Category: Scriptures

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints

The Maxwell Institute at BYU recently published Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, and it is a fantastic journey into early Christianity geared specifically to Latter-day Saints.  Through a collection of 14 essays dealing with topics ranging from praxis and worship to scripture and theology, the key elements of Christianity during its first several centuries (and beyond) are addressed in an accessible way.  The discussions are punctuated by a large collection of artwork produced by early Christians, spread throughout the book in beautiful detail. When approaching Latter-day Saint writings about early Christianity, I’m generally concerned that it will be an effort to convince people that the ancient Church was identical to the modern one in a polemic effort to reinforce the traditional apostasy-restoration narrative.  Ancient Christians quickly dispatched that concern, with Jason R. Combs discussing this at length in the introduction.  He notes that: “rather than dismissing entire epochs as corrupt … today we work to understand ancient Christians on their own terms.”  He added that: “We cannot assume that today’s Church is a template for what the first-century Church must have been, or vice versa.  For that reason, in this book, our authors acknowledge the differences between ancient Christians and Latter-day Saints without automatically assuming such differences to be evidence of apostasy.”  In this way, Ancient Christians both compliments and expands on some of the concepts discussed in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (Oxford University…

Susa Young Gates and Joseph F. Smith’s Vision

The vision that we have printed as Section 138 was received by Joseph F. Smith in the last few months of his life.  Among the very first people he asked to have review the document was none other than his friend, Susa Young Gates.  In one of the excellent essays presented in the Revelations in Context book, Lisa Olsen Tait talked about Susa’s experience with the revelation.  More recently, Lisa Olsen Tait discussed more about Susa and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion). Why was Susa one of the first people to read the vision?  Part of it has to do with her personal friendship with Joseph F. Smith.  As Tait described: Joseph F. Smith was over seventeen years older than Susa Young Gates. … They became friends in Hawai’i in 1885-87. Susa accompanied her husband, Jacob F. Gates, on a return mission to the Sandwich Islands, and their service overlapped with the time that Joseph F. Smith and his wife Julina were there, basically keeping a low profile during the anti-polygamy crusade. (Smith was a highly-wanted man due to his church leadership position and his knowledge of the records.) A few letters between them from that time survive, and, in my reading, evince a progression from friendly but formal acquaintances to deep…

Antipus, a Forgotten Hero

This is a guest post by Brian Stubbs. The faith, feats, and divine protection of the 2,000 stripling warriors is a favorite episode for many readers of The Book of Mormon.  Yet a number of less-than-obvious details may muster even more admiration.  The people of Ammon were called Anti-Nephi-Lehi (Alma 23:16-17), likely meaning ‘those of Nephi-Lehi’ (Book of Mormon Onomasticon, online; Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now, Stubbs 2020, 101). The original adults covenanted never to kill again and were given protection within Nephite territories. With time, the Nephite burdens of war led to 2,000 Ammonite youths, teenage sons who had not entered into such a covenant, to volunteer for service.  These 2,000 striplings asked Helaman, the son of Alma the younger, to lead them (Alma 53:19). From Middle English, the word stripling basically means ‘skinny teenager’; its dictionary definitions include ‘youth’, ‘adolescent’, ‘boy’, ‘young man’, ‘teenager’, etc.  In earlier English, the -ling suffix referred to one of the category or quality of the preceding stem: compare yearling (one-year-old), underling (one serving under), hireling (one hired), earthling (one of earth).  It also often referred to the young of whatever species: duckling (young duck), gosling (young goose).  So stripling means one like a strip, a long narrow or slender youngster, not yet a fully filled out adult, though some of us overshoot the filling out part.  Perhaps only as a matter of interesting trivia, stripling warriors is one of our…

To Ezra or not to Ezra…

Ezra is an important figure in the Hebrew Bible, but there are some concerns that have been raised over the historical record around him and some interesting places where he is missing in that record.  In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, the Biblical scholar Charlotte Hempel discusses some of the theories and thoughts around Ezra, with a particular focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). One of the central questions in the debate is whether or not Ezra was an actual historical figure.  Charlotte Hempel explained that: This is a great question and has been debated by scholars for centuries. Ezra appears in 6 chapters of the Hebrew Bible in Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8 and 12. He is described as a priest, a skilled scribe who has his heart set on the study of the law and its promulgation among the people, as well as a social reformer. On the more radical end of the spectrum there are those, including C. C. Torrey, who suggest Ezra was a fictitious creation. For most scholars today Ezra is a historical figure whose literary record was amplified by subsequent authors and editors. There is a spectrum of thought on how accurate the records we have are in relation to Ezra’s life. Ezra and Nehemiah are portrayed as contemporary individuals,…

Three Degrees

Language is a tricky thing. Sometimes, when someone says a word, it can mean something very different to them than it does to us. This can be particularly true when that person is from the past and the exact meaning of a word changes over time. In a recent interview with Bryan Buchanan about an article by Shannon Flynn at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk discussed a major example of where this seems to have happened in our understanding of the afterlife about divisions within the Celestial Kingdom. What follows here is a copost – a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion. The concept that there are three subdivisions within the Celestial Kingdom is based on one section in the Doctrine and Covenants (131). In the current edition of the scriptures, it reads as follows: “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.” The assumption is that “celestial glory” is precisely equivalent to the Celestial Kingdom-the highest degree of glory announced in Joseph Smith’s 1832 vision (D&C 76). As it turns out, that may not be a great assumption. The word in question is “celestial”. Buchanan explained that: If we look at contemporary dictionaries (like Webster’s 1828 dictionary), “celestial” was simply a synonym for “heavenly.” In other words, Joseph Smith may have been expressing the idea that “in the heavenly glory (or just, heaven), there are three gradations.” … If we argue…

Was Jesus Married or Not?

An enigma that has been explored repeatedly over the years, both in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in Christianity more broadly, is the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. There is little to reliably indicate either way in the established canon of the New Testament, but that hadn’t stopped people from discussing the topic. And in organizations like the Church that emphasize marriage, there are some theological reasons to want to say that he was indeed a married man.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Christopher Blythe discussed the issue in connection with a recent article published in BYU Studies. What follows here is a copost to that interview. In addressing how Latter-day Saints have approached the question “was Jesus married?” over the years, Blythe described how it has shifted within the Church. It’s a little more complicated when you talk about whether Jesus was married. Historically, the question has gone through an evolutionary process: First, there was a wide consensus among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was married. Then, there was a wide consensus that he was married (but we should not speak about it). And finally, it was thought that the answer is unknowable and individual Latter-day Saints might take either position. For me, this essay belongs in the book because it shows that even when a doctrine is privately held by general authorities, that does not…

Collected Thoughts on the Doctrine and Covenants

I spent most of 2021 writing a series of posts to follow along with the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum for the Doctrine and Covenants.  I had a few reasons for doing this.  First and foremost, I wanted to challenge myself to look more closely at the scriptures, to really read and think about what the Doctrine and Covenants says and the context in which it says it to deepen my personal understanding.  Studying the Joseph Smith Papers resources around the earliest versions of the revelations and then writing about an idea or thought that caught my attention is an approach that helped me do that.  Second, there were several ideas that run through the Doctrine and Covenants that I’ve been musing on for years and wanted to take the time and effort to really collect and organize my thoughts on those topics, such as the endowment of power and the development of temple ritual.  Third, I noticed that there was a surprising dearth of literature about the Doctrine and Covenants compared to the other sections of scriptures (that’s not to say that there isn’t literature about it out there, just not nearly as much available as the Bible or the Book of Mormon), so, for better or worse, I wanted to offer my own contribution to that literature in a format that was freely available and which drew on the scholarly analyses that I have read. The results varied from…

Women of the Hebrew Bible

In a culture that is often male-centric, it can sometimes be easy to overlook women in the scriptures. While very few are mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants, the Bible has many women who are mentioned by name and featured in the stories therein. In a recent From the Desk interview, Camille Fronk Olson discussed some of what she has learned about the women of the Old Testament over years of studying, teaching, and writing about them. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with done excerpts and commentary). I learned a fair amount from reading what Camille Fronk Olson said in the interview. One interesting point had to do with Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Olson stated that: The Dead Sea Scrolls contributed to my appreciation and understanding of Hannah (I Samuel 1-2). In the King James version of the Bible, Hannah’s husband Elkanah tells her, “only the Lord establish his word” (1 Sam. 1:23), indicating an understanding that Hannah was free to make daily decisions as she deemed best, except when they violated a promise to the Lord. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, Elkanah tells Hannah, “May the Lord establish that which cometh out of thy mouth” (4QSama), showing that Elkanah believed that Hannah spoke the words of God—and that God was working through her. This same wording also appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.…

Loving the Book of Mormon Prophets without Accepting Their Prejudices: A Review of “The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, Volume 1”

A while back, a friend sent me an uncomfortable text. She is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but someone had given her daughter the old illustrated Book of Mormon Stories book, and her daughter came across the passage in Second Nephi when Nephi narrates that Laman and Lemuel’s descendants are cursed because of their wickedness and become a dark-skinned people. My friend texted, “We were wondering if there is some context missing that would make it seem less racist?” It’s a troubling passage for me and many other readers, but I finally had words to formulate a response, and for that, I can thank Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming’s wonderful commentary The Book of Mormon for the Least of These: 1 Nephi – Words of Mormon, which the authors dedicated to “those who seek God and work for justice.” In this volume, Salleh and Hemming show a deep love and respect for the individuals in the Book of Mormon while also examining the challenges they experienced and how those may have colored some of their own perspectives, as in the passage referenced above. They invite us to not only consider the voices we hear and events we see but also those we do not: “Who is present but unheard? Who is suffering and why?” But they also invite us to question the perspectives of the narrators: “What are the assumptions this person…

The Book of Abraham Book

I once had a teacher who loved to say that: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”  To some degree, this is not infrequently the case when it comes to studying issues in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham is an easy-to-read summary of the important scripture text from the Pearl of Great Price. Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein recently discussed the book with Kurt Manwaring.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with quotes and some discussion), but feel free to read the full interview here. There are a lot of interesting questions to ask about the Book of Abraham, its origin, and nature.  For example, one question is whether or not the text of the Book of Abraham is directly based on the text that was on the papyrus or not.  Muhlestein shared his view that ultimately: We cannot tell for sure. There is some evidence that it was. Joseph Smith certainly spoke of it that way, and that is pretty weighty evidence. Further, the more I research the life and interests of the priest who owned the papyrus fragment which contains the original of Facsimile One, the more I become convinced that this priest would have been very interested in the text of the Book of Abraham. That is circumstantial evidence that the text of the Book of…

What If …. Chad Updated the Doctrine and Covenants? Part 3

Joseph Fielding McConkie recalled that when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve were discussing adding the documents that are now Sections 137 and 138 that Elder Bruce R. McConkie had a few other suggestions.  One was to add two Articles of Faith about the restoration of the Gospel and the Plan of Salvation (to which Thomas S. Monson good-naturedly responded: “We all know there are only thirteen Articles of Faith, not fifteen”).[1]  McConkie also suggested adding several excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation to the Pearl of Great Price, the entire Wentworth Letter, and the Lectures on Faith.[2]  While these weren’t accepted into the official canon of the Church, Joseph Fielding McConkie indicated that these, along with the official expositions from the early 20th century known as the Origin of Man and Father and the Son, Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse, and Joseph Smith’s Sermon in the Grove, were still regarded as scripture by Elder McConkie.[3] I agree with some (though not all) of these suggestions, which dovetails nicely into my hypothetical series about what I would do if I were asked to update the Doctrine and Covenants.  Reviewing from last time, the goals I have in mind in this theoretical project are that updates to the scriptures must do the following: Increase faith in and worship of our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. Teach core doctrines with power and clarity. Comfort the weary and inspires…

What If …. Chad Updated the Doctrine and Covenants? Part 2

Continuing my hypothetical series about what I would do if I were asked to update the Doctrine and Covenants (and still keeping in mind that I have no plans to actually do so and I’m 110% sure the Church doesn’t have any plans for me to do so either), we come to looking at editing documents currently included in the Doctrine and Covenants.  In the last couple decades, we’ve had an explosion of research into and availability of the root documents behind the Doctrine and Covenants in the form of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.  This provides us with the opportunity to examine sections and to work to bring them into greater conformity to what Joseph Smith said and did, as well as some potential opportunities for expanding sections here and there.  Along those lines, I will examine Section 130 and Section 131.  On the other hand, there are a few opportunities to edit sections that do not reflect current understandings in the Church (I’m looking at you, Section 132).  There aren’t a huge number of edits that I would make, so the aforementioned three sections with be the focus of the post. Reviewing from last time, the goals I have in mind in this theoretical project are that updates to the scriptures must do the following: Increase faith in and worship of our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ Teach core doctrines with power and clarity Comfort the…

What If … Chad Updated the Doctrine and Covenants? Part 1

I told you I wasn’t done with the Doctrine and Covenants yet.   Follow me, and ponder the question: What if? It’s the year 2023 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has decided to produce a new edition of their scriptures.  For reasons that are unclear, the project was picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable:  Chad Nielsen, of Times and Seasons.  Challenged to produce a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, Chad goes to work, planning out what he will do. Now, in reality, I know full well that the Church doesn’t care about any suggestions I might have and that I would be very far from their first candidate for a project like that.  That is why I opened by presenting this as a Mormon multiverse story (sorry about using the moniker, the alliteration was just too good to pass).  This series of posts is entirely for fun and also entirely hypothetical.  It is, I will also note, a logical outgrowth of my spending the entire last year focused on the Doctrine and Covenants and then important documents in Latter-day Saint history.   Disclaimer out of the way, now, what would I do if I was tasked with an update to the Doctrine and Covenants?  I might start out by laying out guiding principles, looking at the updated hymnal guidelines for inspiration.  Excluding the guideline about inviting joyful singing, the relevant guidelines from…

The Contradictory Commands, Part 3: A Tale of Two Records

In part 1 of this series discussing the contradictory commands given to Adam and Eve to not partake of the forbidden fruit but to also have children, I discussed the possibility that they would have been resolved in time, but they jumped the gun and listened to Satan rather than God, which is why they were in trouble.  In part 2, I discussed the more popular idea that Eve chose to obey a higher law when she ate the fruit and that it wasn’t a sin in the full sense.  Today, in the final post to round out this series, I will discuss a less popular, but scholastically important idea articulated through higher criticism of the Bible. Modern Biblical studies have opened the doors into a deeper understanding of the context and conditions in which the Bible was written.  Some of these insights have bearing upon the question of the contradictory commands given to Adam and Eve.  Admittedly, some propositions of modern scholars are challenging for Latter-day Saints because they challenge assumptions about both the Bible and Joseph Smith’s translation.  David Bokovoy does a good job of addressing those concerns in his work Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy, but there is still a lot of room for differing interpretations and beliefs on the issue. Many Biblical scholars have come to believe that the Torah or Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) do not represent a single, monolithic production by…

The Contradictory Commands, Part 2: The Higher Law

Part 1 of this series discussed the contradictory commands given to Adam and Eve to not partake of the forbidden fruit but to also have children, I discussed the possibility that they would have been resolved in time, but they jumped the gun and listened to Satan rather than God, which is why they were in trouble.  In this post, I discuss a more popular resolution in the Church to the contradiction centering on the concepts of the Fortunate Fall and that it wasn’t a full-blown sin to partake of the forbidden fruit.  The basis of this idea is that the command to not partake of the forbidden fruit was a lesser commandment compared to the command to multiply and fill the earth.  In some versions of this theory, the command to not partake of the fruit was more a warning than a command.  In other versions, the choice to partake of the fruit was still a choice to violate a commandment, but one that was done to obey a more important commandment.  Most Church leaders who have articulated these positions maintain that partaking of the fruit was not a sin per se, but a transgression or lesser infraction in some way. As stated, one approach to the two contradictory commandments is to hold that they were indeed contradictory commandments from God, but Eve and Adam chose to follow the command that was more important.  Elder John Widtsoe expressed this…

The Contradictory Commands, Part 1: Isn’t It About … Time?

One Sunday while I was on my mission, I was asked to teach the Gospel Principles class.  The class was very small (just the missionaries and one part member family we’d been teaching), and the subject was the Fall of Adam and Eve.  I remember this lesson, because I was explaining conditions in the Garden of Eden and the results of the Fall.  The manual summarizes the scriptures and doctrines by stating that: “When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, they were not yet mortal. In this state, ‘they would have had no children’ (2 Nephi 2:23).  There was no death.”[1]  Yet the very next paragraph taught that: “God commanded them to have children. He said, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…’ (Moses 2:28). God told them they could freely eat of every tree in the garden except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of that tree God said, ‘In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ (Moses 3:17).”[2]  I did my best to explain these ideas, and one of the people in the class pointed out that these two things seem to contradict one another—In the garden, they couldn’t have children. God commanded them to have children but also commanded them to not do the thing that would allow them to have children—partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  I didn’t have…

“I saw the hosts of the dead”

President Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead is one of the most recent documents to be included in our cannon (only followed by Official Declaration 2).  Experienced on 3 October 1918 and recorded shortly thereafter, the vision outlines the underlying theology behind proxy work for the dead that we perform in the temples.  Received against a dramatic backdrop of death, the vision gives hope for all of humankind.  Yet rather than breaking new ground, the document is a capstone of years of theological development in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  That doesn’t undercut its significance, however, since its later inclusion in the scriptures canonized those developments for the Church. Received over 100 years ago, this important vision came at a time of wide-spread death and destruction.  WWI was just a month away from its official end, after four years of carnage that resulted in millions of deaths.  Similar to today, a deadly pandemic was raging at that time that would kill tens of millions of people.  Joseph F. Smith himself had experienced loss not long before the vision.  In that year alone, his eldest son, a son-in-law, and a daughter-in-law had all died at young ages.  In addition, as his great-grandson stated: “During his lifetime, President Smith lost his father, his mother, one brother, two sisters, two wives, and thirteen children. He was well acquainted with sorrow and losing loved ones.”[1]  It was…

“The Word and Will of the Lord”

There is a story about President David O. McKay where a youth who wasn’t active in the Church flippantly asked him, “When was the last time you talked to God, President McKay?”  President McKay answered in all seriousness that: “It was last week.”  The person who shared the story noted that: “He left everyone wondering what he really meant by that, whether he was praying, talking to God, or whether it was another kind of experience.  But the way it was said, it really left this kid shaken up.”[1] One of the ongoing tensions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is reconciling the belief in ongoing revelations with both the number of written revelations produced by Joseph Smith and the lack of similar documents in our canon from later Church leaders.  As noted in the document about the “Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his Brother Hyrum” that was added to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1844 (now D&C 135), Smith “has brought forth the Book of Mormon … has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men.”[2]  On the other hand, out of the 140 main documents presented in the Doctrine and Covenants, only 2 are revelations or visions from later Church presidents, and 2 are press releases about changes resulting from other Church presidents having revelations.  Even…

“There is never but one on the earth at a time”

Polygamy was one of the most divisive and explosive policies that Joseph Smith ever embraced.  In many ways, it was what led to Joseph Smith’s death.  He knew that it would be a cause of contention, both within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and with those who were not members, and he made some efforts to both conceal the practice and to set up rules to keep it controlled.  Key among the latter was the idea of only one individual serving as the gatekeeper to entering plural marriages.  Yet, polygamy was a confusing and messy practice to early church members from the very start and it was difficult to stick to those rules.  As Amasa Lyman once said about the early attempts to practice plural marriage, “We obeyed the best we knew how, and, no doubt, made many crooked paths in our ignorance.”[1] Joseph Smith’s Presidency During the 1840s, a series of difficult situations may have led Joseph Smith to centralize the authority to perform plural marriages and eternal marriages to the office of church president. First, Benjamin Johnson recalled that in Kirtland, Ohio in the early 1840s, some church members followed a man who “claimed he had revealed to them the celestial law of marriage.” This led to “men and women of previous respectability” engaging “in free love.”[2]  More significantly, the assistant president of the LDS Church and mayor of Nauvoo, John C. Bennett, seduced women in…