I have always enjoyed scripture study. I was attempting to “feast on the words” of the Bible but it had always been difficult for me. There seemed to often be some bit of historical context I was missing, or certain passages that seemed to contradict Mormon doctrine. To make matters worse, each time I would look through all of the Mormon resources I had available to me, the verses or chapters I had the most questions about seemed to be completely ignored. I looked everywhere to find Mormon-written books on the Bible to provide answers: Institute and Seminary manuals, commentaries available at Deseret Book, etc. I found almost all of them to be unsatisfying; most were devotional in nature, and typically used the verses as a starting point from which to quote from prophets and apostles, which meant it didn’t really address the scriptures directly.
I went on a search for non-Mormon commentaries and first found a lot of Evangelical commentaries which were often more scholarly and certainly longer and more in-depth, but just as frustrating. When it came to interpretations of scripture, everything had to fit in an evangelical belief system. So while I had found more detailed commentaries, I was simply trading one religious interpretation for another. Eventually I found more academic commentaries such as the Anchor Bible series. Some may argue that these commentaries still have a bias, simply an academic or even non-believing bias. However, I found them refreshing. Rather than sweeping confusing passages under a rug and quoting from other parts of the Bible to support a position, the commentators actually read what the scriptures said, and tried to interpret what it means, even if it contradicts other scripture.
This academic approach also created problems, however. I quickly ran into areas of academic consensus which were either superficially, or entirely opposed, to Mormon Doctrine. While Mormons emphasize the importance of scripture written by Prophets, I learned that many books attributed to famous Biblical figures were actually not written by them. A big chunk of the Book of Isaiah is almost certainly not written by Isaiah. A good number of the letters of Paul, the books of Peter, etc. were all written by others and ascribed to authoritative figures. Some of these problems could be solved with the “translated correctly” caveat, but Joseph Smith didn’t throw these books out during his translation. And many influential Mormon “scriptorians” like Bruce R. McConkie stated emphatically that a person must believe that these books were written by the authors ascribed to them (Scriptorian is a completely made-up Mormon word, by the way).
I started my re-reading of the Bible with the beginning: Genesis. I decided to tackle these stories head on: to find out how the story of Noah’s flood, the tower of Babel, creation, etc. could be proved true. Unfortunately, the “theories of men” proved more convincing and this created many problems for my belief. It turned out even Bible characters like Abraham and Moses were most likely legendary figures who never existed. These figures were created to give an epic tale of where the people of Israel came from, why they are special, and what their purpose is. I was shocked to find through careful study of the Old Testament that there were no prophecies of Jesus in there. The verses quoted throughout the Gospels are all proof texts which are not about Jesus when read in context. They applied these verses after the fact to Jesus even when the originals were about another person or another topic altogether.
It felt like my faith was being eroded from the very foundation. If the Bible was full of legends, misinterpretations of previous scripture, and forgeries, what am I doing believing in Mormonism? I had not ever run into major questions of Mormonism itself, but it felt like the core was rotten so any religion built on top couldn’t be any better. I had to change my belief system to remain a believer. Revelation and scripture are imperfect. And I mean much more than simply imperfect. I had always viewed scripture as having essentially perfect words of God, and our leaders as effectively infallible conduits to the divine. I was forced to confront the fact that everything was much messier. Scripture was not a case of perfect revelation being written in imperfect speech. The revelation itself was completely human. They were just humans attempting to reach God. And sometimes they weren’t anywhere close. I decided that revelation was a progressive and continuous process. It wasn’t only line upon line; sometimes we erased all of the other lines first. Whether or not God existed or actually revealed things to us, the only way we can reach a more “divine” understanding of the world and the universe is through our combined knowledge and continued learning and sharing.
How does Joseph Smith and his scripture match up with the Bible? Is it a pale imitation? Something completely different? An obvious fraud when compared with the ancient and widely read Bible? Let’s compare with the “problems” I had with the Bible:
1) Forgeries – Joseph Smith also wrote books and claimed they were authored by Bible figures: Abraham, Moses, John, etc. Those who have issues with supposed non-historical scripture authored by Joseph may have a different perspective if they knew this is a long and proud tradition in the Bible: books written by some guy but ascribed to a famous figure.
2) Myths and Legends – Joseph Smith wrote an entire book of scripture to explain where Native Americans came from, just like the Israelites wrote stories about where their people came from. Both come from a similar place – the desire to understand the world around them.
3) Proof texting of Scripture – Just like New Testament authors, Joseph Smith and future Mormon prophets used proof texting of scripture to prove Doctrines or that a current event was predicted by scripture. We can argue all day long whether Ezekiel 37 is a prophecy of the Book of Mormon or a prophecy about the kingdoms of Israel, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Proof texting of scripture is for believers, not for proof to others. Some evangelicals have attempted to prove Mormonism is false by showing that common Mormon proof texts do not work in the original context. However, if they applied the same level of rigor to prophecies of Jesus they would find similar issues.
4) Imperfect process – Joseph Smith, just like Biblical prophets, put strange or even disturbing ideas into the mouth of God. The purpose of revelation is to think about these ideas, and some must be rejected. I don’t believe in a God who destroys people for seemingly no reason (1 Chron. 21 for one example), and I don’t believe that polygamy as a requirement for heaven was inspired.
A common element of a testimony is the statement, “Joseph Smith was a prophet.” I know of few other ways of testing that claim than to compare against other prophets who wrote in the Bible. One of the most difficult parts of testing the prophetic claim is trying to figure out just what “prophet” means in the first place. However, based on my reading of the Bible, if we are to call Biblical writers “prophets” and then reject Joseph Smith because his writings aren’t historical or perfect, we are making a mistake. The Bible is full of non-historical writings, proof texting, and weird ideas. To me, Joseph Smith fits every definition of a prophet as seen in the Bible. I no longer see scripture as a source for direct words from God to me, but I still enjoy reading scripture. There are many fascinating historical and spiritual aspects to our Mormon scripture canon. There is also the disturbing and bizarre. After rejecting a simplistic view of what scripture is, it actually become much more interesting. Because how it was written, what the authors believed, and what they wanted to tell us, is much better. Even Joseph Smith.