One of the valuable contributions from the scholarship in the Joseph Smith Papers (see JosephSmithPapers.org) is an enhanced understanding of the revelatory process that we have before us in the papers of Joseph Smith. Some Latter-day Saints might be surprised to find that their imagined views of revelation are challenged. Much of what was revealed through Joseph Smith did not come as complete and perfect dictation from God, but often required revisions. It’s a reminder of the limitations of revelation to mortals, in which God comes down to our level and works with mortals in their language, with their limitations in understanding. What mortals put into writing can be incomplete or even inaccurate on several levels, requiring subsequent correction or revised interpretation in the future. As Joseph Smith once put it, “Oh Lord God, deliver us from this prison, almost as it were, of paper, pen and ink, and of a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language” (letter to William W. Phelps, Nov. 27, 1832).
This quote was used recently in a MormonTimes article, “Scribes Recorded Prophet’s ‘Crooked, Broken Language.'” This discusses Joseph’s reluctance to write and his reliance on scribes. Here’s an excerpt:
Mark Ashurst-McGee, coeditor of the JSP’s Journals series, added that the Prophet understood the need for record keeping, but fully understood the limitations of his meager childhood education.
Nothing illustrates that better than a letter written on Nov. 27, 1832, to William W. Phelps, the church printer in Missouri. In it, the Prophet writes, “Oh Lord God, deliver us from this prison, almost as it were, of paper, pen and ink, and of a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.”
“That’s great writing,” Ashurst-McGee said. “But at the same time he’s writing well, he’s saying, ‘I hate this’.”
According to the Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1, Joseph wrote in a journal for nine days, then not again for 10 months.
“He understands the importance of record keeping, feels strongly about it, and understands its part of the mission of the church, but he doesn’t love it,” Ashurst-McGee said. “And that’s why he starts getting scribes to help him. He’s so busy. And (having scribes) builds up more and more in the history of the early church, so that by the time he dies, he has an office staff.”
Joseph’s discomfort in writing fits the LDS view on the origins of the Book of Mormon, where Joseph was the overwhelmed translator, not a dazzlingly brilliant author. Further, the abundance of records showing the process in which scripture was born, including the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and the manuscripts behind the Doctrine and Covenants, show that Joseph Smith was not in the business of covering up his tracks as part of a massive fraud. We can see the details of the translation process for the Book of Mormon and the details of the processes for later revelations. Now massive efforts are underway to help make all of this more visible for the world through the Joseph Smith Papers project. We’ll have much to learn and many assumptions to update as we digest all the information. It’s part of a healthy journey in world where we can never fully escape from the limitations of a “crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.”
Update, July 12, 2010: We agree with Moses in Deut. 4:2 and with John in Rev. 22:18-19 that no man should add to or subtract from the text given to us by prophets of God. But God can speak and add all He wants, working through His mortal servants the prophets, and thus Moses and other prophets kept on writing as God kept on revealing or as sacred history kept on being recorded.
Were the words of Moses and the other prophets of the Bible complete and inerrant when first penned? Was there never any revision or need for later correction?
While we do not have ANY of the original texts that led to the Bible, and do not have the luxury of looking over the Isaiah papers or Moses papers, for example, to see how they recorded and prepared their documents, we do have a few hints suggesting that revisions may have occurred. For example, consider the writings of Jeremiah as recorded by Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch. See Jeremiah 36, where we learn that Baruch wrote all the words from Jeremiah that were recorded in a book (vss. 4, 17, 18) Unfortunately, King Jehoiakim of Judah burned the book that contained the words of Jeremiah (vss. 21-25). The Lord commanded Jeremiah to prepare his document again, writing “all the former words that were in the first roll” (vs. 28). In verse 32, Jeremiah then commanded his scribe, Baruch, to write on another roll the words of Jeremiah, “and there were added besides unto them many like words.” Many like words added? This doesn’t sound like original dictation straight from the mouth of God, perfectly preserved and unchangeable. Prophets speak or dictate by inspiration, but there can be later changes and additions.
A few years ago Robert Boylan kindly sent me further information on this topic:
You might also like to know that Jeremiah 36:32 is not the only example of prophets revising their prior revelations. Moses revised the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), as seen when one examines Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In addition, Isaiah 36-39 is a revision of 2 Kings 18:13 – 20:19, and Jeremiah 52 is a revision of 2 Kings 24-25. Joseph Smith’s actions, contra critics … are entirely consistent with the actions of Biblical Prophets.
As I understand it, scripture is inherently affected by human limitations. These limitations arise in receiving divine knowledge in the first place, then putting that knowledge into writing, followed by the tasks of preserving the text, translating the text, and publishing the text. Human limitations become especially severe when it comes to interpreting the text. Opportunities for error exist at every step. The original authors or even subsequent prophets may have occasional needs to revise or clarify what once was penned. None of this should shock us.
Some think of scripture as spoken directly by God with every letter and nuance perfectly captured. The conceit behind the easily refuted Bible Code, in which secret messages from God can be found by formatting the Torah into various grids and looking for secret word-puzzle messages, goes beyond that and envisions a Hebrew text that has preserved every letter since the beginning. This idealistic view is easily shattered. We work with texts that may have had many limitations from the beginning, and that were often imperfectly preserved over the centuries, resulting in many competing variants, occasional gaps or lacunae, and some obvious difficulties. It’s just one more reason why we need ongoing revelation to guide us. We rely on written revelation and faithful latter-day Saints turn to it daily and use it to gain guidance and revelation for our lives, but we should be emotionally prepared to occasionally recognize that past assumptions and knowledge may need to be updated, and that some things we think we have drawn from scripture may be imperfect and incomplete, in need of revision. Whether it’s the age of the earth, the geographical extent of the Flood, the details of the Creation, the value of pi (implicitly 3.0 in 1 Kings 7:23: “ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, . . . and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about”), the settling of the Americas, or all many of historical and doctrinal issues, we must always understand that our knowledge may be more limited than we think, partly because revelation comes though human tools struggling with imperfect language and imperfect understanding in the first place, not to mention all the other challenges that can arise in going from the pen of the author to printed translations much later.