The ship of Theseus was an old Greek philosophical question. Over time a ship has various elements replaced – boards, masts, sails, etc. Over time less and less of the ship is the same as when it started. When is it the same ship? Various thinkers over the centuries have had different answers for what makes the ship’s identity. Some argue there is no identity and we just call things the same if they resemble one an other close enough in some arbitrary fashion. Others think the ship slowly loses its identity over time as it changes. Others think there’s some basic design or intent and so long as that intent forms it, it’s the same ship even if some elements differ.
It’s worth considering something Orson Pratt spoke of the development of the endowment starting with the Kirkland Temple.
These same administrations in the Kirtland Temple were revealed little by little, corresponding with what I have already been saying, that the Lord does not give the fulness at once, but imparts to us according to his own will and pleasure. (JD 19:15-16)
It’s worth considering an other ordinance that people are more familiar with and that we can talk about more freely. The Sacrament. Our Sacrament prayers are given in D&C 20:76-79. That however is just quoting Moroni 4:3–5:2. We’ve also changed it since we replaced wine with water starting in 1912 and finalized with the rise of prohibition. Going the other direction though, Moroni’s record of the Sacrament most likely arises out of 3 Nephi 18. Some have argued though that arises through an evolution of phrasing and understanding of covenants going back to King Benjamin. (See for example John Welch’s arguments in “Our Nephite Sacrament Prayers“)
Given that development in the new world, we wouldn’t expect the Church in ancient Palestine to have phrases arising out of King Benjamin’s sermons. When we look for early Palestinian sacrament prayers we find something similar, yet also different from Moroni’s prayers. The ancient text the Didiche likely represents very early 1st century Sacrament prayers. It reads (9:2-10:6)
First, as regards the cup:
We give Thee thanks, O our Father, for the holy vine of Thy son David, which Thou madest known unto us through Thy Son Jesus; Thine is the glory for ever and ever.
Then as regarding the broken bread:
We give Thee thanks, O our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou didst make known unto us through Thy Son Jesus; Thine is the glory for ever and ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
But let no one eat or drink of this eucharistic thanksgiving, but they that have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord hath said: Give not that which is holy to the dogs.
And after ye are satisfied thus give ye thanks.
We give Thee thanks, Holy Father, for Thy holy name, which Thou hast made to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which Thou hast made known unto us through Thy Son Jesus; Thine is the glory for ever and ever. Thou, Almighty Master, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake, and didst give food and drink unto men for enjoyment, that they might render thanks to Thee; but didst bestow upon us spiritual food and drink and eternal life through Thy Son. Before all things we give Thee thanks that Thou art powerful; Thine is the glory for ever and ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church to deliver it from all evil and to perfect it in Thy love; and gather it together from the four winds – even the Church which has been sanctified – into Thy kingdom which Thou hast prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever. May grace come and may this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If any man is holy, let him come; if any man is not, let him repent. Maran Atha. Amen.
But permit the prophets to offer thanksgiving as much as they desire.
The same elements are there. Giving the spirit (grace). Unity. Perfection in God’s love. The importance of the name. Some elements we attribute to the Sacrament, such as repentance are more explicit. Without getting into a debate about whether we should trust the Didiche, for the sake of argument let’s say it’s an authentic document representing the views of the Elders & Apostles in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the temple. Is the Sacrament there the same sacrament as we do today?
We can make the same argument about baptism. Consider Mosiah 18:13 where we find the baptismal prayer Alma used.
Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.
Compare that to the prayer we are to offer when we baptize following D&C 20:73. Again they are admittedly similar in some ways, but also different.
People who find changes in ordinances problematic typically are fine with small changes they’re used to. Most members are fine doing ordinances in the native language of the person performing or receiving the ordinance for instance. Not everyone is though. Some might remember several years ago when the Catholic Church started doing Mass in people’s native languages rather than Latin there was a huge turmoil. I suspect we don’t have something similar only because the Church was restored in English rather than Hebrew (or Greek or Aramaic or even “Nephite” whatever that was). I assume almost no one is bothered by switching from using wine to water so long as the intent was the same. At a certain point of change though, some start wondering if it is the same ordinance.
That gets us back to the ship of Theseus. When was the ship the same? And what made it the same ship? As I said over history there have been many answers to the ship of Theseus.
While I don’t want to embrace platonism, the platonists did have a good argument that it wasn’t in the details (“the accidents”) that identity lay. Rather it was in some idea that was not coming from any particular person. While I reject platonism, in this case I think the idea that what gives the ordinance its identity is its relationship to God and his thinking on the matter. That might seem a dodge, just like it might seem a dodge for the platonist to say the ship of Theseus’ identity wasn’t in the boards but in some immaterial idea of the ship of Theseus. However note how this solution works. It allows for various change but what gauges the change is God’s authority in that it is up to him to make changes, not man. It also explains the apostasy and the changing of ordinances there since the real issue is unauthorized changes that slowly move ordinances away from what God wants. (Or in the case of the endowment radically transforming them into gnosticism or removing them entirely in the various surviving forms of Christianity)
As I said this will seem a dodge to many. After all, who is to say when something is approved of God. But I think we have an answer there. A prophet does.
1. I don’t want to say they couldn’t since clearly Christ brought teaching and presumably phrasing that was used in Palestine to Bountiful. However we don’t have any record that when he appeared to the disciples in Palestine that he brought Nephite records to them.