What if the historical evidence for the foundation of the early Christian church is indistinguishable from evidence for its apostasy? What if the early church and its scriptures only arose through processes of decay?
Priesthood authority is not directly observable by an outsider, particularly at a remove of 2,000 years, so there is no reason not to believe that Christ left Peter and the apostles in possession of perfect priesthood authority upon his ascension. But itâ€™s rather more debatable whether or not the apostles were given the blueprints for a perfect church organization. The Acts record doctrinal dissension and organizational disunity, not decades or centuries into the life of the early church, but at the moment of its founding. There was no church until disciples had been sent out into all the world to gather the faithful, and so the early church was born with regional differences and cultural fractures. There was no sacramental ordinance until shortly before the savior was gone, and so questions about meetings and administration of ordinances were settled through the usual combination of inspiration, compromise, and muddling through. Disciples and loosely affiliated conventicles had to be organized into an international church that was not so much ruined but rather created by the events we refer to as the apostasy.
Something very much the same can be said about the early Christian scriptures. Itâ€™s probably a mistake to look for perfect scriptural texts at the dawn of the Christian era, and the textual histories of the New Testament do not point to the unfortunate corruption of Urtexts, but rather to Urtexts that were themselves created by combining, adapting, and expandingâ€”or, if you prefer, contaminatingâ€”earlier texts. The Bible in its purity is not waiting to be dug up in some Judean cave, although there are undoubtedly textual variants yet to come to light. Itâ€™s not difficult to see any act of writing as a diminution with respect to the spoken word, and to regard the creation of meaning in written form only as a further distancing from the original. There is no early Christian canon until after the processes of canon formation, which, like sausage making, are best not too closely inspected by those who enjoy their Bratwurst.
This view of the Apostasy is not without its benefits for understanding the Restoration. One of the thorny questions about the Restoration is why God would wait so long to set things aright. Should we believe that God was sulking because the first try didnâ€™t work out? That nothing is impossible for God, except for restoring his church in the eighth or fourteenth century? Iâ€™ve never liked those explanations. But if we regard the Apostasy as an essential, unavoidable process in creating a Christian church, then it becomes on the one hand more difficult to see the Restoration as the recovery of original forms and structures, but easier on the other hand to see the mission of Joseph Smith as fulfilling potentials and resolving contradictions that were inherent in Christianity from its beginning. The bargain struck with imperial power and monasticism and the Crusades and the suppression of heresy and promulgation of reformâ€”they all become, in this view, essential predecessors of the Restoration, rather than things that happened while God wasnâ€™t paying attention.
Joseph Smithâ€™s revelation of new scripture probably tells us something similar about the Apostasy and Restoration. If the intent had been the recreation of the exact circumstances of the early first century, we might expect a restoration of biblical texts to have been the centerpiece of his prophetic writing, and more clearly textual-critical in nature. Instead, the JST is much more of an inspired commentary, and closer to a historical footnote than a core achievement. Instead of solely re-creating ancient scripture, Joseph Smith offered a prophetic commentary, and an act of miraculous textual creation in the Book of Mormon (such as we search for in vain with the New Testament), and revelation based on other ancient writings in the Pearl of Great Price, and the recording of his own revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. In short, what Joseph Smith restored was not a single perfect text to stand for all time, but rather an opening of scripture to constant additions and renewal, or an un-closing of the divine written word.
This wraps up a loosely related series of posts about Mormon beliefs concerning the Apostasy, beginning back with my first guest post:
A Preview, A Review
Orality, Literacy, Apostasy and Restoration
Did revelation cease?
Is priesthood authority a historical category?
History, apostasy, and faith-promoting rumors
Whatâ€™s Wrong with Ancient Research in Mormon Studies
Thanks to everybody for all the comments, from which Iâ€™ve learned a great deal.
Dave also has a series of interesting posts on the Apostasy, and hopefully heâ€™s not done yet:
For posts a bit deeper in the archives, see Nate’s contributions:
and also Julie’s review: