Joseph Smith, in a confessional statement known as the Articles of Faith, wrote the following: "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly."(1) This brief declaration of faith signifies far more than its apparent meaning would at first suggest. The Book of Mormon, which Smith claimed was the most correct of any book on earth, often speaks of the Bible as having lost entire sections which were "plain and most precious" (I Nephi 13:23). The Mormon apostle Orson Pratt charged the Bible with being "changed, added unto and corrupted in almost every text," and he considered it improbable "whether even one-hundredth part of the doctrines and ordinances of salvation are contained in the few books of scripture which have descended to our time."(2)
Mormons today generally refrain from making such blanket condemnations of the Bible, and will do so only if confronted with direct contradictions between the Bible and their own sacred books. This is a common characteristic of religions which claim to be based upon the Bible but in reality depend upon some extra-Biblical source of authority. Muhammad, for example, urged his followers to accept the authority of both the Old and New Testaments as comprising, together with the Koran, the complete word of God. Such a position, however, proved embarrassing when the doctrines of the Koran were compared with those of the Bible, and Islamic theologians soon found themselves denouncing the Bible as corrupt. The ancient Manichaeans, similarly, professed great respect for the Bible until challenged to scripturally support their claims. Augustine, writing to Jerome in 405 A.D., described them in terms equally applicable to the Mormons.
The Manichaeans maintain that the greater part of the divine Scripture, by which their wicked error is in the most explicit terms confuted, is not worthy of credit, because they cannot pervert its language so as to support their opinions; yet they lay the blame of the alleged mistake not upon the apostles who originally wrote the words, but upon some unknown corrupters of the manuscripts. Forasmuch, however, as they have never succeeded in proving this by more numerous and by earlier manuscripts, or by appealing to the original language..., they retire from the arena of debate, vanquished and confounded by truth which is well known to all.(3)
All such charges of a corrupted Bible are wholly at variance with the results of modern Biblical scholarship. There are approximately five thousand manuscripts and fragments of the Greek New Testament presently available to textual critics. The scribes who produced this amazing profusion of documents often labored under extremely difficult conditions and sometimes at grave personal risk. Yet their copies, produced separately and with little opportunity for comparison, are remarkably alike. Westcott and Hort, two of the greatest authorities in textual criticism, estimated that only one eighth of the New Testament text is subject to any dispute at all, and that most textual problems concern simple matters of spelling. Those variations which could be classified as significant "can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text."(4) Sir Frederic Kenyon, writing nearly sixty years later, came to virtually the same conclusion.
The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.(5)
Much the same conclusion could be made regarding the text of the Old Testament. The Jewish reverence for the letter of scripture led to the devising of an elaborate system whereby copyists' errors were virtually eliminated. The scholarly Massoretes marked the middle letter, word, and verse of each book, listed the exact number of times each letter of the Hebrew alphabet occurred, and developed other intricate tools for assuring proper transcription. Equipped with such information it was a comparatively simple matter for the scribe and his overseer to detect any errors of addition or omission that had occurred in the process of copying, thus preserving the original text insofar as was humanly possible. Their devotion was so extreme that they were careful to preserve even incorrect spelling.
While the Massoretic text reached its final form well within the Christian era, there are other ancient versions which have pursued an independent course of textual evolution. The most notable of these texts are the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint translation, the Syriac version, and the Dead Sea Biblical scrolls. These four versions differ in several particulars from the Massoretic text, but their dissimilarities are surprisingly minor and nowise affect the message of the Old Testament. Indeed, the two Isaiah scrolls from Qumran, which are a thousand years older than any previously known copies, confirm rather than dispute our accepted versions.
The manuscripts underlying our English Bibles, far from being a confusing welter of contradictions, represent the most carefully preserved text in all antiquity. The English reader can easily demonstrate this for himself by simply comparing the Authorized Version of 1611 with the Revised Version of 1895 or the Revised Standard Version of 1952. The King James translators used comparatively modern Hebrew and Greek texts in preparing their translation, while the translators of the Revised and Revised Standard Versions used manuscripts many hundreds of years older and much more accurate. In addition to using manuscripts of varying age, the three versions also followed different textual traditions in translating the New Testament, the Authorized Version representing the Byzantine text, the Revised Version the Alexandrian text, and the Revised Standard Version an eclectic or critical text. These older manuscripts and different textual sources, however, are so close to the manuscripts used in 1611 that the differences between the three translations rarely affect the sense of any given passage. Most of the differences that do exist are due to changes in English usage or to the peculiarities of the translators, not to significant textual variations.
Another way in which Mormons attempt to establish the unreliability of the Bible is by pointing to those numerous books mentioned in scripture which no longer exist. Few Mormon apologists fail to utilize this argument in one form or another, and the implication often made is that only persons ignorant of the Bible could believe in its essential integrity. The following paragraphs will reveal who is actually open to the charge of "ignorance."
First, at least three of the so-called "lost" books of the Bible exist only in Mormon imagination. Paul's comment in Eph. 3:3, "as I wrote afore in few words," refers to material discussed in 2:11-22, not to a prior epistle. The sense of the phrase in Greek is "as I have just written in brief," or "as I have already written above." In Jude 3 we have a similar instance of a Mormon misreading resulting in a lost epistle. Jude says only that he was considering writing another epistle, then changed his mind and wrote the letter which we now possess. There is no mention of a preceeding letter being sent, and it is debatable whether Jude actually began or merely intended to write concerning the "common salvation." A third of the supposedly missing books of the Bible is the letter to the Laodiceans mentioned in Col. 4:16. The consensus of critical opinion, however, identifies this epistle with our canonical book of Ephesians. Existing evidence suggests that Ephesians was originally a circular epistle, addressed to no particular church but identified early with Laodicea and Ephesus.
A slightly more complex case is provided by Paul's mention of a prior epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9), but even here there is no real evidence that Paul was referring to a lost letter. It is possible, in fact, that Paul was not alluding to another letter at all in 5:9 but to material discussed in 5:1-5. (6) Equally possible is the suggestion, often made, that 1 Cor. itself is a composite letter, copied by the Corinthians as one because of the complimentary contents of the two epistles.(7) These two possibilities do not, of course, prove that Paul was not alluding to a lost letter in 5:9, but they do demonstrate that Mormons cannot assume he was without offering considerable evidence in support of their view.
A second consideration which greatly reduces the number of such works is the composite character of many Old Testament books. The writers of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles often refer to court annals, commentaries, poetical collections, and other historical and religious documents from which they compiled their respective histories. The authors of the last two mentioned works were especially indebted to these earlier books, and liberally incorporated material they considered relevant to their individual themes. Although none of these original sources have survived in independent form, there is good reason to suppose that their most significant sections are contained in our canonical books.
Third, the mere fact that a book is mentioned in the Bible is no guarantee of either its inspiration or canonicity. Paul quoted from the poetry of Aratus, Menander, and Epimenides, Jude alluded to the pseudopigraphal book of Enoch, and Jesus displayed an intimate acquaintance with Rabblinic literature generally. This does not imply, however, even a tacit acceptance of these works as canonical. Just as a modern preacher might allude to one of Hawthorne's romances without thereby committing himself to its factuality, so the Biblical writers drew upon contemporary literature for its illustrative and homiletical va1ue. Unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the authors of the Bible regarded these books as religiously authoritative, there is no reason to regard the mere mention of them as itself evidence of inspiration.
Another way in which Mormons attempt to undermine the Bible is by pointing to the fragmented condition of modern Christendom. If the Bible were truly a sufficient guide for establishing sound doctrine, they argue, then this denominationalism would simply not exist. Orson Pratt phrased the objection in these words: "Would God reveal a system of religion ex-pressed in such indefinite terms that a thousand different religions should grow out of it?"(8)
This objection can be easily answered in either of two ways. First, differences among Christians can no more discredit the Bible than can the various divisions among Mormons disprove the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. There exist literally scores of different denominations which claim to base their beliefs upon the teachings of Smith; yet no Mormon would argue from this that these multiple "jarring, contending, soul-sickening sects" prove Smith less than a prophet. Second, Pratt's objection can be answered by drawing a simple parallel. Sectarian rivalry was also rampant in first century Judaism, being represented by such divergent groups as the Samaritans, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Unlike the Mormons, however, Jesus did not use this fact to accuse the Old Testament of error. Instead he reaffirmed the complete trustworthiness of God's word, admonishing his hearers to search the scriptures. Jesus fully recognized that the Bible is capable of being misused, but he always placed the fault with man, not with the scriptures themselves.
One last accusation remains to be examined, that of wilful manipulation of the Bible for partisan or dogmatic purposes. Such charges were frequently made by early Christian writers against their Jewish opponents, and Mormons have not been slow in recognizing the polemical value of such remarks. Without exception, however, all such accusations have proven to be utterly groundless, being in fact "hasty and unjust inferences from mere diversities of inherited text."(9) This conclusion by Westcott and Hort is confirmed by an analysis of those texts which the Christians accused the Jews of falsifying. Justin's rendering of Ps. 96:10, "Tell it out among the nations: the Lord reigned from the tree," probably entered a limited number of texts as a glossarist's marginal reference to the second century epistle of Barnabas, and nowise is an integral part of either the Hebrew or Greek versions.(10) The Hebrew rendering of Isa. 7:l4, "Behold, a young woman shall conceive...," is likewise neither a product of Jewish negligence or manipulation. The early Christians, following the Septuagint's rendering of "young woman" as parthenos or virgin, charged the Jews with malicious tampering, whereas in fact the Septuagint translators had simply chosen a Greek word with a narrow meaning to express the larger meaning of the Hebrew almah, which can either mean virgin or young woman.(11) An impartial examination of these and other early Christian charges, as Bleddyn J. Roberts has written, "does not support the statements of the Church Fathers, and the instances they brought forward are no longer of any other than antiquarian interest."(12)
The baselessness of such accusations is further confirmed by examining the early history of the Massoretic and Septuagint texts. The primitive Christians, almost from the very outset, adopted the Septuagint as their official version of the Bible. Many of its renderings were thought to lend support to Christian doctrine, and it soon attained a position analogous to that enjoyed by the Authorized Version among some denominations today. Judaism retaliated by commissioning a standardized version of the Hebrew text, entrusting the task to a notorious anti-Christian Rabbi named Akiba. It might be supposed, under such circumstances and under such a leader, that the Jews would indeed remove or alter passages favorable to the Christian cause, but such is emphatically not the case. The differences between the Massoretic and Septuagint versions are simply not of this character.(13)
The possibility of deliberate alteration becomes even more remote when we consider the nature of early church organization. The Book of Mormon claims that the New Testament was mutilated by a "great and abominable church" possessing both secular and religious power. Only such a centralized, authoritarian institution could hope to destroy all existing manuscripts of each New Testament book, replace them with copies of its own devising, coerce each individual church into accepting its forgeries as authentic, and finally erase the traces of controversy that such an action would inevitably produce. Unfortunately for the Mormon contention, however, no such centralized organization existed among the early Christians. Each local church was an essentially autonomous unit; questions of polity were decided according to local needs, and church unity was conceived in primarily spiritual terms.(14) It was only in the opening years of the fourth century, when Constantine became emperor of Rome, that an organization comparable to that described in the Book of Mormon appeared. Far from manifesting any animosity toward the New Testament documents, however, Constantine took steps to assure their continued existence. Mormon claims of a mysterious "great and abominable church" lurking amid the early churches, twisting and destroying the very credentials of Christian faith, and leaving no trace of its nefarious activities are historically ludicrous.
The likelihood of wilful falsification is further reduced by the sheer number and variety of surviving New Testament manuscripts. There is absolutely no possibility that all copies should have been corrupted; one or more would have survived in comparative purity, enabling scholars to reconstruct the primitive text. The critic usually has little difficulty in detecting doctrinal emandations once he is aware of the textual alternatives.(15)
Finally, there is no room in history for such a wholesale corruption of the New Testament record. Any changes occurring within the first century would have been exposed by either the apostles or their immediate disciples, and any mutilations happening after the middle of the fourth century would be instantly revealed by comparison with our oldest codices of the Bible. The intervening 250 year period is similarly free from any indications of deliberate and widespread corruption. This is established, first, by the fragments of scripture which have survived from this period. For example, the Rylands fragment of Jn. 18:31-33, 37-38 is dated by paleographical experts at about 130 A.D., only about forty years after that gospel's original composition, yet it is virtually identical with copies made hundreds of years later. The Bodmer Papyrus II, which contains most of the gospel of John, is dated only about seventy years later, as is the Bodmer copy of Luke and John. The Chester Beatty collection of Biblical papyri contains fragments of many New Testament books which are placed within the third century, and the Bodmer copy of Jude and the two epistles of Peter are usually assigned to the same century. Though these and other fragments all fall within the period which Mormons claim witnessed the mass mutilation of the New Testament, they betray no evidence of corruptions beyond those normally occurring whenever a document is copied by hand. With minor variations in spelling and word order, they are nearly identical with copies produced centuries later.
Beside the fragments of scripture which have survived from this period, we also possess the writings of the apostolic or patristic fathers. From 95 A.D., beginning with Clement of Rome, we find innumerable citations and allusions drawn from the New Testament, some practically identical with our present copies. While only of secondary value for determining the exact text of our canonical books, these patristic quotations contain sufficient material to substantially reconstruct the entire New Testament message.(16) The surviving writings of Origen alone include nearly eighteen thousand citations from the New Testament.
This is not to say, however, that the Bible has been spared the hazards normally attending the transmission of ancient documents. While most scribes performed their labors with commendable devotion and painstaking exactness, errors of transmission were bound to occur. Most of these were wholly unintentional, including such minutae as spelling, transposition of similar words, and other errors arising from human fallibility, but even those which probably have some other explanation betray no signs of fraudulent intention. There is nothing sinister about a scribe mistakenly inserting a marginal notation into the text under the impression that he was rectifying an earlier scribal error, nor is it clear that even those few variant readings which appear to be doctrinally motivated in fact represent a deliberate alteration of the received text for dogmatic purposes. Even granting that some few scribes may have been lax in this regard, such occasional errors as transposing "Joseph and Mary" for "his parents" or "Lord" for "God" surely do not reflect the kind of willful and capricious tampering postulated by Mormon apologists. Furthermore, emandations of this kind, even if doctrinally inspired, represent only the smallest possible fraction of the New Testament text, and neither singly nor collectively have the slightest impact on any item of Christian history or doctrine. At worst such variations provide evidence of individual rashness, not the serious and concerted attempt at doctrinal mutilation demanded by the Book of Mormon.
For Mormons to accuse others of tampering with the Bible is like the man who saw a splinter in his brother's eye but was oblivious to the log in his own. Joseph Smith discovered early in his career that the existing text of scripture lacked sufficient flexibility to accommodate his rapidly expanding theology. "There are many things in the Bible," he once declared, "which do not, as they now stand3 accord with the revelations of the Holy Ghost to me,"(17) and he accordingly set out to recreate the Bible in his own theological image. He and Sidney Rigdon, an ex-Disciples of Christ minister, prepared a recension of the Bible entitled the "Inspired Version." While purporting to be a translation, the Inspired Version actually contains material which is alien to the style, text, and theology of scripture. Doctrines peculiar to Mormonism receive divine sanction; passages thought inappropriate or contradictory are amended; and lengthy sections are inserted as "prophecies" of both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. One of the more remarkable of these extraneous predictions is found in Gen. 50, where Joseph of Egypt foretells the coming of a "choice seer" whose "name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father."(18) Prophecies of this caliber, if nothing else, enable us to better understand why many writers on Mormonism preface their remarks with lengthy disquisitions on human credulity.
Not only did Joseph Smith "revise" the Bible to make it conform with his then existing theology, he also recast his own revelations, subtracting potentially embarrassing references, adding whole sections, and otherwise reworking the material until it bore little resemblance to its original form. God's commending the use of a divining rod was changed until the original meaning was wholly lost, Smith's position was greatly exalted above that which God had originally allowed, and massive changes were inserted to allow for offices which had developed since the printing of the original revelations.(19) Had the Bible been changed at this same rate, there would not be one word the same today as when it was originally written. Fortunately, we know that the Biblical authors and the scribes who transmitted their writings treated their work with more reverence, evidently because they thought God capable of getting his revelations right the first time.
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1. Smith, History of the Church 4:541.
2. Orson Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets on the Doctrines of the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, l884), 2l7, 204.
3. Philip Schaff (ed.), The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 8 vols. devoted to Augustine (New York: The Christian Literature Co., 1892), 1:351.
4. B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882), 2:2. This estimate, though overly conservative, emphasize the relative purity of the New Testament text, a fact which remains if we double or even triple the number of significant variations.
5. The Bible and Archaeology (London: George G. Harrap and Co., 1940), 288-289.
6. This view of the text is ably argued by A. P. Stanley, The Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians (London: John Murray, 1882), 80-81.
7. Among the scholars who defend this position are J. Weiss, R. Bultmann, and J. Hering.
8. Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets, 219.
9. The New Testament in the Original Greek, 283.
10. W. F. Howard, "The Greek Bible," in H. Wheeler Robinson (ed.), The Bible in its Ancient and English Versions (Oxford. The Clarendon Press, 1940), 51.
11. Later Greek versions of the Old Testament substituted neanis or "young woman" for parthenos, thereby recapturing the broader sense of the original.
12. The Old Testament Text and Versions (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1951), 22.
13. Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, 4th ed. (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, l939), 95-96.
14. For an influential defense of this view, see B. H. Streeter, The Primitive Church (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929).
15. Sir Frederic Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1912; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company3 1951), 10.
16. Part of the evidence for this contention is weighed and critically assessed in The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905) by the Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology.
17. Smith, History of the Church 5:425.
18. Smith and his father shared the same first name.
19. Smith felt justified in making these changes because he supposed that the original printing of his commandments had been destroyed by a mob, and that whatever changes he made would go undetected by the Church at large. A few copies had, however, survived the destruction of the press, and Smith found himself accused of blasphemy by some of his most faithful followers. As David Whitmer wrote in later years, "You have changed the revelations from the way they were first given and as they are to-day in the Book of Commandments, to support the error of Brother Joseph in taking upon himself the office of Seer to the church. You have changed the revelations to support the error of high priests. You have changed the revelations to support the error of a President of the high priesthood, high counse1ors, etc. You have altered the revelations to support you in going beyond the plain teachings of Christ in the new covenant part of the Book of Mormon. You have changed and altered the revelations to support the error of publishing those revelations in a book: the errors you are in, revelations have been changed to support and uphold them. You who are now living did not change them, but you who strive to defend these things, are as guilty in the sight of God as those who did change them." An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO.: By the Author, 1887), 49.