Cut Off From the Prophets

One interesting thing about most scripture is the gap between the texts we have the the prophets themselves. The Old Testament was heavily redacted and edited during the Hellenistic period to give us the texts we now have. As Nephi was taught, “when [the scriptures] proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord. […] [The great and abominable] 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.” (1 Nephi 13:21-29) This is a rather well known scripture and our basis for the importance of the Book of Mormon theologically. I want to delve into this scripture a bit more.

I frequently refer to this scripture to discuss the corruptions of the Old Testament. Properly the passage about the corruption of scripture seems more focused on the New Testament. Verse 25 focuses on scripture going to the Gentiles and verse 26 talks about the 12 Apostles. By inference what the 12 said was corrupted and lost. Of course most of the text of the New Testament isn’t by the Apostles proper. The biggest part are the writings of Paul. However it’s not at all clear if his apostleship was one of the 12 Apostles who were the leadership of the church at the time. A solid case could be made that he was more akin to what we call a Seventy. Important, but not one of the 12.[1] As such, while Paul’s writings are important they are an indirect connection both to the teachings of Jesus as well as the leadership of the Church in Jerusalem. (First Peter, and likely James the brother of Jesus thereafter)

We do have texts from Jesus, however again we have them indirectly. The main source is the Gospel of Mark, likely initially a kind of stage performance enacted to teach about Jesus and his teachings to the mostly illiterate masses. The Gospel of Luke and Matthew are largely expansions to Mark probably adding in other traditions.[2] What is the nature of these expansions and corrections though? That’s more uncertain. We accept them as scripture but it’s fair to say we aren’t quite sure how to deal with the differences.

John is the more unique Gospel because it is technically an anonymous Gospel. It seems stylistically similar to the three epistles of John and was reasonably early on attributed to John. However it’s completely unclear that John wrote it or if it’s a composition based upon teachings of John expanded with other sources. (Perhaps including John) While there’s no consensus on the sources this text used, many think it is mildly dependent upon Mark and possibly Luke. However John gives many narratives not in the other Gospels and is stylistically quite different. It is, for instance, far more theological. Most importantly John differs from the other Gospels on many points. The main Gospels have Jesus’ mission as taking a year while John has it taking three years.

The problem is that while these texts contain the gospel of Jesus, they do so in a somewhat mediated way. While the dating of the gospels is somewhat controversial, they likely took that relatively final stable form decades after Jesus died. Most likely they arose out of oral traditions rather than a written tradition. Most key we do not have writings of Jesus.

For the texts that are actually written by what we’d call the Apostles there are quite few. We have the three epistles of John. We have the two writings of Peter although there’s some controversy about the second one. We have James which by the 3rd century was attributed to James, Jesus’ brother and likely successor to Peter as head of the Church. Jude’s authorship is controversial but is some times attributed to James as well.

We should note that even if a text isn’t written by a figure such as Peter, that doesn’t mean he isn’t the source. Many of editorials and history attributed to Joseph Smith were actually written by his scribes as directed by Joseph. So while their authorship is different, the ideas originate in the prophet. They are thus a kind of mediated connection to the prophet. I suspect that 2 Peter and likely some of Paul’s epistles are like that. It is that mediation that I find so significant.

We have narratives of Jesus and his sermons, yet we don’t have any first hand writing of Jesus. Some of the epistles in the New Testament were likely written by scribes of the person attributed or potentially just misattributed. More significantly though we just don’t have much of what Peter and later James were teaching in Jerusalem. At best we have fragments often communicated indirectly by Luke or Paul. The best analogy to what we have in the New Testament is to think of Joseph and the Twelve Apostles at Nauvoo. What would happen had the mobs been more successful and we had few of the sermons or teachings of Joseph from that era? What if the endowment was lost? We’d lose key theological teachings such as the King Follet Discourse. Even with that lack though the D&C contains far more direct scripture than we have in the New Testament. As the angel told Nephi, much was lost.

The Old Testament is even worse. All we have are texts compiled centuries after the return from exile. We really are cut off from the pre-exilic Judaic traditions let alone the much earlier religion of Moses and Joshua. Further the traditions compiling the scriptures had their own theological and political aims. The two main traditions, usually designated by scholars as the Deuteronomist and Priestly traditions, removed elements they did not like. We know that just prior to Lehi, King Josiah launched a reformation of Jewish religion. The Book of Mormon clearly reflects some traditions that these reforms were stamping out.

Examples of reforms changing practice that remained in the Book of Mormon are things like continuing to offer sacrifice in high places like mountains rather than centralizing sacrifice at the temple and the lack of the centrality of Aaronic priests to religious practice. Various apologists have noted the complex relationship the Book of Mormon has with the Deuteronomist tradition. Further they note differences the Book of Mormon’s religion has from the type of Judaism practiced in the later Hellenistic period. Typically these differences can be lined up with these reforms. While history of the evolution and in some cases corruption of text doesn’t always favor the Book of Mormon[3], by and large it explains the Book of Mormon practices and claims.

It’s worth noting that while the Book of Mormon corrects some of the elements of Judaism lost around the time of Lehi through the Hellenistic period, our Book of Mormon is itself a heavily mediated work. Many scholars, noting the heavily influence of the KJV Bible on the Book of Mormon, see it as a very loose translation. That is when a passage from the KJV Bible roughly fits an idea that passage is quoted rather than following a literal word for word translation of the underlying text.[4]

I’ve been emphasizing distance of our texts from the original utterances as they came “from the mouth of the Jew.” I should note though that this doesn’t mean I don’t see them as scripture. Revision to scripture is not necessarily uninspired and just because a prophet wrote something doesn’t mean it was dictated to him by God. Prophets have freedom and can write in a fashion partially inspired by God but also using their experience and wisdom. Likewise just because our access to a prophet may be highly mediated (such as with Moses) that doesn’t mean all the mediation is corruption. Our Book of Moses and Book of Abraham are new revelations attributed to ancient figures. In both cases we have clear dependencies upon the contemporary KJV of Genesis – with different modifications in each text. Some of the text might be contemporary commentary or explanation of the figures. Some of the text might be the original utterances or writings of the prophets. We don’t know what parts are what though.

What I’m suggesting is that perhaps Moses and Abraham shouldn’t be seen as unique, but rather are characteristic of scripture in general. It’s all mediated. Luke may be making use of various traditions about Jesus and Peter to write his text. Perhaps he makes mistakes along the way, but by and large he is communicating to us the inspired words of Jesus and the prophets. That’s the nature of the scriptures. Mediation isn’t bad. It’s how God seems to want to communicate to us.

1. Apostle has a broad range of meanings. While today we typically use it to mean one of the 12 Apostles or the First Presidency, even into our church history it’s been used in a broader sense. In the New Testament it comes from the Greek ????????? and means “one sent forth” and entrusted with a mission. In our language it is a missionary although clearly Paul’s role is more expansive than that.

2. These other hypothetical traditions are given the name of Q. While there are some who dispute the nature of Q, by and large there is a consensus that Mark is the main source with other sources used.

3. The biggest example is Isaiah where many passages in the Book of Mormon are seen by scholars as post-exilic works. See the T&S post “Deuteron-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon” for a discussion of this problem.

4. Brant Gardner’s The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon is probably the best work discussing this issue. At a minimum we have to acknowledge the strong possibility of a very interpretive paraphrasing type of translation. Such methods aren’t alien to Judaism. The “pesharim” are interpretive commentaries on a text often giving a surface meaning and a higher often hidden meaning to the underlying text. Likewise “targumim” were interpretive translations from Hebrew to the closely related Aramaic. “Midrash” were interpretations of scripture as well often seeing a place for revelation in the reading of the text. Many of us see the Book of Mormon as having elements of all these, albeit not with the same theological background as 1st century Jews.

12 comments for “Cut Off From the Prophets

  1. Great post, though if anyone is troubled by the conflict between Biblical Studies and Latter-Day Saint perspectives on scripture, I would strongly recommend diving into your local university Biblical Studies library and observing how the discipline operates. I won’t defend a fundamentalist view of scripture, but it’s a good idea to consider the varying viewpoints within the critical schools of thought before subjecting restoration scripture to any kind of reappraisal in light of critical views. And as always, epistemology is everything.

    Some recommended readings (the second two written by our Evangelical friends):

    Those Elusive Deuteronomists: The Phenomenon of Pan-Deuteronomism
    “As Those Who Are Taught”: The Interpretation of Isaiah from the LXX to the SBL
    Bind Up the Testimony: Explorations in the Genesis of the Book of Isaiah
    Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture

  2. While almost all of this post went way way over my head, the phrase “and the lack of the centrality of Aaronic priests to religious practice” in the Book of Mormon caught my eye. I could be mistaken, but one should not expect Aaronic priests in the Book of Mormon since the Old Testament office of priest was a hereditary office for all direct descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. (See Exodus 28:1.) Since the best info we have is that the families of Lehi and Ismael are from the tribe of Joseph, there would be no descendants of Aaron to execute the office of Priest, and any priesthood officiating would therefore be of Melchizedek. (This, of course, would change after the Savior’s ministry per Hebrews 7:12.)

  3. Clark, this is your whole case for the legitimacy of our contemporary scriptures: “Revision to scripture is not necessarily uninspired and just because a prophet wrote something doesn’t mean it was dictated to him by God. Prophets have freedom and can write in a fashion partially inspired by God but also using their experience and wisdom.” While I agree with the problems inherent with our scriptures, I find it difficult to accept “revision to scripture is not necessarily uninspired.” I think in the case of the Bible (both OT and NT), it is much likelier that it was not. I suspect that some of it may have been well intended, but unlikely it was inspired. The case of the BoM is much more complicated, and I’m at odds as to how to explain it.

  4. “John is the more unique Gospel because it is technically an anonymous Gospel.”

    Is this different than all the early manuscripts of the synoptics?

  5. Great points about the scriptures that a lot of folks in the pews don’t realize. It is just commonly assumed that the words of Mark about Jesus were written down by Mark and reflect what actually happened and not just a loose collection of tales and memories of what happened recorded by a editor or group of editors (and later translators) over time.

    Although, the Book of Mormon, as well as the Books of Moses and Abraham, are significantly different from the NT and OT. For the Gospels, there was probably a group of followers who recalled Jesus’s sayings and deeds. I doubt that there was someone in attendance at Jesus’s sermons doing a word-for-word recording of the sermons. Maybe someone was jotting down notes. I don’t know. Someone, or a group of people possibly could have written what they recalled of the sermons not long after Jesus gave them and then had them copied and stored at different followers’ houses. Maybe someone known to have been with Jesus was consulted and he/she gave a vivid recollection to a scribe. Suffice it to say, there was most likely a chain of people recalling words and events to the final editor. Someone or some people in Jesus’ immediate company and congregation relayed his words to others who eventually wrote rough versions of his words to later be recorded by a final editor.

    Remarkably, there is no one person claiming, “it was revealed to me by God that these were the words and deeds of Jesus that I now take upon myself to write down, copy, and distribute.” But this is the case with the Books of Mormon, Abraham, and Moses. Joseph Smith claimed that God was revealing the words of ancient prophets directly to him, and also the words of Jesus Christ directly to him in a series of revelations, later compiled and organized into the Doctrine and Covenants. The Book of Mormon is also remarkable in that it contains copious amounts of verbatim NT KJV text in it attributed to ancient writers in the Americas. Furthermore, it is claimed to the work of earlier editors, who identify themselves (unlike the Bible, where editors are not identifying themselves) as Mormon and Moroni, who compiled earlier records into a single book, which was buried and later unearthed by Joseph Smith, who translated the book not knowing the language mostly by looking at a seer stone in a hat.

  6. JPV, I think as I said Mark was originally an oral performance that likely was written down. In that sense it’s anonymous. Luke is a bit more tricky since there’s a preface that ties Luke and Acts together and Acts’ nature suggests an aspect of authorship. Luke’s authorship was fairly unanimously accepted in the early Church. There’s also the “we passages” in Luke suggesting that Luke was the author. Of course there are those who dispute this, but the text itself in its early manuscripts suggests this. Those skeptical tend to see the “we” passages (Acts 16-28) as included from an earlier text. Even if it is a kind of pseudopigraphal text, it doesn’t present itself as that. Matthew I’ll grant you is more anonymous than Luke. So you’re right to correct me there. Further to be fair we have Papias quoting Eusebius that John wrote the Gospel in Ephesus but that a different John wrote Revelation. While not all scholars accept that, it is taken as a significant bit of evidence.

    Nate, I think Matthew and Luke are significant in that they accept most of Mark and then correct/expand it. Of course this all depends upon there being eye witnesses to some of the events still alive at the time Matthew and Luke were formed. While I have my own personal views on that, I’d be the first to admit the fallible nature of the arguments. We don’t know the textual history in the first century of any of the gospels. That in itself forms a kind of gap with the prophet/apostle.

    Roger, I’m not quite following your argument as to why revision of scripture can’t be inspired. If one accepts that there was real prophecy then I’m not sure why a prophet couldn’t *use* existing texts as part of their prophecy. At that point the distinction between use and revision is pretty blurry at best.

    Bryan, there’s a strong view among scholars that a lot of priestly activity and authority arises after the exile. Even many rites are frequently seen as post-exilic innovations in Judaism. Even if one is skeptical of these scholarly views, it seems like the Book of Mormon view of priesthood isn’t the same as Aaronic priests. (See Alma 12-13 for instance) With the Josiah reforms priesthood was more centralized in the period from Josiah up through the Babylonian exile. So before the centralization you have individuals offering sacrifice independent of the Aaronic priests or the temple. Even earlier texts during the period from Moses through the beginning of the Kingdom show this. With Josiah’s reforms this is supposed to end and priests are supposed to take this function. There was quite a bit of turmoil over this religious change. Shrines, including one thought at the time to have been Abraham’s, were destroyed. In some cases these shrines had been converted over to Baal worship – attributed in the Bible to Jeroboam. Josiah starts repairs of Solomon’s temple, destroys the high places (shrines that had become at best syncretic religiously) Jeremiah (a contemporary of Lehi) favors these destructions and in general supports the reforms. However Lehi, who is a refugee from the northern Kingdom appears to have a more complex relationship with them since he regularly offers sacrifice.

    So while it makes sense as to why the Aaronic Priesthood isn’t discussed in the Book of Mormon since there were no priests, the fact is that priesthood is in the Book of Mormon only not the Aaronic. The question then becomes what is that authority. A lot of apologists, in discussing this, have appealed to the scholar Margaret Barker and her work on pre-exilic Israel around this time. A lot of what she writes lines up with elements of Book of Mormon religious tradition and the portrayal of Judah around the time of the Babylonian conquest. There’s still a bit of dispute over this – often focusing in on the relationship of Lehi and Jeremiah. For a a sample view that takes the Barker view, see Kevin Christensen’s “Prophets and Kings in Lehi’s Jerusalem and Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology.” For a more opposing view see John Welch’s response to a presentation by Barker and Bill Hamblin’s responses more generally.

  7. As for priesthood views that line up with a difference between the Aaronic and Melchizedek, try “Melchizedek’s Alternative Priestly Order: A Compositional Analysis of Genesis 14:18-20 and its Echoes throughout the TANAK” by Joshua Mathews, Eisenbrauns, 2013. Its a fascinating look which says a lot about the Melchizedek Priesthood and differentiates it from the Aaronic (a kind of subordinate priesthood). Its not accepted by everyone (as some reviews have shown), but it certainly got my attention. Not available on a Kindle yet (sorry Clark) but the hardback is down to under $20.00. Worth the investment.

  8. A lot of the discussion on the Sons of Moses as a rival priesthood that was eliminated textually except for a few passages by P is interesting too. Controversial and I’ve not read much on it in a while. So it may just disappear as a theory. But of course it lines up not just with Book of Mormon portrayals of priesthood but also the distinction in D&C 84.

  9. Clark — What would you put in a list of the plain and precious truths that were lost that are contained in Nephi’s writing? In other words, if Nephi believes certain things were missing its plausible that he would want to correct for those errors.

  10. I’m not sure, since we’re missing the 116 pages which according to Don Bradley was about as long as half our current text. For example a common view is that more was known about Christ in pre-exilic Israel. Various apologists have made use of Margaret Barker’s work there to argue that elements were there. Some have also suggested that reformers threw the baby out with the bathwater by eliminating the feminine divine due to Ashtoreth worship in Canaan. Again some apologists suggest the tree of life as Mary metaphor in Nephi’s vision suggests that kind of thing.

    Depending upon how you read Mosiah 15 you get a kind of divine investiture of authority and potentially deification. I know critics like to read it as modalism but I think it’s better read in terms of the Enochian literature, particularly the transformation of Enoch into Metatron also called the Lesser YHWH. I think Mosiah 15 is suggesting that Christ is somewhat analogous to that process and was known in the pre-exilic period. (That element of Enochian literature is really only attested in the Hellenistic era right now – so it’s commonly doubted as pre-exilic)

    I’d also say that the Satan passages suggest that the notion of the devil wasn’t a late adoption as scholars typically portray it. I think there are many echoes in hell/satan imagery that partake both of Canaanite and more particularly Egyptian conceptions. For Canaan you have Mot, and potentially Melqart-Baal. Also potentially Yam. The stronger element is Egyptian conceptions of the afterlife though where I think the fire imagery has more in common with judgment and being thrown in the fire. Of course Nephi makes a lot of Egyptian connections but those elements would have been removed in the Deuteronomist/Priestly reforms and not redeveloped in a coherent way until later – likely the Hellenistic period or even Christian era. Of course critics see all of this as influence of Milton rather than Egypt and thus ananchronistic. However if we take the text seriously these are elements removed because of resemblance to Canaan and Egypt religions.

    Along with the judgment elements of the afterlife the Book of Mormon suggests the resurrection was known – and again that’s typically seen as a late Hellenistic innovation. Echos of what scholars see as older Israel where death is sleep are in the text. (2 Nephi 1:13 for example) However we also have a lot of resurrection motifs and descriptions even before Alma 11. (By Alma I think we have to assume traditions are significantly affected by evolution of ideas by the Nephites and contamination with indigenous traditions)

    Part of the problem is of course figuring out what’s an innovation by Nephi and what’s a pre-exilic tradition he’s simply reporting.

    The other problem is that of course most of the text is missing. So we have the 116 pages which is about 50% the size of our current text. But then we have the sealed portion of the text which could be as much as our current text or even more.

  11. Clark, thanks for your detailed write up. It’s clear you’ve thought about the layers of scripture beyond a superficial engagement. I’m curious about two details you included. First, why do you suppose that Peter was the head of the Jerusalem church, and James his subordinate and successor? It’s my understanding that whether Peter or James was the leader in Jerusalem is a matter of debate, with only scant evidence either way. Similarly, you mention “the 12 Apostles who were the leadership of the church at the time.” Do you base such a statement on anything beyond the role of apostles in the modern LDS church? Besides Peter and maybe John, I don’t see anything in the NT to suggest the other 10 were necessarily leaders. I’m vaguely aware there are traditions of which Apostle went where or worked somesuch miracle, but I’ve not thought these traditions any thing that we should be giving weight to.

  12. I don’t think there’s much controversy over the leadership of Peter, James son of Zebedee, and John. With the early martyrdom of James (~44 AD) it appears that James the Just the brother of Jesus took his place. Peter is definitely in leadership until he has to flee from Herod and it appears that James the Just took his place but dies not long after Peter dies and just before the first Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Leadership then flees Jerusalem. Most of that is pretty much in the Pauline epistles and Acts. So far as I can tell it’s all pretty uncontroversial.

    While it’s important not to read current practice back in, it’s hard not to note the thee leadership positions (what Paul calls the pillars) as paralleling our idea of a First Presidency pretty strongly.

    The roll of the rest of the 12 as you note is a bit more ambiguous. It appears new members were called as others were lost. For example we have Matthias replacing Judas and James the Just being appointed. Jesus appears to give them a charge to spread the message so they have a defined role. There’s also a different from of 72 in Luke and a later tradition of a group of 70. However some see this 70 as just an expansion of the 12. So that’s a bit amgiguous. Again one has to be careful not to read our own quorum of the 12 and quorum of the 70 back into the 1st century, but that parallel definitely is a very plausible way to read the data.

    There doesn’t appear to be formal leadership for the apostles beyond setting up churches and preaching. So if that’s all you mean, I agree. That’s unlike the three leaders at Jerusalem and it’s not clear if the three are members of the 12 or if they’re separate. Today we have them as separate but that’s likely not the case in the 1st century – although we clearly don’t know for sure.

    Exactly how Bishops are set apart is a bit controversial and not necessarily akin to how we do it today. Some argue Bishops were elected by the congregation for instance, although others suggest there’s more to it. Bishops and deacons have authority but their relationship to either the 12 or the 70 isn’t explicit. Typically the Didiche is appealed to in those debates and many see it as dating to around 70 AD. By 80 AD you have Clement saying that the apostles were appointing deacons and Bishops. So while some argue for more democratic appointment, there’s certainly strong argument that in the 1st century this was more akin to our idea of common consent but that the appointment was by apostles. Again whether this is the 12 or the 70 or a more ambiguous sense is unclear – although it does appear likely it was the 12. It’s also not clear if this is a pattern that arises after the first destruction of Jerusalem or was in place fairly soon after Jesus’ death.

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