The Shorter (or Longer?) Reading is to be Preferred

The release of the “Book of Commandments and Revelations” (BCR) in the latest installment of the Joseph Smith Papers has provided tremendous insights into the textual history of Joseph Smith’s revelations, most of which were eventually canonized in our current edition of the D&C. I have spent countless hours (most of which I don’t have) examining the subtle (and not so subtle) changes that occur in the textual history of many of the revelations. [1] Marquardt’s volume on the subject has been (and still is to a certain extent) immensely helpful in this regard; however, the BCR was not available to him when he published The Joseph Smith Revelations [2] and thus the BCR adds valuable insight into our understanding of the textual evolution of Joseph’s revelations.

That said, I have noticed a very interesting phenomenon among Latter-day Saints when it comes to text critical issues in revelation ancient and modern. In dealing with text critical issues in the biblical text many LDS (IMHO) are very interested in getting back to what the bible “really said,” or as the scholarly world has termed it: the illusive urtext. Several scriptural interpretations and/or statements by Mormon leaders seem to have kindled a place for discussions about how the biblical manuscripts contain errors, mistakes, corruptions, etc. I am thinking for example of passages like 1 Nephi 13:40: “These last records. . . shall establish the truth of the first. . . and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them,” or statements like Joseph Smith’s when he was reported to have said, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” [3] Even the 8th Article of Faith implies that the bible in it’s current state is lacking. Many LDS have no problem getting behind text critical studies of the bible especially when the principles of text criticism “get it right.” For example, the fact that the so-called “Johannine Comma” (1 John 5:7-8) is not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts is helpful to the apologetic LDS who is looking to discredit the idea of the trinity. This many-plain-and-precious-parts-are-lost framework seems to lend itself (in some cases anyway) to many of the works dealing with biblical text criticism that are available today.[4]

Interestingly, ideas change dramatically when it comes to text critical issues in the modern revelations. Most LDS (IMHO) are not comfortable (if they are aware at all) with the idea that our current D&C reads differently than the earliest manuscripts available. This ignorance/uneasiness is unfortunate in that the textual changes can be very informative in helping interpreters to understand the revelations. This can be as simple as attaining a more exact date for many of the revelations and thus a better understanding of the historical setting, to understanding that the final 20 vv of D&C 42 (which were given 2 weeks later) were given in response to questions concerning the first 72 vv.

There are even changes that, interpreted in a certain way, could be read in such as way as to bolster the apologist’s claim to divine foreknowledge. For example, the earliest manuscript of what would become D&C 28 in speaking of the location of “the city,” i.e. the New Jerusalem, originally read “it shall be among the Lamanites.” After Oliver Cowdery and Parley Pratt’s attempt to proselyte “among the Lamanites” was thwarted by the government because of the missionaries’ failure to obtain a permit that allowed them to enter Indian territory, the local Indian agent, one Richard W. Cummins, would describe the situation in a letter to his superior:

“Sir, a few days ago two men all strangers to me went among the Indians, Shawnees/Delawares, they say for the purpose of preaching to and instructing them in religious matters, they say they are sent by God and must preach, they have a new revelation with them, as their guide in teaching the Indians, which they say was shown to one of their sect in a miraculous way, and that an angel from Heaven appeared to one of their men and two others of their sect, and showed them that the work was from God, and much more so. I have refused to let them stay or go among the Indians until they obtain permission from you or some of the official of the Gen’l Government who I am bound to obey. I am informed that they intend to apply to you for permission to go among the Indians, if you refuse, they will go to the Rocky Mtns. But they will be with the Indians.” [5]

After this first mission to the Lamanites did not work out, the saints had to re-tool their thinking as to what D&C 28 meant. To this effect, Sidney Rigdon in 1831 (under the direction of Joseph?), changed the verse in question to read “it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites,” [6] a likely reference to Missouri which in fact bordered Native American territory. While, I have my own thoughts and theories (as well as questions) regarding this (and other similar) change(s), it is possible to interpret the original revelation as referring to Utah, especially in light of Cummins reporting that Cowdery would “go to the Rocky Mtns” if necessary. Though I am aware of the historical problems with such an approach, I am simply pointing out that an examination of such changes can produce a variety of interpretations. If one does approach the text in a manner such as this it would seem that the original text is to be preferred.

But the original text is definitely NOT to be preferred in most cases among LDS, at least when it comes to modern revelation. Rather, the latest or most recent text is thought to be the “most correct.” This is a complete about face from how many LDS think of the biblical text, a text that is corrupted, mistranslated, and in need of correction (enter JST). Ironically, it was the Church’s decision to make the BCR available in any Mormon bookstore (including Deseret Book) that brings about many “uncomfortable” questions/discussions concerning the textual changes in the revelations.

In conclusion, I pose two questions to the readers for discussion: (1) What is it in Mormon thought/culture/doctrine that tends to prefer the latest text if working with modern revelations, but prefers the earliest text if working with ancient revelations (not to mention the Book of Mormon text)? and (2) How does the complex textual history of many of the D&C revelations add (or not) to our understanding of the process of revelation(s)?

[1] Many of the ideas for this post came about through discussions with David G. who blogs at the Juvenile Instructor. Much Thanks!!

[2] H. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999).

[3] Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (compiled and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 327.

[4] For a work that is written for a popular audience dealing with NT text criticism see Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). For more technical works see Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th ed.; New York: Oxford, 2005) dealing with the NT, and Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (2nd Rev. Ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) dealing with the HB/OT.

[5] Richard W. Cummins to General William Clark, February 15, 1831

[6] See Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books (Facsimile Ed.; Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 53.

15 Replies to “The Shorter (or Longer?) Reading is to be Preferred”

  1. I suspect the differing attitudes are due to the perceived differing sources of the variants, i.e. Bible variants are due to apostasy and scribal error, whereas D&C editing represents line-upon-line revelatory updating. I think very few LDS have a one-size-fits-all approach to text criticism, if they even know what it is.

  2. interesting stuff, m-d-h.

    taking at stab at question 1: maybe it’s because the originals don’t exist in the case of ancient scripture, so we can freely speculate about what the plain and precious things were, all the while tacitly assuming that if the originals did exist, they would be in line with modern scripture. it’s the combination of claims to restoration and revelation, with the latter ultimately trumping the former.

    about the johannine comma, i’m pretty sure that in the ‘original’ inspired version 1 john is declared “correct,” 5:7-8 and all.

  3. Reading Revelation Book 1 (and even 2) was literally a revelation and of itself for me. I just finished going through them this past week.

    Especially of interest were the sections became, in the 1835 D&C, Enochic Pseudepigrapha. What is interesting is that while in the current edition, the Enochic names/code words (Enoch, Gazelem, Ahashdah, Pelegoram, etc) were changed back to the originals, the context was not.

    In some of these revelations, references to the Second Coming were changed to references to the Translation of Enoch’s City, reverences to Jesus Christ became Son Ahman, the United Firm became the United Order, etc.
    Those elements were retained from the 1835 version to the 1981 version. The current edition is a mishmash of the Enochic context, with the actual individuals’ names restored to the original text. It’s kinda funky.

  4. In specific answer to question 2) – It enormously helped me understand that Written Revelations are distinct from the Revelations themselves – that what we have are the attempts to present in writing the inspired concepts, to the best of the Prophet (or scribe’s) ability.

    ..and that most of the ‘First Person’ presentations from the Lord were presented as such for Rhetorical emphasis, and were not transcriptions of a verbatim communication.

    That in and of itself is a powerful understanding. When people ask, “Why don’t we have ‘Thus saith the Lord’ Revelations any more?”, the answer is that because the modern prophets have stopped using that rhetorical device.

    That’s not going to be a popular answer, though – even though it’s most likely the true one.

  5. Easy-peasy: scripture passages that agree with what I’ve been taught are inspired. Those that disagree are products of apostate editing.

  6. As someone else commented or implied, we assume that the most recent version is the “most” inspired (usually) because they go through the LDS quality control procedure now called correlation, which is under direction of the men sustained as prophets, seers and revelators. As I read the history of the transmission, redaction and compilation of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, I see a similar process of “correlation” and quality control. In fact, I think the process generally, but not always, improved the Bible. But given the BofM passages that seem to privilege the ur-text, and given the thought that at the time of the “correlation” quality control, the committees were not inspired, most LDS do not accept those changes as inspired.

  7. DavidH,
    Yes, those Zadockite priests were never sustained as prophets or set apart to their calling as holy scribes as far as we know. The calling of Mormon, on the other hand, seems to be fairly well attested. The translation is one item, but the editing, redacting, inclusion and exclusion are even more important. Who didn’t include more of Peter’s sermons or letters and put in all of Paul’s? There are probably more sermons from junior apostles that were awesome, but no one speaking Greek was around to write them.
    We just need the ur-sermon, even more than the ur-text.

  8. If we’re really looking for the “original,” whatever that might be, what do we do with Matthew and Luke, which are revisions and expansions of Mark?
    In a way, I think we need to think about what we mean by “shorter” and “longer” in textual traditions. Even with an “autograph” of a text, the text is still depending on other sources, ideas, phrases, etc. “There is nothing outside the text.”
    MDH, I think you’ve identified a definite tension in LDS text critical attitudes, but I think the way to address it is not to choose between the two options, but to reconsider the assumptions behind our search for a version that is more original, authentic, etc. If instead we can look at textual history without the normative assumptions of finding one that is “better,” I think we can better approach both ancient and modern textual traditions.

  9. Thank you all for your comments!

    I agree for the most part with your assessment: “I suspect the differing attitudes are due to the perceived differing sources of the variants.” But if the modern variants represent learning “line upon line” (and I think this is a very helpful way of looking at it), why are LDS so uncomfortable talking about variants in the D&C? Lack of exposure? Not treated at any length in SS, CES, etc.?

    Yes! Awareness of textual variants seems to be an area where LDS could improve vastly.

    Very interesting about the JST. Hadn’t thought to look at that angle. Thx! Seems to show how fluid the concept of God was at the time (cf LoF 5, etc.)

    David T,
    Are you proposing a new text crit “rule”: the funkier reading is to be preferred 🙂 I like it. re: #5, I certainly think this is one way to view it. Was it Pratt who spoke of Joseph’s revelations being the word of God clothed in human language (sorry for the paraphrase)?

    Easy indeed 🙂

    “In fact, I think the process generally, but not always, improved the Bible.”
    “But given the BofM passages that seem to privilege the ur-text”

    To both of these points: how so?

    el oso,
    “There are probably more sermons…”

    could not the same be said of the BoM or D&C?

    You raise an important question, namely, when does a text become a text instead of just sources that a “text” is dependent on?
    Also, though maybe my OP didn’t portray it, I agree that it isn’t an either/or case, however, in the case of modern revelations it seems that LDS prefer the most recent revision regardless of any sort of qualitative assessment (if a qualitative assessment is even possible).

  10. In spite of some pretty explicit Ensign articles (from 10-20 years ago, of course), I think most people are unaware of scriptural editing, whether in terms of updating, combining, etc.

    I think there’s a general assumption of pristine originality as-God-dictated-and-Joseph-wrote-it to the D&C.

    Apparently, just as in the Ensign, some early LDS publications also talked about the editing process a bit. Here’s the Millennial Star in 1857.

    “Joseph, the Prophet, in selecting the revelations from the Manuscripts, and arranging them for publication, did not arrange them according to the order of the date in which they were given, neither did he think it necessary to publish them all in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, but left them to be published more fully in his History. Hence, paragraphs taken from revelations of a later date, are, in a few instances, incorporated with those of an earlier date. Indeed, at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations. In this manner the Lord did truly give ‘line upon line, here a little and there a little,’ the same as He did to a revelation that Jeremiah received, which, after being burned by the wicked king of Israel, the Lord revealed over again with great numbers of additional words” (Found here with some other citations, including the 3 Ensign articles I was thinking of.)

  11. Thanks for the post MDH.

    First, I think that the position “all the evidence that does not exist clearly supports our position!” is clearly problematic. The trope of “corrupted scripture” has been used by the Christians in reference to the Jews removing Christological passages, by the Muslims in reference to Jews and Christians making their scripture disagree with the Qur’an, and Mormons tap into that same tendency with our views of scribes corrupting the Bible.

    The two groups I have heard are most excited about NT scholar Bart Ehrman’s book “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” are Muslims and Mormons. Sure, the book backs the Muslim position, though heaven forbid anyone start tackling textual criticism on the Qur’an… but the irony is that LDS readers would *agree* with almost all of the Orthodox “corruptions”!

    One observation I have had is that Joseph’s changes to scripture are in line with those made by scribes, rather than with scholars intent to restore the original text. The first rule of textual criticism is “Don’t tell anyone about textual criticism”… Wait, wrong rule. The key question in textual criticism is to ask “Which variant best explains the others?” Joseph’s changes remove problems in the text, harmonize passages, and conform the text to his theology. Now, that results in a text that is more satisfying and clear theologically, but more problematic historically. Matthews realized this in his study of the JST; “restoring the original text” and “restoring truth never in the original text” were only two of his classifications for what Joseph was doing with the JST.

    I think that scripture can be both true and historically complicated. Have you ever had an experience where a scripture touches you and changes your life to some degree, but then you later learn that is not what the scripture “originally meant”? Does it really matter? Meaning is polyvalent, and if interpretation has a positive result, I say that is a good thing.

    At the same time, it is also valuable to understand the proper character of scripture, and I think it is more helpful and accurate to see Joseph Smith’s textual changes as conforming the texts to his theology and removing problematic ideas than restoring some original text. So perhaps we could say the earlier text is to be preferred historically, but the later text is to be preferred theologically?

  12. So, how do you apply this to way scholars read the OT? i.e. do you think the historic evolution of the D&C and other such texts problematizes any popular philological readings?

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