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The More [LDS Scriptures] Change, the more things stay the same?

March 1, 2013

My LDS interest internet is collectively rejoicing, and I would say for good cause. The LDS Church has released a new edition of the English scriptures in digital format. As its comparisons page makes note of, this is the first major set of changes since 1981. And read that last line there — rather than making silent, imperceptible changes, the church has explicitly produced a guide comparing before and after. Here is a PDF of the side-by-side comparison of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, and the Joseph Smith Papers project has a summary of explanations and notes that the support for the changes will be supported in two forthcoming volumes from the project. This is definitely showing the incredible fruit of the Joseph Smith Papers project.

Emily Jensen covered just a couple of the major changes — introductions to Doctrine & Covenants Section 132 and Official Declaration 1 (on polygamy) and Official Declaration 2 (on blacks and the priesthood). Blair Hodges posted on Facebook that he would be covering all changes in the standard works in a blog post today, so I’ll add that link when it gets there. The point is…the actual changes will be covered by many bloggers (see Paul Barker’s quick commentary on OD2 at Rational Faiths) of far greater stature than myself — at least when they wake up — so instead of trying to beat people to the punch on getting the news out, I just wanted to offer a few thoughts.

In September, I wrote that I saw plausible deniability and ambiguity as being a change strategy for the church. How does this hold up here?

In several aspects, these changes seem to be ground-breaking not just on the actual content level, but on the meta level of how the changes were disseminated. I will re-emphasize — there is a freaking side-by-side comparison with all changes highlighted. How can anyone suggest that there is no clear link between the past and present here?

…However…there were a few more elements of the strategy that I had mentioned in my previous post on caffeine. Let’s check a few of those out:

Source Criticism: Shooting the Messenger

If you read my post on caffeine, then you will see that a good deal of my thoughts are about the plausible deniability invested not in what is said but in who says it. In her article discussing the change, Jana Riess summarizes the problem:

Although the LDS Newsroom offers the disclaimer that its own statements are not definitive (“The information here is reliable and accurate but should not necessarily be viewed as official statements from the Church”), they are the clearest enumerations of policy that Mormons and journalists have to go on these days, and as such they are significant.

How does that compare here?

…well, here, the scriptures themselves are changing. That’s not something the Newsroom can do on its own. In fact, the 2013 Update to the English Scriptures is brought forth with a letter from the First Presidency — signed by Monson, Eyring, and Uchtdorf. This seems pretty legit so far.

Form Criticism: The Medium is the Message

One thing that jumped out to me about the changes from the articles summarizing those changes is that these are not generally changes to the scriptures themselves. (I await Blair’s analysis of all changes to see this for sure.) These are changes to the introductionschapter headings, and study helps. As the First Presidency letter points out, those things were the reason that the scriptures were updated in 1981 (although a 1981 document also shows text changes…also with side-by-side comparison.)

But these items are precisely ones that have caused trouble for many a member — we take chapter headings for granted as if they were ever-present or that they are divinely inspired, but the reality is not so simple.

Let’s take FAIR’s article about the coins anachronism in the Book of Mormon.

The actual text of the 1830 Book of Mormon does not mention coins. The word “coins” was added in the 1920 edition to the chapter heading for Alma 11. In the 1948 edition of the Book of Mormon, we see the following chapter heading:

Judges and their compensation—Nephite coins and measures—Zeezrom counfounded by Amulek

The chapter headings have been subject to change over the years. Note the absence of the word “coins” from the chapter heading for Alma 11 found in the current edition of the Book of Mormon on the official Church website “lds.org”:

The Nephite monetary system is set forth—Amulek contends with Zeezrom—Christ will not save people in their sins—Only those who inherit the kingdom of heaven are saved—All men will rise in immortality—There is no death after the Resurrection. About 82 B.C.

There’s a little more to the argument, but the brunt of it is that the scriptures do not mention coins at all. Instead, we have a non-canonical chapter heading that at some point inadvertently added this idea, and people have mistakenly taken it to be doctrinal.

While for the sake of learning and accuracy, I think it’s good that the study helps are revised whether they are scriptural or not, I don’t see how changes to study helps avoid the “form” criticism that doesn’t apply as much to the body of the scriptures.

Redaction Criticism: Reading Between the Lines

Finally, I wanted to look at just one of the changes — the one to Official Declaration – 2 — to evaluate what is significant about what the redactors ultimately decided to add and not add. In my post on caffeine, the Newsroom clarification was one issue, but the silent change to clarification offered even more insights. As I had written then:

So I was quite surprised when I learned that the version that I had was a revised version…and I was confused when I read the original content. The old version, as you can see above, differs from the new version in two relevant ways — it explicitly states that the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine, and then it explicitly states that the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom do not go beyond alcoholic beverages, smoking or chewing tobacco, and “hot drinks” (which refer specifically to tea and coffee).

The main thing that the change does effectively is that it tones down the language of “not prohibit[ing]” to the more vague (yet also completely accurate) “not mention[ing]“.

I may lack creativity, but when contrasting the two statements, the only reasonable conclusion I can come up with is that the new statement is meant to be just a tad bit more vague about the status of caffeinated beverages than the old statement is.

One major premise of the ambiguity hypothesis was that the church leaves certain things left unsaid, but provides enough of a space for people to read what they want into the statement. If this is harmless, then no one will bring it up…but as soon as the inferences produced become counterproductive, then someone will point out what the text really says.

I’m already seeing some overextensions from the changes…and while I don’t disagree with most of them, I can see how anyone could challenge them.

Let’s look at the Official Declaration 2 introduction.

“The Book of Mormon teaches that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to race that once applied to the priesthood.”

This reads like a good primer to the history. I was already familiar that there were a few black male members ordained to the priesthood, and that the history of the priesthood ban is definitely more complex than many members know (in part thanks to Mormon Heretic and Marguerite Driessen at Sunstone), so the good thing about this introduction is that there now is a no-stress way of pointing out these details.

But here’s what is not being said in the message: The message is not saying that the ban was not revelation. As Paul Barker at Rational Faiths has pointed out, the message is also not pointing out that when “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice,” that doesn’t mean that we can’t find a trail of quotes from Mormon leaders and thinkers in the past.

These are, to be sure, safe positions to take. One commenter in the BCC discussion pointed out that inferences about revelation can be made by contrasting this introduction with the new Official Declaration 1 introduction — with blacks and the priesthood, there are “no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” But with polygamy, yes, that had a revelation.

But still, that’s an inference. Only as good as it is politically expedient to make.

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5 Comments
  1. Absolutely wonderful changes. They did a bang up job. At least, from the side by side comparison of D&C and PofGP. The only problem I have is with the first sentence of the OD 1 heading, but even that is understandable since that is the current understanding of just about the entire church. The Scriptures Committee, whoever they are, have really impressed me on this edition.

    I am one who completely ignores the chapter headings of the Book of Mormon and Bible (after all, what do I care about somebody’s possibly uninspired summary of the content?) but the D&C section headings are useful to give a historical context (the verse summaries I ignore) and the book introductions also give historical context. I am glad to see all the historical research making the section headings more accurate and informative.

    I will probably end up incorporating many of these changes into my own, ongoing scriptural project: http://1stactscriptures.wordpress.com/

  2. BHodges permalink

    “Blair Hodges posted on Facebook that he would be covering all changes in the standard works in a blog post today..”

    Just now noticing this, my comment was hyperbolic, ie, just a joke!

  3. truly disappointed, Blair. My opinion of you (and of the future of the Maxwell Institute) has just plummeted.

    (j/k ;) )

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