Mormonism and the Bible/Overview

Mormonism and the Bible: An Overview

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Question: Do Mormons consider the Holy Bible to be the Word of God?

Latter-day Saints consider the Bible to be holy scripture

How do Latter-day Saints regard the Holy Bible? Do they consider the Bible to be the Word of God?

Latter-day Saints consider the Bible to be holy scripture. The 8th Article of Faith states:

We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God."

The proviso that the LDS believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly seems to shake some persons' confidence in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Bible-believing church. There is no reason that this should be, for it is hardly a matter of dispute that when men translate words from one language to another they can easily err, and have often done so. Simply comparing different English-language versions of the Bible should demonstrate conclusively that some people understand ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (the source languages of the Old and New Testaments) quite differently in some cases.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reveres the Bible and uses it extensively in its teaching and practice

But let no one doubt: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reveres the Bible and uses it extensively in its teaching and practice. The late Elder James E. Talmage, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, had this to say about the Bible in his classic book about the Articles of Faith:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts the Holy Bible as the foremost of her standard works, first among the books which have been proclaimed as her written guides in faith and doctrine. In the respect and sanctity with which the Latter-day Saints regard the Bible they are of like profession with Christian denominations in general, but differ from them in the additional acknowledgment of certain other scriptures as authentic and holy, which others are in harmony with the Bible, and serve to support and emphasize its facts and doctrines.

The historical and other data upon which is based the current Christian faith as to the genuineness of the Biblical record are accepted as unreservedly by the Latter-day Saints as by the members of any sect; and in literalness of interpretation this Church probably excels.

Nevertheless, the Church announces a reservation in the case of erroneous translation, which may occur as a result of human incapacity; and even in this measure of caution we are not alone, for Biblical scholars generally admit the presence of errors of the kind -- both of translation and of transcription of the text. The Latter-day Saints believe the original records to be the word of God unto man, and, as far as these records have been translated correctly, the translations are regarded as equally authentic. The English Bible professes to be a translation made through the wisdom of man; in its preparation the most scholarly men have been enlisted, yet not a version has been published in which errors are not admitted. However, an impartial investigator has cause to wonder more at the paucity of errors than that mistakes are to be found at all.

There will be, there can be, no absolutely reliable translation of these or other scriptures unless it be effected through the gift of translation, as one of the endowments of the Holy Ghost. The translator must have the spirit of the prophet if he would render in another tongue the prophet's words; and human wisdom alone leads not to that possession. Let the Bible then be read reverently and with prayerful care, the reader ever seeking the light of the Spirit that he may discern between truth and the errors of men.[1]


Question: Why do Mormons use the King James Version of the Bible?

There is nothing in Church policy or official Church teaching that forbids Latter-day Saints from reading other Bible translations in their personal study

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses the Authorized (King James) Version as its official Bible. So, why does the Church insist on using the Authorized ("King James") Version as its official Bible, even though more modern translations are easier to read, are more accurate, and include more recent manuscript discoveries? Some reasons include:

  • historical continuity with the restoration, since the KJV was used by the first generation of prophets and Church members
  • Church leaders feel the benefits of standardization avoid, for example, unprofitable disputes about which member's Bible is a "better" translation
  • theologically, the Church disagrees with some modern trends in some Biblical translations (e.g., removing references to priesthood offices not embraced by some denominations, gender-neutral language when referring to God, etc.)

However, there is nothing in Church policy or official Church teaching that forbids Latter-day Saints from reading other Bible translations in their personal study. Many do so.

Translations always show clear theological preferences

Some critics write of the LDS position write:

It is doubtful that our many modern-day translations were produced by unprincipled people who wanted to keep God's truth hidden. In actuality, quite the opposite is true. The motivation behind a new translation is, in most cases, to give a clearer understanding of what God wants to reveal to His people. Granted. Some translations do a better job at achieving this goal than others.[2]

This is of course only partially correct. Consider, for example, the popular version the New Living Translation. In its introduction we read the following:

The translators have made a conscious effort to provide a text that can be easily understood by the average reader of modern English. To this end, we have used the vocabulary and language structures commonly used by the average person. The result is a translation of the Scriptures written generally at the reading level of a junior high school student.[3]:xvii

A little earlier they admit to a bias within the translation. This translation was prepared by "ninety evangelical scholars…commissioned in 1989 to begin revising The Living Bible."[3]:xv This is fine if you are an Evangelical, but, if you are not, then the translation shows clear theological preferences in its translation. The King James Version, the New International Version, and all other translations generally come with a theological perspective in the translation of the text. Some are criticized much more than others (like the New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses). The LDS Church has chosen the King James Version as its official Bible. The reasons for this were twofold. First, it is a well-respected and easily accessible translation (even if a bit dated), and second, it was the only English translation of the Bible available to the early leaders of the LDS Church, and so all of their biblical citations are taken from it.


Question: Does the eighth Article of Faith statement about believing the Bible "as far as it is translated correctly" imply that Bible translators are trying to hide God's truth?

Latter-day Saints believe that only by the Spirit of God can we make these determinations

Some who are critical of the Church try to show that by the term translation in the eighth Article of Faith, we really mean transmission. For example, one writes:

Some Mormons have recognized that the word translated as used in the Articles of Faith is not entirely correct. Knowledgeable Mormons who have studied the methods of translating languages admit that the transmission, not the translation, of the biblical texts concerns them.[4]

Said one LDS student of the scriptures:

Speaking as a 'knowledgeable Mormon who has studied the methods of translating languages,' I respectfully disagree. The Articles of Faith were written by the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was not interested in the transmission at all, but rather in the translation. He studied Hebrew and Greek in an attempt to come closer to the original language of the Bible. When we do this, we become aware of some startling problems with the translation of the New Testament.

Take for example, a passage from Paul used to support the doctrinal teaching of celibacy in the church (1 Corinthians 7). One of the fundamental problems with interpretations of this chapter revolve around the topic's introduction in the first two verses. The following are two separate translations of the text as found in popular translations of the Bible. The KJV, and those Bibles that follow the more traditional reading, use the first line of text as an introduction, and then have Paul raising the subject of discussion:

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.[5]

In other words, as a response to the things which the Corinthians wrote to Paul, his response is "It is good for a man…" It thus puts the concept of a man not touching a woman into the mouth of Paul. Other translations move the first line of text into the introduction, as the words of the Corinthians to Paul, as in the following text:

Now for the matters you wrote about. You say, "It is a good thing for a man not to have intercourse with a woman." Rather, in the face of so much immorality, let each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband.[6]

In other words, the Corinthians asked Paul if it was good for a man not to touch a woman. And Paul responds negatively. Two completely different interpretations, both being absolutely correct translations syntactically from the exact same passage in Greek. Yet, it has a profound change on the message that Paul is giving in this passage of his epistle. Is this an issue of translation or transmission? McKeever and Johnson earlier stated that "Translation means to take words from one language and put them into the words of another."[7] This is an oversimplification that does not do justice to the subject. At the very least, some concern should have been given to the idea that translation also means to preserve, as closely as possible the intent of the author.

In cases like the example above, where an original text (which might have given more information) is not available, the translation will largely be determined by the predisposition of the theology of the translator. In this case, it is the doctrine that determines the translation. If this were an isolated incident, it would not be such an important factor. But it becomes important when we realize that many of these difficulties are found in core doctrines of the Church. Raymond Brown, a well-known Catholic theologian, only finds three verses in all of the New Testament where Jesus is clearly called God, the rest being questionable on either syntactical grounds or because of manuscript evidence presenting significant challenges to originality.[8]:171–195 He then adds that of these three, none show a predisposition towards a doctrine of the trinity.[8]:195, note 20 This is not to say that I (or Brown) question the divinity of Jesus Christ. Merely that translation and interpretation play a much larger role than the one suggested by McKeever and Johnson. As Brown puts it: "Firm adherence to the later theological and ontological developments that led to the confession of Jesus Christ as 'true God of true God' must not cause believers to overvalue or undervalue the less developed NT confession."[9]

Is translation important? Clearly it is. Latter-day Saints believe that only by the Spirit of God can we make these determinations. Scholarship often cannot help us answer questions concerning the effect of doctrine on translation, particularly in ancient documents where the source is not available.

The challenges of textual criticism—an example

Consider now a published study entitled "Asyndeton in Paul: A Text-critical and Statistical Inquiry into Pauline Style."[10] The authors of the study were working with an ancient rhetorical device called asyndeton, the practice of leaving conjunctions (like the word 'and') out of the text to add impact. It was generally used in oration-an indication that Paul's works were meant to be read aloud. The authors identified more than 600 instances of asyndeton in both epistles to the Corinthians and in the epistle to the Romans. They then tracked these asyndeton through the available manuscript history, and tracked how many were lost when copyists and scribes inadvertently changed the text because they did not recognize the rhetorical device.

The results were fascinating. First, it was clear that the older a manuscript was, the fewer changes could be found. Even more interesting was what they discovered within textual apparatuses available to translators. An apparatus is a combination text with variant readings, used to create the base text from which a translation is made. These include the Nestle-Aland text, the UBS text, and the Textus Receptus prepared by Erasmsus from which the King James Version was translated. What they discovered was that even the earliest manuscripts had been modified in more than thirty percent of the instances, while the latest texts had lost as much as fifty to fifty-five percent. The Textus Receptus, as a majority text, had lost almost seventy percent of the instances of asyndeton. The best of the apparatus texts, that used by the UBS, was still worse than the worst of the earliest manuscripts. The authors of the study left the reader to draw their own conclusions.

What this means is that textual criticism of the Bible is still in its infancy. While it brings us closer to the original texts, there are no guarantees, and no way of telling how far we still have to go. Until then, we are in the same situation with regards to an original text as some critics claim of Mormons:

However, this is an argument from silence, since the same detractors cannot produce any untainted manuscripts from which to measure the "tainted" ones.[11]

If this is true, then it is also an argument from silence to speak as though we have a good replica of the original autographs, which consequently do not exist. If this isn't an argument from silence, then from what source the critcs are speaking, if not pure conjecture?


Question: Do Mormons consider the Bible to be untrustworthy?

Early LDS leaders' views on the problems with biblical inerrancy and biblical translation would seem mainstream to most today

It is claimed that Latter-day Saint leaders diminish the Bible as untrustworthy.

Do the Latter-day Saints detract from the Bible? Do they criticize it? No more so than the majority of Biblical scholars.

Early LDS leaders' views on the problems with biblical inerrancy and biblical translation would seem mainstream to most today. Only those who completely reject modern biblical textual criticism would find LDS leaders' views radical or evil. In fact, LDS beliefs on the matter accord well with many other Christian denominations. Those who vilify LDS belief on this point tend to be at the extreme end of the debate about scriptural inerrancy, and would also reject a modern creedal, orthodox scholar's views.

The Latter-day Saints believe that the Bible is true. It is inspired and inspiring, having been inspired by God and written by prophets, apostles, and disciples of Jesus Christ.

In 1979, the Church produced its own King James Bible, complete with a set of footnotes and cross references, as well as translational notes and study helps

In 1979, the Church produced its own King James Bible, complete with a set of footnotes and cross references, as well as translational notes and study helps. Prior to this publication, the Church purchased most of its King James Bibles from Cambridge University Press. Does this sound like an organization that is using the Bible merely as a public relations gimmick? If so, millions of members were never told. The Church and its members have a deep love and appreciation for the Word of God as found in the Bible.

The bold assertion that the LDS do not value the Bible is amusing. There is no presentation of statistics, only anecdotal claims that first, LDS members do not read the Bible and are not familiar with it, and second, that they constantly hear from their leaders that the Bible is less than trustworthy.

In a survey published in July 2001, Barna Research Group, Ltd. (BRG) made the following observations:

The study also revealed that barely half of all Protestant adults (54%) read the Bible during a typical week. Barna pointed out that Mormons are more likely to read the Bible during a week than are Protestants-even though most Mormons do not believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God.[12]

BRG is not affiliated with the LDS Church, nor was the LDS Church involved in the survey. Members of the LDS Church likewise would not categorize their faith in this fashion—they do, in fact, regard the Bible as authoritative and the Word of God. Yet the survey indicated that they certainly do read the Bible consistently. Also, over the course of two years out of every four years, every member of the Church is asked to read and study the entire text of the Bible as part of the Church's Sunday School curriculum. Asked by whom? By the leaders of the LDS Church.

Early LDS study of biblical languages

One of the often-neglected events in LDS history happened in 1836. Joseph Smith arranged for a Hebrew scholar to come and teach Hebrew to the members of the LDS Church in Kirtland Ohio. The members of the Church had already been studying the Hebrew language, having purchased some grammars, a Hebrew Bible, and a lexicon, and had previously attempted to hire a teacher. The Hebrew scholar who came was Joshua Seixas. He spent several weeks instructing many of the members of the Church in Hebrew.[13] Why the interest in the Hebrew we might ask? Clearly it was to be able to (in the words of Pope Pius XII) 'explain the original text which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern.'

What this shows is that not only were the early LDS aware of the challenges associated with the Bible, but that they were just as interested in going back to the original language and to the original texts (if possible) as was the rest of Christendom who were aware of these discrepancies. Despite the critics' unfounded assertions to the contrary, there has never been a leader of the LDS Church who has ever suggested that the Bible was not suitable for study and for learning the Gospel due to any shortcomings it may have.

The Book of Mormon on the Bible

Critics often discuss two of Nephi's statements regarding the Bible as found in the Book of Mormon. Nephi's perspective is that of modern Latter-day Saints: The Bible contains truth from God. However, it is still the work of men, and is only as reliable as the men who wrote, translated and copied it.

It is interesting that the Book of Mormon itself has begun to be seen as a witness to the textual criticism of the Bible. Source critical theory of the Old Testament splits the story of David and Goliath into two separate accounts that were later merged into the common story that we have today.[14] Scholars believe these two traditions represent an earlier source and a later source. One of the primary evidences for this argument is the fact that some of the added material is missing from the Septuagint (LXX). In a paper presented at the 2001 FAIR Conference, Benjamin McGuire presented evidence that Nephi, in borrowing from the story of David and Goliath, relied on a text that did not have the added or late material.[15] This would be in harmony with current scholarship of the Old Testament, which indicates that this material was added at the time of the captivity in Babylon, and certainly after Nephi had left Jerusalem with his Brass Plates.


Notes

  1. James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1981[1899]), 236–237.
  2. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 7, p. 101. ( Index of claims )
  3. 3.0 3.1 Holy Bible New Living Translation (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1996)
  4. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 101.
  5. 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 (both the KJV and NIV).
  6. 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, REB and NRSV.
  7. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 101.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1994).
  9. Benjamin McGuire, responding to chapter 7 of McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101 (See "A FairMormon Analysis of Mormonism 101: Response to Chapter 7: The Bible)
  10. Eberhard W. Güting and David L. Mealand, "Asyndeton in Paul: A Text-critical and Statistical Inquiry into Pauline Style," Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity, No. 39 (Mellen, 1998), xiv, 203.
  11. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 101.
  12. The full survey, entitled "Protestants, Catholics and Mormons Reflect Diverse Levels of Religious Activity," can be found at the Barna Web site at www.barna.org.
  13. Perhaps as many as 120 members of the LDS Church studied under Seixas while he was in Kirtland.
  14. See, for example, Emmanuel Tov, "The Composition of 1 Samuel 16-18 in the Light of the Septuagint Version," in Jeffrey H. Tigay, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 97-130.
  15. Benjamin McGuire, "Nephi and Goliath: A Reappraisal of the Use of the Old Testament in First Nephi" (text), or video.