Women, Blacks, and the Priesthood in Recent LDS Church Rhetoric

The open letter recently delivered by LDS church spokesman Michael Otterson to a variety of blogs has, unsurprisingly, generated a flurry of discussion covering the whole gamut of responses.* Two things stuck out to me (besides the ironic labeling of OW as apostates while simultaneously requesting higher-level discourse), specifically about his appeal to the scriptures. First, he completely glosses over the clear scriptural problems with priesthood and church organization. There is no New Testament record of Jesus ordaining anyone to the priesthood, much less organizing a Church. Even more surprising, the terms that are usually sought to tease out such an organization, such as apostle, prophet, and deacon, are clearly applied to women in the scriptures (see Judges 4-5, Romans 16, etc.). Otterson does not mention or explain these scriptures, not even to dismiss them; instead, he offers only an appeal without references to Jesus’ clear organization of a male-dominated hierarchy.**

The second thing that stuck out to me was the way in which the rhetoric of the historical denial of the priesthood to blacks was co-opted and pressed into service as a reason for the current denial of priesthood to women. Past rhetoric, to my knowledge, has simply asserted that the status quo is the way the Lord wants and has always wanted it. (Some, like “Mormon History Guy” Russell Stevenson, have even argued that the exclusion of Blacks and the exclusion of women are incomparable precisely because women have no Elijah Abelses—‘course Deborah and Junia might disagree.) But this letter is the first time I have seen the “we just don’t know why” stance applied to the context of women’s exclusion from the priesthood. Compare the recent revision of the Official Declaration 2 heading with Otterson’s open letter: Continue reading “Women, Blacks, and the Priesthood in Recent LDS Church Rhetoric”

An (Updated) Bible Dictionary?

Let me just say upfront that I don’t have a problem in theory with the idea of a Bible dictionary accompanying the LDS version of the scriptures as a study help for members. Reading the Bible in English (or any other modern language for that matter) for devotional purposes these days presents enormous interpretive challenges, as it represents a translation (in the LDS case, a largely 400 year old translation) of a heterogeneous anthology of ancient Israelite, Jewish, and Christian literature that developed in contexts far removed from our own–historically, culturally, and linguistically. A handy reference tool that briefly introduces general LDS readers to material whose purpose is to somewhat lessen that historical, cultural, and linguistic divide on the basis of the best of recent biblical scholarship and all from the particular theological perspective and needs of the LDS faith would seem to be an obvious desideratum.

The problem I have is that the BD appended to the LDS KJV since 1981 never filled that role very well, and the recently updated version looks to continue more of the same for the foreseeable future. From what can be gathered, those responsible for the new online BD have chosen to make only the most minimal of changes to the old BD’s content. The changes found in the expanded list of adjustments produced by the Church are limited to formatting, presentational, and typographical issues and the correction of a few historical and factual errors. While a close reading of the new BD suggests that some changes were made outside of these categories, including a handful of editorial additions and deletions that may represent subtle doctrinal or presentational shifts, on the whole the adjustments reflect no serious engagement with recent biblical scholarship whatsoever. The updated version of the BD is for all practical purposes the old BD. Apparently, the editors of the new version felt that their mandate was to finesse what was already a worthy and acceptable LDS reference work on biblical topics.

As a student of the Bible, I find this lack of engagement to be distressing and unfortunate. The biblical scholarship reflected in the Cambridge Bible Dictionary upon which the LDS BD was based was already old at the time it was appropriated during the 1970s, and needless to say, scholarship has changed significantly over the last forty years. As a result, much of the interpretive content contained in the BD, particularly that relating to Israelite religion and Old Testament historiography, history, and literary development (to mention only areas that I’m interested in), is almost totally useless and only serves to reinforce earlier (Bruce R. McConkie era) fundamentalist understandings and attitudes.

This is truly unfortunate because the first edition evinced a somewhat open and expansive attitude to academic scholarship of the Bible. The introduction claimed that it had been drawn from “the best available scholarship” and openly acknowledged that it was “subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries”, suggesting that the BD would be continuously revised as academic study of the Bible progressed.

But after three decades no revision has been forthcoming. The content of the BD has come to be seen as almost part of the stream of tradition, something that needs to be only tweaked here or there. Its dependence on the scholarship of the Cambridge Bible Dictionary has been gradually effaced and forgotten, while in the introduction to the new BD the suggestion found in the old BD that the reader should consult a more exhaustive dictionary if elaborate discussion is desired has been deleted.

Some might argue that the lack of substantive changes to the BD is nothing to make a fuss over, since the Church denies official endorsement of the material found in it. But I would argue in response that contrary to the BD’s claim to be non-official, this little reference work has exerted a powerful normative force on the average Anglo-American LDS reader of the Bible since its inclusion in the standard LDS version of the scriptures. It implicitly bears the approval of the church and speaks with an authoritative voice on a range of historical and doctrinal issues. For the vast majority of English speaking members over the last thirty years, the BD has been a basic scriptural resource used to gain an understanding of the Bible’s cultural world, history, and literary nature. Thus the decision to not revise has very real and practical consequences on the intellectual and ideological makeup of the Church.

In conclusion, it would seem that Philip Barlow’s critical appraisal of the 1981 BD as exhibiting strong fundamentalist, literalist, and harmonizing tendencies remains accurate for the 2013 BD as well. As he stated in 1991,  “the new ‘Bible Dictionary’ is not really a Bible Dictionary but a dictionary of LDS theology, conservatively construed, using biblical terms.” [1]

[1] Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion (Oxford, 1991), 210

What’s Wrong with the Topical Guide?

Last year I suggested some changes that I would make to the LDS Scriptures, which included getting rid of the Topical Guide.  There was some resistance to this recommendation in the comments. With the recent announced changes to the LDS scriptures, I thought now would be a good time to revisit this topic.  The new edition of the LDS scriptures makes no substantive changes to the Topical Guide, only corrected reference errors, formatting changes, and a few other typos.  (The list of changes appears on page 11-12 of this document.)

Continue reading “What’s Wrong with the Topical Guide?”

The 2013 Adjustments to the Book of Mormon: Accuracy Delayed

This post is written by guest contributor, Grant Hardy.

It is a weighty responsibility to decide how God’s word should be presented to the world, and the Church takes this charge very, very seriously. The recent adjustments to the official standard works include many welcome corrections to the headings of the Doctrine and Covenants, but otherwise the revisions are quite minimal. As Elder Neil L. Andersen explained, “members should not feel that they need to purchase a new set of scriptures . . .  Changes to the scriptural text include spelling, minor typographical, and punctuation corrections” (my emphasis). This perhaps makes sense in the case of the King James Version, which continues to be what it has been for the last 400 years, and for the Doctrine and Covenants, where the textual scholarship of the Joseph Smith Papers is ongoing. Yet it represents a lost opportunity for the Book of Mormon in light of Royal Skousen’s completed analysis of textual variants (in six books) and the publication of his reconstruction of the earliest text.

Continue reading “The 2013 Adjustments to the Book of Mormon: Accuracy Delayed”

adjustment to the book of abraham in the new edition of the scriptures

So you noticed the change regarding the Book of Abraham in the introduction to the Pearl of Great Price, and you want to situate it a little. Well here is a rundown of some pertinent information.

The heading to the William W. Phelps and Warren Parrish Copy of Abraham Manuscript (Summer—Fall, 1835):

Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypts

The heading to the Willard Richards Copy of Abraham Manuscript (early 1842):

A. Translation of Some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book ofAbraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus,


Continue reading “adjustment to the book of abraham in the new edition of the scriptures”

Updated LDS Scriptures: An Occasional Series

As a group of people that is generally pretty interested in the scriptures, we were pleased to learn of the new edition (2013) of the LDS scriptures announced on Friday.  The link provides a wealth of information about the new edition, including a discussion of the history of the LDS editions, and detailed documents noting every change made to the text and headers.  The transparency of this new change is extremely useful.  New maps and study aids are provided as well.  In early commentary, LDS audiences have welcomed the new edition, even if most of the changes are extremely minor.

One of the primary areas of attention so far is the addition of explanatory headers for the two Official Declarations in the Doctrine and Covenants.  These have largely been received enthusiastically, though there has been some critical assessment on their depiction of the past.  Other important changes to the headers in the Doctrine and Covenants reflect the historical work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Here at FPR, we plan to look more broadly at what was changed, as well as what was kept in the standard works and study aids.  Obviously, they didn’t take all of my advice on this issue!   Stay tuned for some analysis of these changes in the coming weeks!

UPDATE: Posts in this series will be under the category: 2013 Scriptures.