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.

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