Written to any Latter-day Saint who is confused or disillusioned at the complex history and transmission of Biblical texts.
Imagine with me.
Imagine that 1000 years in the future, the restored Church of Jesus Christ is strong and well. The ceremonies, traditions, teachings, and doctrines have all been passed down from our generation to theirs.
Imagine that this thirty-first century Church has inherited, through the mists of time, the following collection of texts from the twenty-first century:
- The Doctrine and Covenants, but without any of the section headers.
- Saints volumes 1 and 2, but without the names of the editors/writers/compilers and without any of the source notes.
- A selection of hymn texts from our hymnbook, but many have lost the names of their authors. Those that appeared in the first hymnbook now bear the designation “A hymn of Emma Smith.”
- Certain chapters from the General Handbook.
- Select discourses from various prophets, such as Ezra Taft Benson’s talk “Beware of Pride” or Russell M. Nelson’s talk “Revelation for the Church; Revelation for our Lives.” These talks have lost their titles and are now just known by the prophet’s name: “Benson” or “Nelson,” etc.
These texts are now bound together into one collection, known simply as “The Books.”
Knowledge about how and when these texts were written has been largely forgotten, except for certain traditions and limited information in The Books themselves. For example, everyone knows that Joseph Smith authored the Doctrine and Covenants under divine inspiration. And the authors of the books called “Benson” and “Kimball” and “Monson” are also obvious. But people assume that Saints was written in the mid and late 1800s, shortly after the events it describes, and that the General Handbook was dictated by Joseph Smith.
In this hypothetical thirty-first century, however, scholars begin to look more closely at “The Books” and to ask questions. Through sincere inquiry and archeology, they begin to come to some startling conclusions:
- Saints, because of its vocabulary, themes, and other clues, couldn’t have been written until the 2000s, nearly two hundred years after the events it describes.
- Joseph Smith couldn’t be the author of the entire Doctrine and Covenants, because one section references his death, and another section describes the exodus west from Nauvoo.
- Some of the sections in the Doctrine and Covenants appear to be out of chronological order, or reflect different styles of writing and composition.
- Some of the hymns did not originate with the Latter-day Saint movement, because their wording coincides nearly perfectly with some rediscovered Protestant hymns from the 1800s. How could these hymns be the inspired work of Emma Smith if they were stolen from another culture?
- Many details in Saints of how the church was run don’t coincide with the instructions given in the General Handbook. Was the Handbook actually used, then? Or was it mainly ignored?
For some members of the thirty-first century Church, these discoveries cast doubt on the authenticity of the sacred texts. Some choose to leave the faith. Others accuse the scholars of exaggerating flaws and inconsistencies in order to undermine people’s belief. Most, however, simply ignore the findings and insist that their traditional understanding of the origins of “The Books” is still true, no matter what “scholars” say.
Okay. You can stop imagining now.
I crafted this analogy to use something you’re very familiar with (the origins of our modern sacred works) to explore something you’re not so familiar with (the origins of the Old and New Testaments).
The analogy, while far from perfect, is useful for illustrating various points:
- Nearly everything we know about the authorship, date, and composition of Biblical books is whatever has been handed down through tradition—and this tradition is sometimes incomplete, simplified, or just wrong.
- What we do know for sure is that every Biblical text was, at some point, considered sacred enough by the Israelite/Jewish/Christian community to be copied, preserved, and grouped with other sacred texts.
- Like our example of Doctrine and Covenants, some Biblical texts were likely considered sacred and authoritative as soon as they were created (the Ten Commandments, the writings of Isaiah), while others, much like Saints is now, likely existed for a while as well-known and appreciated texts before their adoption as “canonical” scripture. (For example, we know that there was extensive debate among Jewish leaders as to whether the book of Esther should be considered as inspired, because it never directly references God.)
- The texts preserved in the Bible only represent a fraction of the possible textual material from ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. For example, prophets like Hosea and Amos likely prophesied much more than what has been passed down to us—just like how Ezra Taft Benson taught hundreds of sermons in addition to his “Beware of Pride” talk.
- As with the book Saints, some of the texts in the Old Testament are later, edited histories based on older sources. 1 and 2 Chronicles, for example, were documents created after the Exile that reworked the material found in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. Some material from Samuel and Kings was preserved unchanged, other material was omitted, and new material was worked in from either other sources or the editors’ commentary.1
- Like our example with protestant hymns appearing in our hymnbook, it’s likely that not all biblical texts had their origins exclusively in Israelite religion. Thanks to the discovery and translation of texts from the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit,2 we know that some phraseology and imagery in the Psalms were borrowed from Israel’s Canaanite neighbors. Similarly, we know that many aspects of the civic and criminal laws in Deuteronomy have parallels in older legal traditions in other parts of the ancient Near East.
- In our example, scholars realized that Joseph Smith could not have authored the Doctrine and Covenants section about his death. Similarly, scholars beginning in the late Middle Ages realized that the Five Books of Moses contained many passages that could only have been written after Moses’s life (such as the description of his death in Deuteronomy 34, or references to monuments or traditions continuing “to this day,” in reference to the Israelites’ life in Canaan post-Moses). These discoveries flew in the face of a strong, centuries-old tradition that Moses was the sole author of all five books.
I could go on. But for me, the most important lesson from my analogy is this: The complexities surrounding a text’s origin and transmission do not automatically discount its value or validity.
In our analogy, every text passed down to the thirty-first century Church was a legitimate, authoritative text. Perhaps Saints and the General Handbook weren’t intended to be scripture when composed, but they are still certainly inspired—still “true.” And the events described in Saints still very much happened, even though the history itself was composed two hundred years later.
In the same vein, I am a firm believer in the reliability and value of Biblical texts—despite their complex origins:
- Yes, the Five Books of Moses undoubtedly underwent substantial editing well after Moses—but I still believe they have their origins in a vision on Sinai.
- Yes, the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were written well after the events they describe and contain historical inconsistencies and errors—but I still believe they were written and compiled by devout and competent historians, who were striving, in albeit flawed and mortal ways, to describe the hand of God in history.
- Yes, the Psalms contain phraseology from extra-Israelite sources—but I still believe they represent sincere efforts by Israelite poets, working within a larger Near Eastern literary tradition, to praise and worship the true God.
- Yes, the four Gospels are inconsistent with each other in many details and chronological particulars—but I still believe they represent the earnest and inspired work of early Christian leaders who did their best, from eyewitness or second-hand accounts, to capture the teachings and miracles of the Son of God.
A Matter of Trust
Belief in scripture is a matter of trust—trust in our ancestors. At some point, in some way, every book in the Bible came to be accepted as the word of God by the believing segment of the Israelite or Christian people. They had to have had their reasons. They knew the history of composition and transmission better than we do. They or their parents or grandparents likely knew the author or editor. And, knowing what they did, they chose to pass each text on to their posterity with their stamp of approval, until those texts came down to the present day.
And ultimately, to trust the Bible is a matter of trusting in God. Would God have had Joseph Smith retranslate the Bible if it had not been inspired? We know Joseph declared the Song of Solomon to be uninspired and simply skipped over it—would not God have directed him to do the same for other books, if that had been the case? And would God direct His Church to read and study and ponder these ancient texts if they did not contain His voice, His will, and His covenants?
So just like I believe in the truth and value of the Doctrine and Covenants, the hymnbook, and the words of modern prophets, I believe in the truth and value of the Old and New Testaments.
I hope you will, too.
Many people are troubled by the complex composition and transmission history of Biblical texts. By looking at how our modern texts have been written and compiled, and by imagining how future generations might misinterpret or rediscover the origins of what has been handed down to them, we can learn lessons for how to see the Biblical texts. While the authorship, date, and editorial process of many texts is uncertain, we can trust in the fact that each text was preserved and canonized by the ancient Israelites or Christians, who knew much more about these texts’ origins than we do. We can also trust in God’s direction from modern prophets to study these texts as containing His word.
1. Chronicles is a unique case among Old Testament books because its source material actually survived: we have both Chronicles and Kings and Samuel. It’s clear that the books of Samuel and Kings themselves are edited histories drawing upon various sources, including royal annals, traditional stories (possibly passed down orally), and perhaps even, for some of the later events, eyewitness testimony or firsthand experience. But almost certainly, the composition or compilation of Samuel and Kings was even farther removed from the events they describe than Saints is from the life of Joseph Smith.
2. Ugarit was a city on the Phoenician coast that thrived from 1450 to 1185 B.C. Ugarit holds special status in Old Testament studies because, of all the archeological sites in the ancient Near East that have yielded substantial textual remains, Ugarit is one of the closest cultural neighbors to the ancient Israelites.
Image credit: “Portion of the Temple Scroll, labeled 11Q19,” via Wikimedia Commons, public domain. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s, shed interesting lessons on the origins of Old Testament texts, simultaneously reaffirming the accuracy which which later manuscripts had been preserved and affirming that some books had undergone ongoing editing. A copy of 1 Samuel amid the collection, for example, had several hundred significant differences, additions, or subtractions from the version preserved in the Masoretic texts (which are the basis for the King James Translation and most other modern translations).