Friday, January 14, 2005

Distinctive Doctrine & Covenants

In Gospel Doctrine two Sundays ago, the teacher asked what makes the Doctrine & Covenants different from other scriptures we have. The answers centered on the fact that the Doctrine & Covenants is not a translation, that it is revelation specifically for our day, and that it is an open book of canon -- all very fine answers.

But for me, the most distinctive thing about the Doctrine & Covenants in contrast to other scriptures is that because it is so recent, we have a pretty good close-up look at the revelation and evolution of scripture. We have many primary textual sources for the Doctrine & Covenants, unlike any other book of scripture, for which we have only copies of copies. This can give us insight into the nature and process of scriptural revelation. We get some of this in Biblical scholarship, as more manuscripts are found and compared, but it is all at a much greater distance.

And it seems to me that what we find is that scriptural revelation isn't a very tidy process. A fair number of things that we have in the Doctrine & Covenants come from letters or comments made in a conversation and recorded later on. Expansions, changes, drafts, editing, etc. all contribute to something that challenges the simplistic views of scripture I grew up with, in which God dictated the revelation word for word and the prophet just wrote it down.

The implications of this are fairly significant, I think, and give us some insight into the relationship between God and man and our own need for humility.


  1. Nice to see "Let Us Reason" back from the dead, Grasshopper. You're back on my blogroll.

    I think you're right that "scriptural revelation isn't a very tidy process." For all the fascination with LDS history, few orthodox scholars have latched onto that idea, instead holding out that revelation is a cut-and-dried word dictation process (or something close to it). That seems belied, however, by Joseph's willingness to edit, augment, or even redraft substantial chunks of his earlier revelations.  

    Posted by Dave

  2. I credit an online poster who went by the name of bigjohn for getting me thinking about the process when he remarked on the "gift of Aaron" referred to in a section of the Doctrine & Covenants being an edit of a prior version of the same section, but which included greater detail that, perhaps not surprisingly, made the revelation of less general applicability.

    Seeing the development of edits is a fascinating way to see the process of revelation step-by-step. 

    Posted by greenfrog

  3. "few orthodox scholars have latched onto that idea, instead holding out that revelation is a cut-and-dried word dictation process (or something close to it)."

    Where do they get that idea from, anyway? Is it something that snuck into our doctrine from evangelical Protestantism? My BIL is an evangelical Christian, and he thinks that every single word in the Bible is the inerrant inspired Word of God. I think it makes more sense to view scripture as a record of our contacts with God over the millennia. 

    Posted by VeritasLiberat

  4. Oh man! What is a kooky fellow like me going to do when there are so many great things to discuss on this Blog!

    Another area of fascination for me is ancient scripture, ancient cultures and archeology. I am re-reading a great book called Who Wrote the Bible by Richard E. Frieman. It is a wonderful layman’s summary of the Theory of Higher Criticism that plagues mainstream Christianity and many Orthodox Jews. Higher Criticism is a language analysis of the Old Testament that theorizes (quite convincingly) that there were 4 distinct authors of the Torah/Tanak books and none of them were Moses. They name the authors E, J, P and the Compiler [I think I got that right]. E was likely a Levite descendant of Moses, J was likely a Levite descendant of Aaron, P wrote the book of Deuteronomy and Mr. Friedman postulates that the prophet Jeremiah compiled the Tanak from these available records and from pieces of Sumerian mythology available to him while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. After that time, we have archeological evidence of Torah copies that are the same as we have today.

    I find it particularly interesting how the ancient Sumerian story of creations as found the Enumu Elish is so similar to the creation story in Genesis, but it has many times more detail and predates any known records of Genesis texts by thousands of years.

    What a wonderful time in history to have the fullness of the Gospel! Do you other members of the church have a problem with the fact that the prophet Jeremiah might have written the five books of Moses and that there is not linguistic evidence that Moses actually wrote those books himself? I don’t. It sure sounds a lot like Mormon and Moroni who compiled the Gold Plates from the available records they had that were handed down to them. I don’t have any problem what so ever! I believe the prophet Jeremiah was a prophet, and that one of his chief missions as a prophet was to decide (through revelation) which of the many strange and disjointed stories available to him at that time were valuable as scripture. I have no problem with him cutting and pasting from 5 or more sources to create scripture. I would not be surprised if the process was similar to that of the prophet Joseph Smith’s methodology. He probably read and re-read things, prayed about it, received inspiration and dictated the passages to his scribe (which Mr. Friedman also sees in the language structure – a scribe of Jeremiah wrote the Tanak).

    So many people like VeritasLiberat’s brother-in-law like to think that scriptures fell out of the sky in their printed form and smack the prophet on the head. Grasshopper makes such a great point about how the Doctrine & Covenants, and our close connection to the historical creation of that those scriptures, help us understand older scripture better.

    I won’t even get into the 4th century AD Council of Nicea and the political/religious machinations that resulted in what is canon New Testament. Let us say that is was a less-than-inspired process that rejected many manuscripts and scripture fragments while accepting others as “true.” I can only recommend looking into the pseudopigraphal works (non-canonical new testament books), reading with the blessings of the Spirit and seeing for yourself. There is direct evidence, such as in the case of what is known as the Secret Gospel of Mark, where early Christian church leaders purposely withheld plain and precious parts of scripture that they did not understand.

    Posted by Brian J.

  5. I started to think more about this and thought that others might enjoy the fascinating story surrounding “Secret Mark.” This is such a clear and real example of what Nephi referred to when he wrote about his vision of our day and of the Bible:

    …for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many of the covenants of the Lord have they taken away.” [1 Nephi 28]

    Here is the history. A man named Morton Smith, who was a theology grad student at Columbia University, was working on a documentation project at a monastery named Mar Saba south of Jerusalem in 1958. He discovered several important manuscripts that had been tucked away in the monastery’s library. In one manuscript, someone had hand-copied the text of a letter into the blank end pages of another book from 1646. The letter is a response from Clement of Alexandria to another church leader named Theodore. Theodore had apparently sought Clement’s advice about a contemporary heretic named Carpocrates who was teaching some really twisted doctrines about male homosexuality based on a different version of the Gospel of Mark that Carpocrates had somehow “stolen” from the libraries of Alexandria. This version of Mark and apparently other writings by Mark were being guarded as a secret in Alexandria. Theodore did not know how to deal with Carporates. Clement seems to have had first-hand access to these guarded documents in Alexandria. He wrote a response to Theodore clarifying passages that Carpocrates had intentionally misquoted and twisted to his own carnal purposes. Clement also admonished Theodore never to divulge the existence of the secret writings of Mark to anyone but “insiders” or those who had been initiated into these mysteries.

    It is my personal view that Theodore and Clement were most likely ignorant of what the passages meant. They had good intentions to protect others from this information because it had obviously been misused and abused for foul and selfish purposes [the Carpocratian heresy]. Perhaps Clement was one of the “initiated” who did understand some of it, I don’t know. It is hard to say for sure.

    Anyway, read Clement’s words for yourself. Pay careful attention to the passage Clement quotes about the young man who visit’s Jesus. I find it startlingly plain that the young man received washings and anointings from Jesus, and he was most likely taught the endowment. Then go and look at the same passages in the standard Gospel of Mark and see where the text has been edited out.

    The letter of Clement of Alexandria to Theodore
    [Translation by Morton Smith:]

    From the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis. To Theodore.

    You did well in silencing the unspeakable teachings of the Carpocratians. For these are the "wandering stars" referred to in the prophecy, who wander from the narrow road of the commandments into a boundless abyss of the carnal and bodily sins. For, priding themselves in knowledge, as they say, "of the deep things of Satan," they do not know that they are casting themselves away into "the nether world of the darkness" of falsity, and, boasting that they are free, they have become slaves of servile desires. Such men are to be opposed in all ways and altogether. For, even if they should say something true, one who loves the truth should not, even so, agree with them. For not all true things are the truth, nor should that truth which merely seems true according to human opinions be preferred to the true truth, that according to the faith.

    Now of the things they keep saying about the divinely inspired Gospel according to Mark, some are altogether falsifications, and others, even if they do contain some true elements, nevertheless are not reported truly. For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor.

    As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.

    But since the foul demons are always devising destruction for the race of men, Carpocrates, instructed by them and using deceitful arts, so enslaved a certain presbyter of the church in Alexandria that he got from him a copy of the secret Gospel, which he both interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies. From this mixture is drawn off the teaching of the Carpocratians.

    To them, therefore, as I said above, one must never give way; nor, when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that the secret Gospel is by Mark, but should even deny it on oath. For, "Not all true things are to be said to all men." For this reason the Wisdom of God, through Solomon, advises, "Answer the fool from his folly," teaching that the light of the truth should be hidden from those who are mentally blind. Again it says, "From him who has not shall be taken away," and, "Let the fool walk in darkness." But we are "children of light," having been illuminated by "the dayspring" of the spirit of the Lord "from on high," and "Where the Spirit of the Lord is," it says, "there is liberty," for "All things are pure to the pure."

    To you, therefore, I shall not hesitate to answer the questions you have asked, refuting the falsifications by the very words of the Gospel. For example, after ,"And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem," and what follows, until "After three days he shall arise," the secret Gospel brings the following material word for word:

    "And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan."

    After these words follows the text, "And James and John come to him," and all that section. But "naked man with naked man," and the other things about which you wrote, are not found.

    And after the words, "And he comes into Jericho," the secret Gospel adds only,

    "And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them."

    But the many other things about which you wrote both seem to be and are falsifications.

    Now the true explanation and that which accords with the true philosophy...

    [Here the text abruptly stops in the middle of the page]

    Posted by Brian J.