors, such as Mormon, as you note.

  3. It’s difficult to put aside the notion that Biblical originals where tampered with when one considers how the Book of Mormon is plain in it’s account of original “hard-copies” being transmitted from one generation to another. We assume the same may have been true (to some extent) among folks in the east–and I think that’s a fair assumption.

  4. The 8th article of faith “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” is commonly understood as meaning that at one point the texts of the Bible were the uncorrupted word of God, inerrant originals, if you will.

    But Mormon scholars writing about ancient texts still assume the existence of inerrant originals.

    You could argue that scholars should be the ones leading the way to a more informed, enlightened approach to textual analysis, but don’t be surprised that the majority are still looking for evidence to support established opinion.

  5. \”Mormon truth claims rest on belief in continuing revelation, not on the possession or recovery or interpretation of an original text.\”

    Excellent point, and well-said.

  6. John, thanks for your comment, which needs a long response. I think it’s a mistake to confuse chronological priority with authority. Imagine a case where Matthew writes a first draft of his gospel, then returns to the subject a decade later and writes a new version. Which is the real Book of Matthew? Why assume that Matthew only wrote his gospel once, or twice? He wasn’t using a xerox machine. Every time he wrote or retold the story, there will be changes to fit the situation and the audience. Why assume that the first manuscript written by Matthew is superior to one to which, say, Alphaeus attaches a couple parables and miracle stories that all the oldest saints vouch for, but that Matthew left out? In that case, returning to Matthew’s version would result in a diminuition of our knowledge. These kinds of situations are not uncommon in textual history, and we simply don’t know which of these possible scenarios apply to Matthew. If we found the very first manuscript, how would we recognize it as such?

    The notion of originality also obscures the evangelist’s use of prior oral and literary sources. Writing Matthew meant a process of expanding, deleting, altering, interpreting, etc., or in other words, all those processes that Gee regards as corruption. But that’s how writing works, whether for Matthew or for later redactors. I really am taking issue with the notion of original manuscripts, because it projects a canonical and fixed state back onto a time when the text was fluid, and because it leads us to regard manuscripts as decayed witnesses of a lost original, rather than as positive evidence for the state of the text in a particular place and time, and because it replaces questions about validity of belief with questions about textual history. I agree that various versions can contain clues about what earlier, lost versions may have looked like, and that it’s useful to try puzzling these issues out, but not only is caution required concerning the results, but the exercise does not necessarily move us closer to a single original text.

    Consider one of the stupider controversies in Mormon history, concerning Joseph Smith’s various accounts of the first vision. We don’t call one version original, and the rest of them corrupt. Each version emphasizes different aspects of the story, and that’s a good thing. If the First Vision video incorporates elements from different accounts, does that make it a contaminated version of the story? No. The film reflects our devotional needs at the current moment, and keeping the versions separate is entirely beside the point.

    The whole point of the Book of Mormon in our faith tradition, I think, is that God did not speak once and for all to his disciples a few thousand years ago. As such, it seems pointless to ask, in a Mormon context, which version of a parable is the original one, when we believe that God keeps speaking to everybody. I see no support in Mormon belief for the assumption that parables exist in one and only one form, or that what God says to Joseph Smith has any necessary connection to what he had said to the original apostles.

  7. Great post Jonathan. Another thinking point besides the accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision is changes in editions of the Book of Mormon: somehow these were enlightened, but changes in the ancient biblical texts were inherently corrupt? Change per se isn’t necessarily wrong, as any editor knows, and the original not necessarily pure or right.

  8. re # 6, great answer. Thanks. I certainly agree with your description of how these texts came to be:

    The notion of originality also obscures the evangelist’s use of prior oral and literary sources. Writing Matthew meant a process of expanding, deleting, altering, interpreting, etc., or in other words, all those processes that Gee regards as corruption. But that’s how writing works, whether for Matthew or for later redactors.

    And I also agree with much of your conclusion as to meaning. My concern is just that we don’t discourage the pursuit of what truths have gone missing through the loss of plain and precious parts. Luckily, I believe that the pattern is that those are revealed again through the Restoration and latter-day revelation. But as it is indeed a Restoration, it will always be valuable to seek understanding of the original thing that is being restored. To be sure, removing certain plain and precious parts from certain parables can dramatically alter meanings.

  9. I think the larger problem is with the assumption (which is sometimes only implied), that the original text is going to some how get us to the ‘original intent’ of the author(s).

  10. Really great post, Jonathan — this is one of the best discussions of the topic that I’ve seen in the bloggernacle.

  11. And I should also point out that John F.’s does make an important point that it’s entirely possible to go overboard with the application of any academic development, trendy or otherwise. At the end of the day, people still need readable editions of the Bible, and the Bible is still worth reading.

  12. re: #4 – In turning to the 8th Article of Faith, you equate “[uncorrupted] word of God” with “inerrant [originals]”. While I think that’s a common equation among church membership, I don’t know that it is justified. I believe that the qualifier “of God”, i.e. “word of God”, “church of God”, does not mean inerrant or perfect.

  13. Excellent post. I’ve enjoyed these recent critical reflections that you’ve posted about LDS understandings of ancient Christianity. I have not much to add, except to suggest the work of eminent textual critic Eldon Epp to suppliment some of your critiques of the search for the “original” text as being an impossible and pointless exercise.

  14. I think we as Latter-day Saints need to carry these thoughts to our own restoration texts. What do we mean by ‘inerrancy’ and ‘originals’ when discussing our own scriptures? For example, consider Helaman’s letter to Moroni in Alma 56-58. What is the inerrant and/or original text of this passage? Is it the current 1981 edition? The 1830 edition? The original JS manuscript? The actual vocalized words which Joseph Smith uttered to his scribe? Is it the reformed egyptian version on the plates? Is it the Helaman’s record? Or is it the actual letter which Helaman sent to Moroni? If it’s any of the former count as the inerrant and original word of God, then what do we mean by that? If it is only the former that counts, what does it mean to be the inerrant word of God anyways? Or should this military report not be considered the word of God? If not, when does Helaman’s military report become scripture?

    How should we understand the sudden shift from the first to third person in Alma 56:52-53 in this context?

    What about Alma and Amulek’s sermon in Alma 9-14? What is the original and inerrant word of God here? How do these sermons differnt from general conference talks? If there is no difference, why shouldn’t the latter be considered the inerrant word of God?

    What about 1 Nephi 11:18? Which version is the original inerrant word of God? The original “mother of God” or Joseph Smith’s 1838 edit to “mother of the Son of God”?

    How should we understand the many and drastic changes between the revelations of the Book of Commandments and the Doctrine and Covenants?

    We may claim that all of these changes were okay because they were inspired, but then how does that different from most of the many intentional changes made to biblical texts?

  15. Furthermore, how can we guarantee our scriptures have not lost plain and precious things in there transmissions? Our Book of Mormon has surely gone through several transmission since their original vocalization by BofM prophets and their current 1981 version. Even if we appeal to the original JS manuscript there are several layers of transmission that we have no access to. We may assert our faith that God oversaw the process to ensure that nothing was significantly or importantly changed/lost. That’s fine. But it seems like when traditional Christians make the same appeal of faith for the texts of the Bible, we have a tendency to scoff at the idea.

  16. Interesting analysis, but I’m really not as convinced as you are about the misguidedness of stemmatic trajectories. One of the things I have learned from narrative criticism is that the way things are ordered in each of the gospels is not the haphazard result of materials “circulat[ing] as community property that can change at each retelling.” That may be an accurate description of the “Q” source, but the gospels as we have them do appear to have been deliberately assembled each with their own distinct theological emphases and narrative unity. So yes, it would be a mistake to think of the gospel authors composing their writings from pure inspiration, yes, the gospels and some of their variations result from the use of variable source material, yes, the idea that the original is more reliable can be misleading, and yes, it would be a mistake to accuse the abominable Catholic Church of deliberate fraud in removing plain and precious things. But I still think that each gospel had an original text, and that stemmatic trajectories can help us more or less recover it.

  17. Jonathan,

    Excellent post! Very well stated. Your critique concisely and cogently captures some of the inherent problems with any quest for the original text. I wonder if you’d agree that a very similar motivation lay at the heart of so much in the quest for the historical Jesus, or historical Moses, or historical Abraham, etc.? A few years back (July 2005), Time magazine ran a feature titled “Uncovering the Real Abe Lincoln,” and whenever I see these approaches, I’m reminded of what appears to be a common historicist-type impulse that drives so much in these efforts

    As you’ve rightly indicated, the quest for the original text or manuscript, and what I see in the search for the historical person, seems to naturally coincide with the desire for a most originary interpretation or understanding. I think the two (object & exegesis) are definitely sides of the same coin, however, as critiques such as those given by Hans George Gadamer in his “Truth and Method” amply show (at least IMHO), there are insuperable problems in any affirmation of a singular, final, ultimate, or best understanding. Such ambitions are deeply misguided from the outset. (cf. Gadamer’s entire chapter “Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience”, but especially the first major section)

    Having said that, however, I wonder if the very notion of being a restoration movement–one which whose very self-understanding hangs on the idea that it is the re-creation and re-establishment of a *supposed* original religious movement–is an indication that such approaches to texts, people, and traditions is ultimately unavoidable in Mormonism? For better or worse, the whole discourse seems to be shot through with a historicist/objectivist impulse from the outset.

  18. Alas, attempting to recover lost original texts ultimately fails, both in theory and in practice.

    There\’s actually a significant scholarly, non-LDS debate over the existence of Urtexts that doesn\’t center on inerrancy or the spiritual need to recover some original author\’s intent. What you have overlooked in your post is the fact that there are *far more* similarities than there are differences in these versions and recensions, which makes it difficult to say that multiple sources and retellings contributed in a significant way to the genesis of the scripture. Sure, this existed at the level of oral tradition, but once it gets written down, it is pretty standard. The changes that most textual critics are debating are minute. In only one case does it appear that an entire verse was lost from the Hebrew Bible through scribal error. And, certainly, some things were added, \”expanded\”, but again we\’re talking about small phrases for the most part. When it comes to textual variation and the question of originals, it we\’ve got to account more for the similarity rather than for the difference.

    Not only do authors tend to tell a tale more than once and vary the form each time, but many, perhaps most texts have no authors in the modern sense at all; they circulate as community property that can change at each retelling. Textual unity comes only later through a process of canon formation.

    This is not accurate when it comes to text criticism. You make it sound like the textual variants are a result of telling a tale more than once and varying it each time, and, at least in the Hebrew Bible, the variants are manifestly *not* the result of retellings. And textual unity did not arise solely through canon formation! It was happening long before canonical concerns came into play. Can you give an example of what you\’re talking about?

    At each stage of its transmission, a text has to meet the needs of its momentary readers, not an absent or long-dead author. While there were certainly careless scribes, most were conscientious readers who often knew two or more versions of the text and made conscious choices about what to include or omit.

    Can you give an example? You\’re attributing far more freedom to tradents and scribes than the evidence shows. And most scribes weren\’t \”careless\”. That\’s a FARMS/LDS word. They were human. Most evidence we have of scribes knowing multiple versions results in the inclusion of *all* the versions, not a conscious choice about what to include or omit. There is no evidence, to my knowledge, of outright, conscious omission (again, speaking of the Hebrew Bible). Occasionally phrases were added to clarify passages or words were included that had become idiomatic: like the notice in Josh 2:15 about Rahab\’s house being in the wall of the city, or like the addition of \”servant of YHWH\” to \”Moses\” in Josh 1.

    Writing Matthew meant a process of expanding, deleting, altering, interpreting, etc., or in other words, all those processes that Gee regards as corruption.

    You have collapsed here the different processes of writing and of \”editing\”, or of authorship and of transmission. Gee is talking about transmission, that is, changes introduced long after the original writing (in either one or more instances) took place. It is indisputable that these transmissional changes took place, and corruption is indeed the word that text critics use to describe the process, which is fraught with error. Gee\’s quote (“deliberate or unintentional changing of the text, either through the expansion, deletion, or alteration of the passages…faulty interpretation (either exegesis or translation), and manipulation of the canon (which books are considered scripture).”) is virtually cribbed from the standard (non-LDS) textbook on text criticism. That is, all of these changes were indisputably introduced at a scribal level, after an original was already in circulation. Now, the value one assigns to these changes (I think FARMS uses \”corruption\” in more than a purely textual sense), is another story altogether. I disagree with Gee\’s tone and attitude toward the scribes, but his list of transmissional issues is solid.

    The fact is, it\’s true that text criticism can\’t take us back to a putative original. But that\’s no proof that there never was a single, original *text*. It\’s erroneous to assume that the multiple versions we have are a result of an author producing the text more than once. There\’s simply no evidence for it. Don\’t get me wrong, I absolutely reject the arguments like those above from Reynolds and Welch, because it\’s clear that there has been no systematic deletion or manipulation of theological ideas. The non-scribal errors introduced into the text of the Hebrew Bible are almost always efforts to clarify an obscure passage, not a theological systemization. But your blanket assessment of text criticism is almost equally problematic. [I do know that there have been arguments for theological development of certain texts of the New Testament, but again, I believe these are based on solid text criticism that appears to show scribal insertion rather than a diversity of underlying traditions. I\’m out of my expertise here, though.]

  19. Concise and well said.

    LDS ought to be ready to concede that change does not equal apostasy. An overly simplistic view of apostasy (“they changed a bunch of stuff!”) can lead to cognitive dissonance down the road when one realizes the LDS Church has likewise changed practices, texts, and word definitions over time.

  20. The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project at BYU is an effort to determine what Joseph Smith dictated to his scribes, and perhaps beyond that, what Joseph was reading as he dictated. One of the conclusions of the project has been that Joseph was in fact reading an English “ur-text” translation of the record, rather than formulating original sentences based on mental pictures and understandings he received.

    So the Book of Mormon creation and transmission included the steps of:
    1. “Original” authors (some of them editing earlier records, such as Nephi adapting Lehi’s record and of course transcribing and adapting great gobs of Isaiah, or transcribing dictated statements by Benjamin, Abinadi, Christ, Samuel the Lamanite, etc.–who was taking dictation during the three days of darkness as the voice of Christ announced his completion of the Atonement and the catalogue of cities destroyed?)
    2. Selection, editing and abridgment by Mormon and Moroni
    3. Translation from “reformed Egyptian” to English (Royal Skousen argues that it is English of Tyndale’s century, not of the KJV or Joseph Smith’s era) by persons unknown
    4. Reading of the English text by Joseph Smith and dictation to a scribe
    5. Scribal transcription of what was heard (leading to apparent misunderstandings)
    6. Scribal transmission to a printer’s manuscript
    7. Printer’s reading of the manuscript and formatting into printed English (with more misreadings)

    So the Book of Mormon, which we affirm is “the Word of God” without any reservations about being “translated correctly”, and “the most correct book”, has at least seven stages at which human error could play a role in transmission. Then we add in the changes in word usage and semantic content between 1829 and 2008, and the precision of any particular verse in representing the precise words or thoughts of the original author is clearly less than 100%.

    On the other hand, because we have a great many verses which address the same topics, we can assess the area of agreement among the relevant verses and find that the intersection in meaning among that subset of verses is high and they are largely consistent in meaning. That is, any significant errors in transmission are expected by us to tend to be in random directions, so that the sum of the errors can be expected to substantially cancel out, giving us a materially accurate picture, not necessarily of the precise words or intent of the particular author of a verse, but the intent of God in speaking to his many prophets. Thus the value of having a 500-page Book of Mormon is that it is probably more accurate in the portion of its meaning that is consistent than would be a 200-page Book of Mormon.

    Nephi’s discussion of the relationship of the record that would grow into the Book of Mormon, and the Bible as it would develop in the Old World (it still lacked Malachi and Zechariah and all of the New Testament) talks about not only their roles as concurrent witnesses to the truth of both compilations, but also the way that the Book of Mormon would restore the accurate meaning of the Bible. I think at least part of that restoration is the same process of correlation that helps identify the consistent meanings of the passages.

  21. A few thoughts. First, I don’t think anyone at FARMS would suggest that change of necessity equals apostasy. All of the folks from FARMS I’m familiar with are very familiar both with the textual history of the Book of Mormon as well as the textual history of the D&C/BoC. Plus they are familiar with the changes in how LDS theology is presented and viewed. So I think we have to be careful not to setup a strawman.

    Now I’ve not read the book in question. (It’s been on my “to read” collection for some time) But FARMS papers have criticized a lot of traditional LDS views of the apostasy over the years. (Such as the all to common leap of “Hellenization did it”) However based upon reading of prior things published by FARMS I suspect the question about transmission is primarily trying to figure out how to take 1 Nephi 13. Feel free to take swipes at FARMS but the real issue is Nephi and not FARMS.

    Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record; and they bear record according to the truth which is in the Lamb of God. Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God. And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.

    Now how I’ve heard at least some FARMS folks interpret this verse is to suggest that half the problem was the distinction between the written traditions and the oral traditions. Further we ought assume the book is an eschatological book (common in apocalyptic literature). Then the problem is that the teachings which were going to the gentiles (let’s say up to around 100 AD) are taken away. But why? Presumably this is in part the problem of gnosticism but also the problem of what the Churches themselves were left with.

    This needn’t be taken to imply questions of textual transmission even though one might interpret it as such. (Thus the big interest in the purported Secret Gospel of Mark and so forth)

  22. The non-scribal errors introduced into the text of the Hebrew Bible are almost always efforts to clarify an obscure passage, not a theological systemization.

    Of course you’re talking about the text after the compilation after the Exile. I think Higher Criticism would suggest that whatever earlier texts (pre-exilic) were used to compile what became the Masoric text that there were quite a few theological concerns.

    I’m skeptical about some of the particulars of Higher Criticism. (It often seems to assert a lot from very little evidence) But the basic theoretical framework seems quite correct. (And perhaps in keeping with Nephi’s views)

    Now it is true that with our own scriptures there is probably an inspired midrashic tendency. Clearly much of the JST is that. But I agree with Blake Ostler that this is probably in the Book of Mormon as well. (Beyond the latter changes by Joseph) The problem is that figuring out where is problematic.

    I’d suggest though that this inspired midrashic styled expansion (or redaction) isn’t a good model to understand the criticism Nephi is making. That’s because the basic problem is the lack of inspiration. I think we all recognize a big difference between Joseph Smith doing the JST and one of us doing it. Ditto to the midrashes we’re all familiar with from the general era around the time of Christ up through the end of late antiquity. They are interesting and can give a glimpse into oral traditions. But are, of themselves, problematic as representations of the eschatological Book that I think Nephi talks about. (Which, of course, even outside of apocalypic literature is important within Judaism)

  23. Clark, we can only talk about text criticism long after the exile, since we have no manuscripts that get us anywhere close to the exile. I think you can’t talk yet even about a Massoretic text (or that version that would become it) until at least the 3rd century BC. And I don’t think that Higher Criticism comes to the conclusions you’re referring to (though I’m not quite sure I understand what exactly you’re referring to). That is, the evidence we have from the compilation of the Pentateuch, for example, suggests that the compiler(s) of the Pentateuch attempted to save everything, and only introduced changes when the narrative required it (i.e., when you were going to have Abraham in two places at once, so a city name got changed). But then, if one believes the hypotheses about the Deuteronomistic History, we certainly are dealing with theological issues, but now we’re out of the realm of text criticism and into literary criticism since we don’t have versions to compare. Even with the DeutHist, we don’t have evidence that they manipulated their sources, but incorporated them into a narrative that they were fashioning, not unlike Moroni’s incorporation of letters from his father. Both of these examples, I should say also, are post-exilic, though the sources they used were pre-exilic.

  24. One should point out, too, that in the volume discussed by Jonathan there are articles that challenge directly our received notion of apostasy. Eric Dursteler’s article, for example, is specifically targeted toward this issue (and it might be equally significant that he’s not at all affiliated with FARMS).

  25. JC, don’t you think that the claims about the differing parts of concern between say the Yahwist and Priestly accounts reflect political and theological aims? I’d have thought that relatively uncontroversial.

    As to the point about date, I think I made that point in my comment.

  26. JC, don’t you think that the claims about the differing parts of concern between say the Yahwist and Priestly accounts reflect political and theological aims? I’d have thought that relatively uncontroversial.

    As to the point about date, I think I made that point in my comment.

  27. Fascinating discussion, and I don’t think I have much to add, other than a comparison. Having the original of the Constitution (including some drafts) have not put to rest the questions of intent, and multiple schools of thought about how to interpret it. Otherwise, why a Supreme Court?

    I applaud the research, but as has been pointed out, this is not just a scholarly effort, it also involves subjective elements of culture and religious faith. Thanks, Jonathan, for a very thought-provoking post.

  28. Many comments require a thoughtful response, but I probably won’t get to all of them, unfortunately.

    Loyd: See, that’s why it’s pointless to try to replace one set of inerrant scripture with another. The Book of Mormon was the beginning of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career, not the end.

  29. Chris CS, your faith in the efficacy of stemmatic comparison is commendable, but several centuries of effort have not had the hoped-for result. There are problems (changes made independently in two different manuscripts, for example) that the method has difficulty taking into account.

    One problem with the idea of an original of, say, Mark is that it conceives of publication as something like modern publication, where an author produces a final draft and then locks that form into place through printing. But manuscript transmission doesn’t work like that. It might be more accurate to think of it as something like a choir performance, where the dynamics or selection of verses can change each time. These performances are not mere manifestations of an ideal form of the song; in fact, the song only exists to the extent it is performed or recorded. Collecting different versions won’t let us reconstruct an original, but it does help us understand why the song has proved popular on so many different occasions.

  30. Richard Livingston, there are any number of quests for origins that are broadly analogical to the search for original scripture, including the idea of a primitive church or an Adamic language. I also think, however, that it’s possible to square the circle. I just won’t get around to doing it in this post, unfortunately.

  31. Jupiter’s Child, you bring up several objections that need a response. Some of our differences will be due to disciplinary biases. You’re at home in the Hebrew OT, correct? I’m approaching the issue from the perspective of medieval vernacular manuscripts. For a long time, it was assumed that the transmission of Wolfram worked much like the transmission of the New Testament. Now that it turns out that many of the assumptions about Wolfram were wrong, I’m projecting that understanding back onto the NT. There are probably going to be ways in which Semitic, antique, and medieval literate practices are simply not comparable. But for the moment, I’m still assuming that writing Matthew is fairly similar to writing Parzival.

    One advantage of the medieval manuscript tradition is that we actually have, in a few cases, manuscripts that are contemporary with the authors, or nearly so, and those are in many cases the most varied. I’m skeptical about whether the OT or even the NT manuscripts can tell us much about the gritty details of canon formation, because our earliest manuscripts are so much later than the process of canonization. Studies of oral transmission have found that genealogical lists, for example, can change dramatically in a relatively short time to account for later conditions. For the OT, I think we can assume similar processes affecting its oral transmission. And why the assumption that recording in written form only occurred once, and instantly became canonical? I agree that once scripture has achieved that status, different factors come into play, but I think you’re overestimating the orderliness of making sausage. Isn’t there recent somewhat recent research on the 2nd-3rd century B.C. political interests that shaped biblical accounts of the settlement of Canaan, for example?

    Regarding texts and the contemporary needs of readers, that point seems obvious. Texts only continue to exist if they are recopied as older documents wear out (and thus only if they can justify the copyist’s labor) or if they are copied onto materials that are durable (and hence valuable and liable to be put to other uses, if the original text loses value). The Psalter was needed for daily liturgy, and hence copied many thousands of times. Heretical works that did no one any good simply didn’t get copied, at least not often. Works that serve the institutional needs of the canonizing body will survive, while those that don’t often won’t. Beyond survival, there is the matter of format and presentation. Whatever Mark’s first try at writing a life of Jesus looked like, it was not divided into chapter and verse.

    More in a bit, but lest me post this much for now.

  32. JC, continued:

    So I don’t think that OT transmission is an informative model of scripture formation, because all our manuscript witnesses are so much later. Imagine, if you will, that “The Work and the Glory” gets canonized three hundred years from now as scripture. At that point, mucking about in the text becomes unthinkable. But if the author and publisher wanted to make fundamental changes now, there’s nothing to stop them. So, yes, I do think that those involved in transmission have considerable freedom.

    Also, my point was precisely, as you point out, that most scribes were not careless. (Although I have seen plenty of evidence of careless scribes in my own research!) But a conscientious scribe will still make informed choices. At least for the medieval material I work with, the result of scribes working from multiple sources is not a copying of both, but rather the production of what was unhappily known as a contaminated manuscript, or more neutrally as an eclectic manuscript, that included elements from multiple manuscript traditions, but not all elements of them.

    You note, correctly, that I am collapsing authorship and transmission. For manuscript transmission, and for the writing of the gospels, that collapse seems entirely correct. The intent of each gospel is not to invent a life of Christ, but to record and pass on traditions. For us, there is a huge difference between an author at work, and a xerox machine churning out copies. But for a culture based on oral repetition and manuscript transmission, the gap is much narrower. It seems to me that the mechanisms of transmitting the gospels are absolutely identical to the mechanisms of creating them. Why does one expansion create scripture, while another expansion corrupts it?

    You mention that the standard textbook on textual criticism (which one? I may have read it, once upon a time) speaks of original texts and their corruptions: at this point, I call you a hopelessly outmoded Lachmannian, and you call me a soft-headed New Philologist (my criticisms of textual criticism are not original). My serious reply is that, to the extent we can observe the process, people don’t actually write original texts. In real life, books are compromises between writers and publishers and audiences, and they can go through many forms from first to final draft. In manuscript cultures, the idea of a fixed text–a final draft–is anachronistic. By regarding all change as corruption, we lose sight of what additions, deletions, etc. tell us about the people who preferred the new to the old version.

  33. I have often wondered whether we are missing the boat entirely on the 1 nephi 13 problem. We always assume that it is the actual text that is corrupted or that things are removed from it (I am not saying that such a thing did not occur only that maybe this is not what 1 nephi 13 is referring to at all). Perhaps the fulness of the gospel of the Lord did and still goes forth with purity. Perhaps the plain and precious parts are taken away from the “gospel” and not the actual text. In other words, maybe the problem is not as much a textual problem but a problem of how the text has been abused and misused by various individuals.

    I have my own opinion about what some of the plain and precious parts are that we ignore and refuse to follow. I think some of them may be right there in the text but we take away from the gospel in how we interpret it, teach it, and live it.

  34. #34–That is precisely what I understand to be the case. The overlay of creeds about the Trinity has prevented people from understanding the simple truth about the Father and the Son in the text of the Gospels. The lack of preservation of the doctrine of salvation for the dead renders it impossible for most Christians to understand 1 Cor 15:29 and 1 Peter 3 and 4. Some modern theologians supporting the “Open God” approach have been willing to relook at these passages with a more open mind, and see in 1 Peter powerful support for the doctrine of post-mortal evangelization, and a need to slough off the Greek philosophy about the lack of emotion in God that has no basis in scripture.

  35. Joshua I kind of like the idea of 1 Ne 13 as being more along the Pauline idea of the spirit and letter of the law. Once the spirit is gone all one has is the letter and that can be corrupted by changing the spirit.

    That’s sort of what I was getting at with my original comments. There actually is a similar move in Plato where we have a distinction between speech and writing with the latter being untrustworthy. Of course I think the philosophical critiques of this position are devastating (for reasons I’ll not go into). But it certainly is a common view. (One might say it is the view that dominates philosophy until the 20th century)

    The other obvious point is that the Spirit doesn’t tell Nephi that the texts are corrupted anywhere. Rather he says, “they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.” Also note that when the books go forth in purity they go “according to the truth which is in God.” This suggests that what has changed isn’t the texts but the context. (I should note that many FARMS folks have taken this view)

    Consider, for example, how we’d view our scriptures without our understanding of our temple covenants or, for that matter, without the spirit.

    Now to be fair it also says, “there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book.” So this can (and has) been used to argue for textual transmission. I’d suggest that more likely is full lost texts. Once again imagine if we only had the BoM and say the first half of the D&C without everything from 1840 onwards.

  36. I agree with Clark that the issue is not textual transmission — for the most part. The problem is that vast numbers of texts were excluded from the canon in the first place. The DSS attest an entire tradition of texts that were considered accepted scripture by at least that community that do not fully overlap with the views of the later rabbis or doctors of the church. It seems to me that what Nephi has in mind is actually the exclusion of revelation — entire books and traditions — rather than textual changes made by supposedly corrupt scribes.

    However, there is sufficient evidence of heavy redaction in the pentateuch. For example, it is very clear that the Mosoretic scribes were uncomfortable with the notion of gods and sons of gods and thus changed several references from “sons of God” or “divine beings” to “children of Israel.” The purge of the high places and cult centers in Josiah’s pogrom is evidenced in Deuteronomy and the text shows signs of having been purged or rewritten at several points. The redaction of the hexateuch in particular was both a means of bringing together ancient oral traditions, written sources and heavy editing. However, since all of the mss. are late, well into the second temple period, we cannot really address a ms. critical analysis as a basis for apostasy. However, we can easily see that the Deuteronomist was hostile to a good deal of Jewish/Israelite folk religion and did his/her darndest to eradicate it. It is the exclusion of entire traditions within Israel and Judah, most of them much older that Deuteronomy itself, that is the problem that I believe Nephi has in mind. That is especially true if the Tree of Life is truly a reference to Asherah and the female deity tradition that lingered into Judah and pre-exilic cult places.

  37. Clark, Blake

    I like the idea of entire texts as well. However, it seems to me that at least in the context of 1 nephi 13 we are referring more specifically to the new testament records and not the ot.

  38. That’s why a lot of FARMS folks leapt on that whole Secret Gospel of Mark thing back in the 90’s. I’m dubious about it, of course. Then there are, from an LDS view, intriguing texts like The Gospel of Philip or Jeu. I’m not saying those ought to have been included but they certainly point to the idea that there was a lot more out there. Heck, for that matter I’m pretty open to having had the Didiche included. Wouldn’t it have been great if a bunch of early documents telling us more about early Church structure from the 1st century had survived?

  39. Jonathan, thanks for clarifying. I suspected that we were coming at it from different disciplinary stances, which I think are not trivial. Even the difference between text crit of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament is significant, and some of the attempts at cross-pollination (especially the geographic models) are problematic. Also, I realize that I haven’t been clear enough in some places.

    The assumption of the similar writing processes of Matthew and Parzival is highly problematic, and must not be assumed (though fruitful comparisons may be made). The evidence of each tradition must be independently established (even if one uses comparative methods, it must be demonstrated that a given principle holds for each individual context). I’ll speak to what I know of Hebrew Bible text criticism.

    In the Hebrew Bible, some of our earliest texts actually predate what we know of the fixing of the canon, so I’m not sure you can dismiss the Hebrew evidence as a model for scripture formation, and you certainly can’t substitute medieval processes. Obviously some of the texts had gained authoritative status, but the canon as we know it was probably not fixed in the third century bc, which is when our earliest manuscripts date to. If you’re speaking of an earlier canonical formation, such as the suggestion that for Ezra the Pentateuch was canonical, you are certainly correct to say that the extant manuscripts postdate the canon by centuries. But there is no hard evidence for Ezra’s canon.

    The separation by centuries of “authorship” from our later manuscripts, at least with respect to the Hebrew Bible, forces one to separate the process of authorship from the process of transmission. For our manuscripts, there is little evidence that the divergences between manuscripts are the result of the process of authorship—i.e., of multiple, varying retellings that are written down at different times and places. If this were the case, the retellings were so close to each other that one would be led to hypothesize an original source from which the others sprang. But instead, the evidence available suggests that the divergences have their origins in the process of transmission, not authorship. There is nothing preventing, in other words, the *search* for an original reading (or maybe a “more original”), even though one will certainly never be able to proclaim the discovery of the original autograph. This is not to say that original is better, it just expresses the confidence of the investigator in her evaluation of the process by which the change took place (either deletion, expansion, or substitution).

    Of course, it is entirely possible also that the reason for the high degree of similarity between the witnesses is a result of an ongoing standardization (resulting from canonical process?) of the texts. We do have evidence of “updates” being made from one text to another, usually at the recensional level. Thus Origen’s Hexapla accounted for multiple witnesses and marked divergences from what would become the Massoretic text—an acknowledgment of an authoritative version. If such updates took place before our current earliest witnesses, any variations that took place at the authorial level have been, er, leveled. We, thus, have no evidence for variation in the earliest compositions.

    As for your (correct) point about the evaluation of change as corruption, I’ve never heard any of my text crit professors or colleagues talk about corruption in the sense FARMS has intended in the past. We are pretty confident in being able to distinguish most deliberate changes from unintended errors, but the need to distinguish these comes from the desire to discover something about the perceptions of the tradents who transmitted the text. LDS analysts would do well to do away with the change-as-corruption models, lest the JST be considered a corruption!

    PS The standard textbooks are E. Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible and P. Kyle McCarter’s much shorter Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible. I was referring to McCarter above.

  40. Joshua, Clark, and Raymond, ( 34, 35, 37) interesting ideas, and I like the idea of moving away from the idea of the removal of plain and precious things as analogous to what got left on the cutting room floor. As you and Blake point out, taking away from the book might mean something was lost in the canon, not in any individual text.

    The problem is, Blake, that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, we have no evidence for what was consciously excluded, and even less evidence for what existed in the years before the exile. You absolutely cannot make the claim that the manuscripts from the Dead Sea were considered as scripture any more than you can claim the contents of the Harold B Lee Library are considered scripture by its patrons. The DSS are not one gigantic canon. If Nephi was talking about the exclusion of additional works, we have no evidence for what this might have included (again, speaking of the Hebrew Bible), with the possible exception of Ben Sira (which I, for one, am glad was excluded).

    As far as Blake’s discussion of the Pentateuch, first of all, it’s anachronistic to talk of the “Masoretic” scribes before the eighth century ad. More to the point, when you speak of the change of words such as the “bne elohim”, it’s rarely a case of simple substitution because of discomfort. I assume here you’re speaking primarily of Deut 32:8. In that case, it’s possible that the “change” involved a misreading of “bny sr ‘l” (“children of Bull El”) as “bny ysr’l”, involving the exact same letters. (This was suggested recently by Jan Joosten). Most changes of this type were not done without good textual justification, such as that described above. We have other instances of “bne elohim” that were not touched, so I have a problem seeing a systematic manipulation here.

    Finally, I’m not sure what you’re referring to by your Josiah example. Are you saying that Josiah had Deuteronomy changed? And the idea of a Hexateuch is now no longer accepted widely—Genesis-Deuteronomy and Joshua-2 Kings are products of different redactional processes. And there’s no evidence that the redaction of any of these involved the incorporation of oral material that had not previously been written down. And even though the Deuteronomist was “hostile” as you say to many folk traditions (I assume you’re thinking Margaret Barker here), we have little evidence for the active suppression and manipulation of preexisting textual material. The Deuteronomist appears to have incorporated records from various sources and offered in the interstices an interpretation of the extant content. But there are many occasions where something is preserved, presumably because it was authoritative, that is at significant odds with the Deuteronomist’s ideal. Take, for example, the note in 1 Kings 6:12-13, about God promising to come and abide personally among the children of Israel. The Deuteronomists would never have allowed such to pass, so why is it there?

    I’d be happy to discuss counterexamples if you’d like.

  41. Jupiter: Of course we have evidence for what was consciously excluded. The cults of the high places and Asherah worship were excluded. Belief in sons of God and divine beings in the council was excluded (tho not systematically as you point out). We have a list of at least 44 books that were accepted as holy writ that were not preserved.

    With respect to Josiah, what I am saying is that whoever wrote Dt., they adopted Josiah’s political outlook in redacting and constructing the text. Virtually every biblical scholar I know of agrees with that. They adopted a form of “Jersualem Yaweh only” view. (There were various Yahwehs of different places). The more authentic reading of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (given by Mark Smith) found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran (4QDeut.), the LXX and earliest texts reflects a textual departure from the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. The key difference is that instead of “sons of Israel” the earlier texts have bene ’elohim which should be translated as “sons of gods” or bene ’elim “divine sons.” The view that God divided the nations according to the number of divine sons reflects the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10-11. The Table of Nations names seventy nations–but interestingly Israel is not included among these nations. Israel alone is Yahweh’s apportionment. We know from epigraphic and archaeological evidence that each nation state had its own god. For example, Milcom was the god of Ammon, Chemosh was the god of Moab, Qos was the god of Edom, and Yahweh was the god of Israel. Indeed, according to 2 Kings 3:26-27, the king of Moab was motivated by the wrath of Chemosh to turn against Israel by sacrificing his son to Chemosh. At this point, Israel’s success against Moab turned and Israel was defeated. This text actually grants power to a foreign god to inspire humans and change the course of history. It is difficult to see the writer(s) of this passage as believing that Chemosh was not real, for what isn’t real cannot have such causal effects in the history of the world. The Ugaritic background of this notion seems evident, for El fathered seventy sons and thereby established the number of the sons of El or sons of God. However, it seems quite evident that the writer of the Masoretic Text was uncomfortable with this reading and thus changed the “sons of gods” to “sons of Israel.” Nor is this the only text in which the Masoretic text suppresses references to a plurality of gods. It also changes Deuteronomy 32:43. The text of Deuteronomy found at Qumran reads:

    Celebrate O heaven, with him;
    Bow down to him, all gods (~yih{l/a).
    For the blood of his sons will he avenge;
    He will bring vengeance back to his foes (4QDeut.q 32:43; See also LXX).

    Celebrate O nations, his people,
    for the blood of his servants will he avenge;
    He will bring vengeance back to his foes (Deut. 32:43 MT).

    Similarly, the Masoretic text also alters Psalm 99:2:

    The Lord is great in Zion;
    He is exalted above all the gods (~yih{l/a) (Ps. 99:2; 4QPs. 99:2).

    The Lord is great in Zion;
    He is exalted above all the peoples (Ps. 99:2 MT).

    These changes show a pattern of the Masoretic text altering references to the gods so that they refer to the people of Israel. Such a pattern of change establishes the reliability of the reading Deuteronomy 32:8 found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It originally referred to Elyon appointing Yahweh to rule over Israel and other gods over other nations. Thus, your charge of anachronism seems ill informed to me.

  42. Jupiter: “You absolutely cannot make the claim that the manuscripts from the Dead Sea were considered as scripture . . . ”

    You are of course correct that those who wrote and read did not have a view of scripture as canonized text that we now deal with. However, who are you suggesting we cannot considered such writing to be holy or authoritative? The members of the Dead Sea Sect certainly did. They apparently used the Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice in their liturgy and they relied on the Manual of Discipline as a guide for initiates into the community. They regarded the writings of the Teacher of Righteousness as holy and authoritative and that is why they preserved them. They regarded the Teacher as a kind of prophet. So I suggest that have no evidence of rejection of works important to some groups and excluding them from the corpus of holy and authoritative writings is inaccurate.

  43. The problem is, Blake, that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, we have no evidence for what was consciously excluded, and even less evidence for what existed in the years before the exile

    That’s not correct if we consider books quoted in the Book of Mormon. Unless you see those exclusions as accidental.

  44. Blake, Yikes! I didn’t think I was getting personal, but your response suggests that you’re interpreting mine as an attack(?) (“Who are you suggesting…”?) Maybe my wording was too strong (“you absolutely cannot claim…”), as I’m finding out is often the case. If I’ve offended, I apologize.

    First of all, I’m quite familiar with the examples you cite, especially as pertains to Deut 32 and attendant evidence. What I am suggesting is not that such changes did not happen, but that I see no evidence of systematic manipulation outside particular chapters. (See Exodus 15:11 for example: Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?, or the examples you yourself quote from 2 Kings–the Deuteronomist, even if he didn’t want to admit of other gods, wasn’t shy about including texts indicating that other peoples worshipped other gods!). If these are the extent of the theological changes, they’re not extensive. What I was suggesting is that there is also significant evidence that the transcribers didn’t feel free to make changes willy-nilly, or simply because they didn’t like something, but that there were significant orthographic reasons for doing so (which is why I cited Joosten, to give an example). And what you’re talking about with respect to Deuteronomy most likely did not happen in Jeremiah’s time! That is, any textual changes, whatever their intent, cannot be traced to Josiah. I don’t know of any biblical scholar who sees Deut 32:8 etc. as Josianic/Hezekianic manipulation (let me know if you know of such scholars). As far as the Deuteronomistic History, can you point to places were it’s obvious that an underlying text was manipulated and not just incorporated with commentary? The scholars I know that are dealing with the composition of the DeutHist (Naaman in particular) aren’t talking about manipulation, but rather an incorporation of sources (annals, king lists, etc.) with theological details and judgments fleshed out according to a Deuteronomistic worldview.

    As far as exclusion, (“Of course we have evidence for what was consciously excluded. The cults of the high places and Asherah worship were excluded. Belief in sons of God and divine beings in the council was excluded (tho not systematically as you point out). We have a list of at least 44 books that were accepted as holy writ that were not preserved”) we have evidence that there are things that we don’t know, but the operative words here are “consciously” and “excluded”, implying some knowing intent. Hezekiah and Josiah certainly dismantled these cults, but do you have evidence for texts relating to these cults that were transmitted and then omitted from canonical consideration? Belief in the Sons of God was excluded? What about Genesis 6:2, 4 and Job 1:6 and 2:1? Wouldn’t a pattern be able to spot these and eradicate them easily enough?

    And as for the “books that were accepted as holy writ that were not preserved”, again, I’d love to see your evidence for “consciously excluded”. The fact is, books like the sefer hayashar (NOT the same one as the DSS) need not have been “holy writ” (whatever that means in this period) any more than the Annals of Sennacherib were. Were texts of the same type as the Annals of Sennacherib consciously excluded from canons or did they simply fall out of use? And what’s to say that anything contained therein are the “plain and precious truths”? What is the evidence for the exclusion of such books?

    My charge of anachronism referred to your use of Masoretic scribes before the 8th cent ad.

    Clark, are the prophets quoted in the Book of Mormon authors of books? (I don’t have time to check on this myself right now).

    More later…

  45. I was thinking of Zenos, Zenock and company. The indication is Zenos is a book author although book is probably a tad anachronistic unless we make all the usual caveats.

  46. I was thinking of Zenos, Zenock and company. The indication is Zenos is a book author although book is probably a tad anachronistic unless we make all the usual caveats.

  47. Jupiter’s Child: It may be that the whole field of OT studies is a relic area for old ideas about textual transmission! This wouldn’t be too surprising, since fields with very long histories don’t change methods overnight. But I don’t actually think this the case at all. I rather suspect that the different ages and preservation statuses of the texts we deal with lead to a difference of approach and terminology that may be causing some misunderstanding. The original post dealt with the NT rather than the OT, but I’ll try to reformulate it in terms of the OT.

    Tell me where you disagree with this:

    According to the documentary hypothesis, the Pentateuch as reflected in our oldest manuscripts is itself the product of a centuries-long process in which early oral and written sources were combined into various textual traditions and eventually into the five books of Moses we have today. That is, Genesis was created through a process that involved expansion, deletion, reordering, and other alterations. Furthermore, the final product, while preserving much earlier material, also reflects the linguistic, religious, and political situation prevailing at the end of the process. The processes that created Genesis are the same (in quality, if not degree in all cases, for canonical status confers a certain resilience) as those by which the text was later corrupted. Textual scholarship may aspire to come up with better readings (although opinions differ about how successful the attempt can be), but we’ll end up at best with a 4th-5th c. B.C. text that was the result of a long process of editorial compromise. One could just as easily call the original text of Genesis a “corruption of J” or a “contamination of P,” or whatever.

    Does this help clarify my approach?

    I see above in comment 24 that you distinguish between textual and literary criticism on the basis of whether there are manuscripts to compare. I believe other fields will draw a somewhat different boundary between the two, in part because there are sometimes available manuscripts much closer to the presumed moment of authorship. I don’t know where NT studies comes down on this issue.

    There’s at least one obvious objection to my argument that may not have been made yet, but I’ll have to go back and re-read the comments to check first.

  48. Erratum from #47, big paragraph: “Jeremiah’s” should be “Josiah’s”, (but Jeremiah works too. A little Freudian slip that tells me I evidently think Jeremiah was the Deuteronomist!). I should be a less careless scribe…

    Clark, thanks. I just went through all the Zenos references I can find, and while it seems to be an easy assumption that it would have been written, I don’t find any direct references to Zenos, Zenock, or Neum actually writing. The closest is “For it is not written that Zenos alone spake of these things, but Zenock also spake of these things…” (Alma 33:15) But this is only writing that he had said something. Nearly all the references talk of speaking, though this may be our way of eliding the writing process, as when we quote scripture (Jeremiah said…) or the way I just said the references “talk” of “speaking”. So we don’t have direct evidence (maybe I’m missing something though) for their writing. Do we know about when they lived? Is it possible that Lehi et al. heard their sermons? (It’s obvious that I don’t know my lost prophets of the BofM that well!)

    Blake, one more thing about the DSS. “Holy” and “authoritative” is not the same as “canonical”. I don’t think the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, the have much bearing on a discussion of canonical process. The preservation of parts of Jubilees, for example, doesn’t equate to its having some kind of canonical status. It is possible that this was just a repository for texts. We have legal contracts preserved in genizahs that were certainly considered authoritative at some level but need not have a place in discussions of canon. But the bigger point I was trying to make wasn’t that these texts were not authoritative, but that one cannot assume they bore the same weight as what would come to be canonical. We don’t know which were more important (we assume the Biblical manuscripts, but we can’t know for sure). The only thing we can do is to compare the extant manuscripts to what has become canon and talk about whether they had the same materials, but we don’t know how they perceived those things that lie outside our current canonical boundaries. The fact that all kinds of (what we now call) apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature is there tells us nothing about how these texts were perceived.

  49. jupiterschild: Jacob 5 is attributed to Zenos. What do you do with the traditional LDS view (found in the writings of people like Sidney B. Sperry and John L. Sorensen) that the brass plates were the \”official scripture of the ten tribes\” in the pre-exilic era? You stated that \”we have no manuscripts that get us anywhere close to the exile.\” Does that mean that, in your world of Hebrew Bible scholarship, analyzing quotations from the brass plates that appear in the Book of Mormon is off-limits?

  50. Interestingly, I am working on a similar problem in a completely different field–a major part of my dissertation deals with the relationship of a putative original to subsequent “copies” of Greek and Roman sculpture–for years art historians of Greek sculpture (and painting to a degree) have used works which are properly Roman in date to construct an Greek history of “lost originals”. I’m actually using Alfred Lord’s notion of multiformity of Homeric epics (based on his study of singers of slavic epics in the early 20th century) as a corrective for this trend in art history. I’m also working as the assistant to the editor of a major journal in my field, watching as texts that the authors hope are authoritative and final originals subjected to repeated rounds of review and revision.

    Getting one’s mind around the notion that there may never have been one definitive original for many things (no ur-text at all), life becomes immeasurably more complicated and exciting. (Seriously, your discussion about the differences in OT vs. NT textual criticism is enough to blow the top of my head off, however.)

    Much of the discussion above and some of Jonathan’s examples made me think of the multiple examples we have of Alma’s conversion story. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s longer, it’s always the same in essence although varied to suit the situation and audience. And there are all the times that he must have told his story that weren’t written down at all, or have not survived. Imagine they weren’t collected all in one book–for all we know, Mormon found final letters from Alma to each son (unfortunately Shiblon’s seems to have been gotten at by rodents or damp rot since it’s recognizably shorter) and used them in his compilation and abridgment of what we know as the book of Alma–in this case the editor did not choose one version as the authoritative one, discarding the others as redundant, but instead included these three with a few other recountings. He may have had other examples of Alma telling his story as well but chose to let these stand as representative, and they have become the new original, authentic, and authoritative texts.

    One of the great blessings of the Book of Mormon is that the authors and subsequent editors often took care to make their process relatively transparent. I love watching Alma go forward and back in his explanation of the doctrine of resurrection to Corianton, saying it, then clarifying, then re-explaining. Thank goodness. It’s an excellent example of someone working out a doctrine with an almost obsessive concern for the understanding of the audience. Instead, imagine we only had one clean discourse on the subject–probably adequate for doctrine, but possibly lacking in something precious. Or every time Nephi, Mormon, or Moroni break into the narrative to offer a bit of commentary or to explain their intents and editorial choices. It’s a beautiful thing.

  51. Re #54 Marianne: I agree that the Book of Mormon is especially valuable because it is a unified editorial product, where there is a unified theme that selects material to support its few central messages, and gives us variying perspectives on those limited themes so we can see them in three dimensions. Wouldn’t it be great if we had such a knowledgeable editor for the Old Testament or the New, someone who was dealing with first hand materials and placing things in context and interpeting its meaning? Such a unified editor defines what is canonical by his selections. Perhaps that is why the Book of Mormon is more “correct” than the Bible. The Bible as we have it is really a draft that never got the final editing that any book today wouldn’t be required to have.

    What is more, we are advantaged because we know who the target audience was, and we know that target audience intimately, as did Nephi, Mormon and Moroni–namely, ourselves. To the extent we find parallels in our society to the elements depicted of Nephite society, it is likely intentional, and we can take them seriously as intended to be something we can understand and profit from.

    It all becomes much harder with the Bible. Multiple target audiences with variant base knowledge are being asked to modify that knowledge in specific ways by the authors. Trying to understand without knowing the knowledge and assumptions of the target group can be very difficult.

  52. Marianne, you’re entirely correct that Alfred Lord (and Perry and Ong and the various criticisms and corrections to their work over the last half century) are stomping around in the background of the original(!) post, as well as the experience of observing how books actually get made. And the Book of Mormon is really interesting when you start poking around underneath the surface a bit, in ways that deserve their own post.

  53. Sorry… I’ve been away. Sterling, I’m aware of the attribution of Jacob 5, but it’s again a case of what ‘to speak’ means. The traditional LDS view is that they wrote things down in things that look something like our scriptures (or plates, scrolls, parchment, what have you). But there’s no evidence of this. There’s no text that I can find that says any of these prophets themselves wrote anything. These may, then, be oral incorporations.

    And there *is no* manuscript evidence getting us anywhere close to the exile (unless you count three hundred years close), not just in “my” Hebrew Bible scholarship world, there’s none known in any world to anyone. Now we might mean different things by manuscript. I mean, there’s no copy that exists coming from any earlier than the 3rd century BC. This doesn’t mean that the material doesn’t go back well earlier–I’m certain it does. But in this light I would not at all count the quotations from Zenos et al. as early manuscript evidence at all. First, because it’s not early (and difficult to analyze in translation anyway). Second, because it’s not a manuscript in the sense I mean.

    Marianne and Jonathan, thanks for bringing in Lord and Perry. I don’t think that biblical scholars negate at all the oral roots of biblical traditions. The question these scholars are trying to answer is if it’s possible to tell whether or not the texts we have now are the result of one vein of tradition created by one original writing (other instances of writing down having been lost) or whether it was a more complex process. I should clarify here that I’m speaking of the smallest discernible units of text we have–a given prophetic oracle or the J or P strands of the Pentateuch, etc. It’s pretty clear that the Pentateuch was the result of the splicing together of four different *written* sources, each of which incorporated various traditions, the histories of such traditions being murky at best. I think that these documents were likely the result of a single writing, but I’m not excluding the possibility of the earliest copies introducing changes to incorporate various alternatives–in other words, that these documents were produced, whenever they were first written down, in a community. The problem is that I hear people in this discussion trying to make the *available* manuscripts the result of different *early* writings, and I think that’s untenable.

    At issue in this post then, as I see it, is how far back the manuscript variants get us, or at what level the variants were produced.

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