With Gina Colvin, Charles Harrell, and Dan Wotherspoon
The following discussion is drawn from ideas shared leading up to and in a March 2013 Mormon Matters podcast (Episode 164) about the release of the new version of the LDS scriptures. This edit is approved by all participants.
The updates to the LDS scriptures include new formatting, updated spellings, corrections to and additional material in study aids, as well as new chapter headings that incorporate recent historical findings. In addition to talking about the overall feel of the new scriptures and what kind of thinking underlies the changes made (and not made!), the panel focuses on the major changes made to the introductions to the Book of Abraham and both Official Declarations.
Charles Harrell (hereafter “Charley”): In a video clip on LDS.org, Elder Anderson mentions that this new edition is merely a “refinement” of the 1979 and 1981 editions. The implication seems to be that there was no intention of making any substantive changes to the scriptural text itself. Consequently, the changes were primarily confined to chapter headings and other supporting material (the Bible Dictionary, footnotes, etc.). It is as though there was a conscious decision to maintain backward compatibility with the previous edition so members wouldn’t feel compelled to buy new scriptures.
Dan Wotherspoon: One verification of that idea was proposed to me by a friend who was surprised that Royal Skousen’s work on the Book of Mormon text didn’t find its way into the new version. Skousen is a professor of linguistics at BYU and has spent the last twenty-five years studying all things related to the original Book of Mormon text and the various errors that have crept in over the years. Apparently, perhaps a dozen or so of these errors are substantive enough that when you compare them with the original, you have to admit that the earlier text made better sense. So to his surprise and others, even though Skousen’s work is well known, none of those corrections were incorporated in this new edition—at least not this time around.
Gina Colvin: Does anyone know the processes by which these new editions were made?
Charley: According to the Church website, it’s been an eight-year process. The release was almost ready to go last summer, but from what I understand, Elder Jensen and Elder Snow, the Church historians, said that the staff should look at the work from the Joseph Smith Papers project and use it to address at least some of the deficiencies in the section headings of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Dan: Interesting! I would have expected that to have been the plan all along. So we almost didn’t see changes to those headings!
Charley: I think one thing we can safely say is that there was a lot of negotiating going on—a great deal of discussion behind the changes that were made and not made, with many compromises.
Changes to Chapter Headings
Charley: As far as the chapter headings are concerned, the LDS.org explanation states, “Some changes have been made so that the chapter heading more clearly reflects the text rather than interprets it.” In other words, instead of “Mormonizing” the headings, they seem to be sticking with summarizing the text itself.
Dan: Can I insert a possibly snide comment here? Instead of reducing the “Mormonizing” of the headings, is it fair to say that they are “De-McConkie-izing” them? It’s pretty well known that he was responsible for writing the chapter headings in the previous version, and he had a very idiosyncratic and powerful theological take that showed up in the earlier version.
Charley: There’s some truth to that. For example, in Acts 4, the chapter heading once included the phrase, “They practice a united order.” In the new version, it has been changed to, “They have all things in common.” So instead of reading the United Order into Acts 4, they state only what the text allows.
Similarly, the name “Jesus” has been removed from the chapter heading for Zechariah 13. The previous heading read, “They shall ask Jesus: What are these wounds in thine hands?” This now has been changed to, “They will ask the Lord, What are these wounds in Thine hands?” Of course, we can interpret “the Lord” to be Jesus if we choose, but that isn’t explicit in the text. I think they were cautious and wise to remove that.
Dan: But is even putting “the Lord” in there reading too much into the text? So often scholars disagree about whether a chapter is messianic, arguing that it is simply a “suffering servant” or other type of passage.
Charley: That’s a good point. Scholars explain that this chapter is actually talking about false prophets, and the question is asked of a false prophet, “What are these wounds in thine hands?” and he replies about his being “wounded in the house of [his] friends.”
Dan: I still applaud the effort. Plenty of Latter-day Saints will probably still read Jesus into places he doesn’t obviously belong, but I will give credit for being more cautious.
Charley: There are still plenty of McConkie-isms in the headings. The sticks of Judah and Joseph referenced in Ezekiel 37 that will be “one in thine hand” are still said to be referring specifically to the Bible and Book of Mormon, which certainly isn’t explicit in the text itself. But I agree: this is a step in the right direction.
Gina: This brings up the question of how Latter-day Saints view the role of scripture. Where do we fit between the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura, where scripture is the sole source of doctrine, and the Catholic tradition of looking to both tradition and scripture? It seems that the previous edition tried to interpret the scriptures for us, but this edition has moved toward letting the text present itself with less intervention. So are we more Protestant or more Catholic in our approach to scripture?
Dan: One window into that question might be found in the new introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants, which contains three new paragraphs that seem to open up a lot of flexibility. One of them states:
Joseph and the early Saints viewed the revelations as they did the Church: living, dynamic, and subject to refinement with additional revelation. They also recognized that unintentional errors had likely occurred through the process of copying the revelations and preparing them for publication.
So, in this way, I think we’re moving into an era of much greater openness to the idea that scripture cannot and should not be thought of as appearing whole and pristine—as Joanna Brooks once said, as if it “has no belly button.” I read the changes as acknowledging that scripture and doctrine both benefit greatly from ongoing engagement among leaders as well as within the wider community.
Charley: The headings in the Book of Mormon have undergone a few changes that I find particularly interesting and which relate a bit to Gina’s question. In 2007 when Doubleday released its edition of the Book of Mormon, the wording of the introduction was changed from describing the book as being “a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas” to “a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas”—the difference being the deletion of the word “the,” which removes exclusivity, acknowledging that the Nephites and Lamanites were not alone in the land. Then, along those same lines, where it once talked about the Book of Mormon being a record of the “principal ancestors” of the American Indians, the Doubleday edition read that the Nephites and Lamanites were “among the principal ancestors.” And now, this newest version simply reads, “among the ancestors.”
Another interesting change can be found in the heading for Alma 11. It used to include the phrase, “Nephite coinage set forth,” but it now reads “monetary system.” One of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon is that there is no record of coins being used in ancient America, so the previous wording was problematic. And, indeed, the Book of Mormon text makes no mention of coins. So this change brings the heading more in line with the text.
Doctrine and Covenants
Dan: One of the major changes to the headings to D&C sections is the dropping of B.H. Roberts’s History of the Church as the primary source for background information. From talking with a nerdy friend, I understand that this move started a few years ago and was even mentioned in the Teachings of Joseph Smith priesthood and Relief Society manual. So instead of History of the Church, the new version refers us to earlier manuscripts.
(A brief discussion followed about how it is likely that as digital proliferation continues, electronic versions of the scriptures will soon link directly to source documents.)
Gina: It seems to me that we are watching the scriptures being repatriated to the teachings of Joseph Smith. The space that used to stand between him and us is being lessened. Is Joseph Smith once again becoming the undisputed source of our tradition and doctrine?
Dan: I think if we as a church are making that move, it’s because we are reacting to the questions that arise if we really examine the development of doctrines throughout our history. We like and want to think of our doctrine as being very self-referential and cohesive—as if Joseph somehow left the sacred grove with a full and complete vision of the gospel. And that’s simply not the case.
Charley: My sense is that we are now—if these statements in the headings and introductions are any indication—moving toward greater comfort with scriptural evolution and divine correction, but we seem to be taking those steps very cautiously.
Gina: I also wonder if what we’re seeing in the new introductions signals a shift toward scholarship and away from scriptural interpretation as the safest bet for the Church. If so, will this carry over to the intellectual work other LDS scholars are doing?
Book of Abraham
Charley: I think the new introduction to the Pearl of Great Price sheds some light on how not only historical but also scholarly influences are showing up more and more. The original introduction described the Book of Abraham as “[a] translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing the writings of the patriarch Abraham.” The new version of the introduction describes the books as “[an] inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.” This wording reveals a decoupling of the “writings of Abraham” from the Egyptian papyri. The introduction also uses the term “inspired translation,” which means the translation need not be understood as literal. It could mean that Joseph was assisted by the gift of God, or that he received an outright revelation, or that the book is an inspired writing, Joseph Smith serving as a sort of scribal author, making the Book of Abraham into a kind of pseudopigraphic document.
It leads us to ask questions such as, “Is this kind of revelation a passive transcription—prophets merely transcribing words that are given to them directly from God, word for word, or is the prophet himself or herself involved in the process, making the prophet, if you will, a significant variable in the revelation equation?
Dan: Absolutely. The particularities of the prophets—the effects of their language, their assumptions, their expectations and personality types—could all affect their “translation.”
Charley: Perhaps they are receiving God’s impressions through their own personal and cultural contexts. So the “translation” emerges from the prophet who is also imprinted with the thinking and paradigms of the time and place in which the prophet lives. This wording of “inspired translation” is fueling a resurgence of the “papyri as a catalyst” theory in relation to the production of the Book of Abraham—the idea that it wasn’t really the papyri at all being translated, rather, the papyri served as a trigger for a revelation for Joseph Smith.
Dan: I, for one, love the change of language to “inspired translation” with all its possible interpretations. I have heard all the possibilities you pointed out articulated over the past twenty years, so this change does seem to be a response to those ongoing discussions.
Charley: We should note one thing, however. This language change is in the introduction to the Pearl of Great Price itself, but the introduction to the Book of Abraham remains unaltered; it continues to read:
A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.
Dan: Wow! I did not catch that! Why would they change it in one spot and not the other?
Gina: It caters to everybody, Dan!
Charley: I think this inconsistency speaks to how broad LDS identity is becoming. It reminds me of a Rorschach test in which we read into it whatever we want.
Dan: A friend pointed out something that seems important at this point: We should remember that even making a small change like this has probably been very hard for many members of the hierarchy who are only very recently even recognizing the ambiguity and difficulties that accompany a study of Book of Abraham origins and claims. They are likely feeling quite disoriented. Like the rest of us, they probably didn’t pay attention to this issue until some compelling reason forced them to do so. We need to be compassionate and remember our own pain and hesitations as we first encountered these issues.
Dan: I think the main thing to note about the wording changes to the introduction to Official Declaration—1 is the new emphasis that monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless God declares it otherwise. This will come as a relief, I’m sure, to many women who have been told that they’ll have to live plural marriage in the Celestial Kingdom. (And to many men, as well! I know I’ve never had any desire to live polygamy—now or in whatever the afterlife shapes up to be.)
Charley: However, the wording still leaves a lot of questions open, such as: “Is monogamy the standard only because we’re not able to practice plural marriage right now? Could the standard in the next life be different?” There’s still plenty of room for speculation.
Back to the issue you raised earlier, Gina—about whether scripture is revisable in Mormonism—from Joseph Smith on through the turn of the twentieth century, plural marriage was viewed by and large as an eternal law. And thus, many people today—including many of the leading brethren—still view it that way. It’s only just starting to pick up with the rising generation that the eternal standard might truly be monogamy. That’s what this introduction seems to be saying, anyway.
Gina: It does seem true that a whole cohort of leaders in Mormonism has an interest in preserving polygamy as an eternal law. But this introduction makes me wonder: might the Church ever get to the point where it might admit that it was wrong on that point?
Dan: Recently, a friend and I began to speculate that it would be much harder to back away from plural marriage than it has been to modify our views about the racial ban because polygamy has a revelation (D&C 132) grounding it. It would be an order of magnitude more difficult to imply that a canonized revelation is false.
I have a hard time seeing that kind of move happening with the current composition of Mormon leadership, but Charley’s book (“This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology), makes me think that we could possibly see it someday. I’m hoping so, anyway! We might also take steps in that direction if we could create a resurgence of interest in Eugene England’s essay, “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage.” It’s beautifully written and presents quite a powerful argument for monogamy. It also questions the basic assumptions that lead so many people to believe that polygamy is the eternal standard.
Gina: To help us understand the new introduction to Official Declaration—2, we need to revisit the introduction in the 1981 version, which really privileges the role of Spencer W. Kimball as the obtainer of this revelation. It privileges prophetic authority and the apostolic process. But this new introduction begins by talking about the people who were affected by the policy. It begins with an affirmation that in LDS doctrine “all are alike unto God.” And then it repudiates the idea that Joseph Smith was responsible for withholding the priesthood from black males—how he actually ordained black members.
But then it gives a disclaimer that has me a bit irritated. It says that there are “no clear insights” into the origins of this practice. It seems to me that when doctrinal waters get a little muddy, we tend to just wash our hands of the entire issue rather than dig in to see what actually went on. Our patriarchal culture seems to have an inability to admit when it has been wrong. Many major churches in the United States have repudiated their earlier doctrines of spiritual segregation, essentially saying: “We apologize. It was wrong for us to do what we did. We had all of these policies, and we had all of these doctrines, and they were all conflated with the mood of the day. It was evil; it was not what God intended, and we are really, really sorry.” But our church has not done that. We seem paralyzed when it comes to admitting institutional wrong. And that’s what bothers me the most about this introduction.
Dan: You are saying you do believe there are clear insights about the origins of the practice, and that they can be found in the political concerns and ideas that were in the air during the Church’s early days. The Church leaders then were racist by today’s standards, but not necessarily any more racist than most others of their time.
Charley: I agree with Gina’s point, but I want to point out that the introduction’s wording is very carefully chosen: “church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” It’s true that we can’t go back into church records and point to an originating document. Again, I agree with what you’re saying, Gina. I’m just pointing out how the wording has been very carefully chosen.
Gina: All of this bothers me because if you are a member of the group that was most directly affected by the ban, this introduction seems very problematic. Where do you find yourself in a statement like this? There is no reconciliation. There is no balm. It privileges the institution rather than the people who were penalized by this policy.
Dan: Gina, I remember you writing that instead of just preaching that all are alike unto God “there seems to be an incomprehensible preference for preserving the mythology of an inerrant leadership.”
Gina: Exactly. If I had a meeting with top leaders, I’d want to say, “Why can’t you just say sorry?” Why do we potentially have to live with this for another thirty-two years?” It would be absolutely okay with me if a leader said, “Hmmmm, yes we got it wrong.” I’m not going to keel over and lose my testimony, as I already don’t believe in their infallibility.
Charley: In other words, you’d like to see the Church err on the side of charity rather than on the side of preserving an image of infallibility, so to speak.
Gina: That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Dan: I think the scriptures from the old world offer a precedent for flawed people who still receive revelation and have a genuine “calling.” We just need to make better peace with that idea today. I think leaders know in their heart of hearts that this move has to be made, but for one reason or another, they are still shooting themselves in the foot.
Thank you, both of you, for this great conversation! I am breathing a bit easier seeing some of the room that is opening up, seeing how a better sense of history and revelation is asserting its influence. As I watch a term like “inspired translation” making its way into the scriptures, I feel encouraged that the kinds of discussions that started in the pages of Dialogue and Sunstone, and that are continuing in blogs and podcasts today, are making a difference. I’m not going to argue that these “outside the Church Office Building” discussions are the key reasons for the changes that are happening, but it is clear that these discussions are not just easily dismissible attempts to “steady the ark,” either. The marketplace of ideas is powerful, and it is working. The best stuff is making its way to the top and influencing the Church for the better. It makes me hopeful.