In Tents 62 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part II

Think back to that marvelous moment when your seminary teacher introduced you to the various groups in 1st-Century Palestine–that cartoon of the Zealot carrying a picket sign reading Render Unto Caesar, and that mnemonic comment about the difference between the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection, and the Sadducees, who did not. And that’s why they were sad you see.

OK, it’s a cheesy joke as I told my Sunday School class, but for more than 40 years it’s been an easy way to tell the difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What my seminary teacher didn’t say however, and what the New Testament doesn’t tell us, is why the Sadducees were sad. You see, I didn’t find that out till I was standing on the platform at the Draper FrontRunner sation waiting for the midday train (only once an hour at that time of day) last week listening to Thomas Madden’s second lecture in “From Jesus to Christianity.” Madden says at 9:50 that the Pharisees valued all sacred writings as well as oral traditions. Since Daniel and others mention the afterlife the idea of resurrection has scriptural support.

At 10:49 Madden states the Saduccees’ opinion on the question. They did not accept anything after the writings of Moses as scripture, and since the Books of Moses don’t mention a resurrection it’s not a binding doctrine.

How interesting, here I’ve been exploring the consequences of closed versus open canon in my column, and I come across something that tells me the debate between the two goes right back to the time of Jesus and before.

Early in these digressions on rhetoric and how texts behave (often differently than how we think they behave) I proposed a thought experiment:

Suppose I told you there were thousands of errors in the first edition of the Book of Mormon–not necessarily in every copy, but in the first edition as a whole–or more precisely that there are nearly 4000 changes between the first edition and the 1981 edition. Would that shake your testimony? Should it?

My implicit answer to both questions was it wouldn’t shake your testimony, and it shouldn’t. But why? Because the concept of an open canon means the Lord makes allowance for human error in creating and transmitting scripture. If a prophet wants to revise his work, revision is part of his stewardship. If a prophet or copyist makes a mistake the Lord can inspire a prophet or textual critic to find and correct the mistake.

If you are committed to a closed canon, you almost have to believe the scriptures are perfect, or at least complete as written, that there would be no point in adding to them because there would be no need. Which can make the existence of textual variants deeply disconcerting, because the variants imply less than perfect transmission of the texts.

Of course, someone could note that the vast majority of New Testament variants are relatively minor, having to do with things which don’t greatly affect meaning and doctrine, like spelling and punctuation, or verb endings–like the majority of changes in The Book of Mormon. Spiritual maturity, the argument would go, requires us to recognize that the Lord works through imperfect means, and to make allowances accordingly when we think about scripture.

Of course, if you push that logic far you come to a statement like,

24 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.
25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
27 And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
28 And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.

D&C 1;24-28 

That is, statements about the imperfection of scripture and the problems of transmission are not found in the Bible, but in the experience of scholars working through the difficulties of translating ancient sacred writings into modern idioms. To find a formal scriptural statement of the difficulties of textual production and transmission would require a new revelation. It would take a self-aware book tracing its own history over a thousand years to adequately treat textual transmission and divine intent, and how human intent affects the production and transmission of sacred writings:

6 And now it came to pass that when Jesus had said these words he said unto them again, after he had expounded all the scriptures unto them which they had received, he said unto them: Behold, other scriptures I would that ye should write, that ye have not.
7 And it came to pass that he said unto Nephi: Bring forth the record which ye have kept.
8 And when Nephi had brought forth the records, and laid them before him, he cast his eyes upon them and said:
9 Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel, the Lamanite, that he should testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them. And he said unto them: Was it not so?
10 And his disciples answered him and said: Yea, Lord, Samuel did prophesy according to thy words, and they were all fulfilled.
11 And Jesus said unto them: How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?
12 And it came to pass that Nephi remembered that this thing had not been written.
13 And it came to pass that Jesus commanded that it should be written; therefore it was written according as he commanded.

III Nephi 23:6-13

In the next column I want to apply the tools The Book of Mormon gives us to the Book of Mormon itself, and explore in more detail something I touched on in #60. If as scholars think, the latter half of Isaiah dates from the end of the Babylonian exile, how do you account for the presence of chapters from Deutero-Isaiah in a pre-exilic writing like I Nephi, or the Brass Plates?

After that I hope to start looking at some examples of prophetic rhetoric in the life and deeds of a doomed rabbi/prophet from Nazareth.

Your turn.

2 Thoughts on “In Tents 62 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part II

  1. Dennis Clark on March 9, 2016 at 2:57 pm said:

    Another fine entry in this ongoing investigation!

    I am very interested in your upcoming column about Deutero-Isaiah. David Bokovoy has begun a series of books called “Authoring the Old Testament,” with the first volume, “Genesis – Deuteronomy” already published, and “The Prophets” and “The Writings” to follow. In this sequence he follows Tanakh, the traditional Hebrew Bible. But even in the prefatory material of the first volume, he grapples with some of these issues.

    Worth looking at.

    • Harlow Clark on March 14, 2016 at 5:30 pm said:

      Thanks for your comment, Dennis. I think I’m going to have to look at Bokovoy’s books.

      There are some assumptions that ought to be grappled with when you’re dividing Isaiah or another prophet into deutero- or trito-. One is a stylistic, the assumption that when you have different styles you have different authors. Another is that ancient scribes would not deliberately introduce textual changes. A third is that there’s no such thing as prophecy, so any prophecy dates the text as having been written after the events described.

      I’m not at all sure that different styles equal different authors. If you read a news story about a Cedar Hills gadfly standing up during public comment at a council meeting and asking the mayor for his resignation, and a column about prophetic rhetoric you might not realize they were written by the same person. Most of the writers I know have more than one style.

      Scribes might well introduce changes into a text. The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants both treat scribing as a sacred work, a stewardship, and a steward of the records might well have the authority to make changes. H. L. Ginsburg says in the intro to the JPS translation of Isaiah that the word Chaldeans as a synonym for Babylonians in passages like 48:14, 20 (I Nephi 20:14, 20) dates those chapters to the Babylonian exile because that area wasn’t called Chaldea in Isaiah’s time.

      But strictly speaking the presence of Chaldeans in a text only dates the word Chaldeans as coming from the exile. A exilic prophet/scribe/steward-of-records could have updated the word to help his audience understand the text better.

      As for prophecy the question may not be whether there is such a thing as prophecy, but whether the stewards of the revelations believe there is. If they believe in likening the words of the scriptures to themselves, that is, in seeing their situation in earlier writings, in earlier history, then they may (in the sense of having permission as stewards, and in the modal sense, might) annotate or update the scriptures. Josephus says Cyrus saw his name in the scriptures and wanted to help fulfill the prophecy.

      It is possible that the stewards of the records recognized that the words in Isaiah 47 and 48 fit their situation perfectly and they put Cyrus’s name into 44:28 and 45:1 to emphasize that, and then showed him the results.

      David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris likened themselves and their situation to scripture when they asked if they could be the ones to fulfill the prophecy in II Nephi 11:3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation