October 21, 2009

"In their weakness, after the manner of their language"

Joseph Smith's Revelations, Revisions, and Canonization

The latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers project is a massive work, and I'm not just talking about its bulky physical dimensions. It is pregnant with possibilities for Mormon scholarship.

Robin Jensen is a member of the Church History Department staff and an editor of the recent JSP volume. While making transcriptions of Joseph Smith's revelations Jensen has identified "Many additions, revisions, deletions, or other types of redactions were made by multiple people on the manuscript" between the time they were recorded, edited for publication, and updated as the needs of the Church grew.1 Jensen explains that many "simple minor changes" were made in addition to "significant changes made to the text...sometimes entire phrases were added." For Jensen, this indicates the "non-static" nature of the revelations which were adapted to language and understanding of the recipients and the changing needs of the Church.2

Latter-day Saints shouldn't be surprised at such changes, given their acceptance of continuing revelation. Still, it raises questions about the malleability of a scripture canon. How do religious communities accept the authority of a canon that undergoes change? Bernard M. Levinson, a professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, has investigated the problems of canonization and innovation. For him, the very idea of canon is one of the distinctive advancements of major religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Text can be used to found, ground, and even change a religious community. Canon helps keep things together, but it also raises interesting problems—especially after the canon is closed. I think it can be argued that—despite Mormonism's theoretically "open canon"—the LDS Church faces similar problems as closed-canon groups because of the latent authority the scriptures (or "standard works") hold.3

Levinson astutely describes the problem:

By locating its font of revelation or contemplative insight in foundational sources, however, a culture confronts an almost inevitable difficulty. The essence of a canon is that it be stable, self-sufficient, and delimited....With such fixidity and textual sufficiency as its hallmarks, how can a canon be made to address the varying needs of later generations of religious communities?4
Levinson argues that scriptural exegesis (interpretation) arises to solve the problem.5 But the solution can actually raise more problems by essentially calling into question the sufficiency or authority of the original. It can also break down the coherence of the scriptures when we realize they are not "uni-vocal," but represent different views from different prophets in different time periods.

Levinson goes on to explain how creative changes to old revelations are done when subsequent prophets and scribes adjust text, change translations, reinterpret older verses, and utilize several other strategies to adjust the morphing canon to changing conditions. Analyzing examples from the Old Testament, Levinson shows that such innovations were occurring before the canon was formulated, much like we see on a smaller scale in the Doctrine and Covenants revelations from Joseph Smith. Most studies in this area of biblical research focus on how later Targum and commentary adapt the canon, but Levinson shows how such changes are actually found throughout the formative period of the canon, or "inner-biblical exegesis."6

Granted, the time span for Joseph Smith's revelations is smaller than what we find in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, his revelatory process seems to have remarkable similarities, even after quill hits parchment or pen hits paper. We see, as Levinson argues, that human voice isn’t diminished by canon, but actually augmented. Joseph Smith also demonstrated that canon includes the means to challenge, change, adapt, reject, and even substitute meaning. This refutes any easy dichotomies drawn between text and tradition, grammar and Spirit:7

Although chronologically prior, the canonical source is not ontologically prior, since the past is rethought and interpreted from the vantage point of the present. The authoritative source thus reveals hermeneutics. If canonization conventionally represents an anthologizing attempt to gain closure, then the texts of the Hebrew Bible [and Smith's revelations] militate in the opposite direction. They resist any simple notion of...Scripture as one-sidedly divine. They tolerate no such hierarchies or binary oppositions. Properly understood, the canon is radically open. It invites innovation, it demands interpretation, it challenges piety, it questions priority, it sanctifies subversion, it warrants difference, and it embeds critique.8
Or, to put the same idea in the language of revelation, consider the fascinating implications of what the Lord spoke through Joseph Smith (and how he said it!):

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.9

Robin S. Jensen, "Revelation Book 1: Digging in," bycommonconsent.com, 23 September 2009. For another interesting review of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project see Ardis E. Parshall, "First Impressions of the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations Volume," keepapitchinin.org, 23 September 2009. Check out this nifty Family Home Evening lesson on the JSPP from Deseret Book, too. The photo is by Jason Olson, "Original Book of Commandments and Revelations is shown against backdrop of first two published Joseph Smith Papers volumes and a triple combination." See R. Scott Lloyd, "Word of the Lord: Latest Joseph Smith Papers volume presents facsimiles of early revelation manuscripts," Church News, 19 September 2009.

Jensen, Ibid., gives several specific examples of interesting changes in the revelations between their receipt and publication.  

The volumes of scripture officially accepted by the LDS Church, include the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. These "Standard Works" are not strictly held as inerrant, but are held as normative for Church doctrine. See "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," LDS Newsroom, 4 May 2007.

Bernard M. Levinson, “You Must Not Add Anything to What I Command You: Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel,” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions, Vol. 50, No. 1 (2003), pp. 6-7. Levinson is a professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota.

"If the closed literary canon as the repository of revelation or insight is the source of stability for a religious tradition, exegesis provides vitality," Levinson, ibid., p. 8.

Levinson, ibid., p. 10. 

Levinson, ibid., p. 49.

Levinson, ibid., p. 50.

D&C 1:24. The author of the epistle to the Romans intriguingly places another break in communication lines between the prophet and the weaker people: "I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness" (Romans 6:19). Or as the Weymouth translation puts it: "your human infirmity leads me to employ these familiar figures...." More about communication and revelation to come. This post is cross-posted at fairblog.org


WVS said...

Nice one, Blair.

BHodges said...


Brant said...

In think that a major conclusion that we should draw (though I suspect it will be difficult for some) is that true revelation comes in the form of meaning rather than words. Of course I won't suggest that the words are not important or that they do not convey the revealed meaning. Rather, human words are simply the way we attempt to explain the divine will.

The ability of that divine will to be couched in a human language also means that it is not exclusive to one language. The scriptures can be translated and preserve the important meaning, even when there are semantic incongruities between the original language of the revelation and the target language of the translation.

It also tells us that even the process of revelation in the same language leaves room for the prophet to see that a concept has not been communicated as well as he understands it--and therefore something may be added to the original to improve the communication of meaning.

The scriptures are revelations, but not "God-breathed" communications.

BHodges said...

Brant, I largely agree. But I'm still at a loss to explain proper names in JS's translation of the BoM for one thing.

Brant said...

Even when you translate the English Book of Mormon into another language you can retain proper names -- even when other concepts require a less that verbatim translation.

Anonymous said...

You are asking Brant to admit that a significant part of his life's work is false. He will when the others will. (Don't hold your breath.)

BHodges said...

Anonymous: please read the comment guidelines before commenting. Further, I don't understand your comment. I am not asking Brant to "do" anything. It isn't clear what he should "deny" or what you even mean. Sorry I can't be of more help, but I don't understand what you are saying.

BHodges said...

"deny" should read "admit."

BHodges said...

A great related discussion: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2010/11/the-shorter-or-longer-reading-is-to-be-preferred

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