Does Revelation Need To Be Original?

Some of the most vexing questions for students of scripture have to do with 1) the nature of relationships between texts, and 2) the relationships between texts and the environment and worldview of the people who produce them.  As an example of the first problem, it is common for Latter-Day Saints to approach the Book of Mormon text with the assumption that the word translation connotes an exact rendering of a set of words and phrases in one language into a corresponding set of words and phrases in another language.  Operating with that assumption, we might be dismayed to see commonalities between the King James biblical language and passages in the Book of Mormon, or confused by Royal Skousen’s characterization of the Book of Mormon text as a “creative and cultural translation of the Nephite record.”  Skousen’s characterization finds support in Doctrine and Covenants 9:8, where the Lord specifies that the translation of the Book of Mormon required one to “study it out in your mind,” an imprecise process in which the mental building blocks of the translator (including cultural forms of expression) would be formed into an approximation of the intentions of the original authors.

The field of historical criticism of scripture exemplifies the second problem.  Historical critics who operate with a naturalistic worldview, point to factors in a scriptural author’s environment (or hypothesize additional authors) as alternative explanations for the phenomena of prophecy, revelation, and miracles.  So the creation narratives in Genesis are assumed to be derived from the Enuma Elish and compiled during and after the Babylonian exile; the story of Jesus’ resurrection is framed as a concoction of the early Christian community to ameliorate their cognitive dissonance; prophecies in the latter half of Isaiah are assumed to be later additions to the book, and so forth.  All of these ideas deserve to be challenged, and the worldviews informing these scholarly theories need to be brought to light.  In some situations, we as believers might need to adjust our paradigms; in other situations, we can justifiably dismiss scholarly theories as examples of human beings’ ability to marshal elaborate and sophisticated evidence in support of theories that fit their overly narrow paradigms and plausibility structures.

Either way, confronted with these ideas, believers might be upset and conclude that their cherished scriptures do not rise to the level of revelation, or as Article of Faith 9 characterizes them, “the word of God”.  I propose a twofold response to anyone with those thoughts and feelings.  First, we should be very cautious in asserting “plagiarism” or even a more mild charge of “borrowing” when we see commonalities between texts.  Second, the process of revelation very often includes the recognition and incorporation of resources found in our immediate environment.

An Example from Biblical Scripture

In the field of Biblical studies, there are endless arguments and debates about intertextuality, or the relationship between passages of text in the Bible.  Seeing these relationships, scholars try to properly characterize them: When looking at Isaiah 2:2-4 and Micah 4:1-3, scholars debate the strength of the correspondence between the verses, and whether they should be characterized as direct copying from one author to another, whether one author was merely alluding to another, whether they were using some shared source material, or some other explanation.  Illustrating this challenge in Old Testament studies, scholar Richard Schultz points out that 

It is by no means the case that every striking verbal parallel was automatically labeled a ‘quotation’. Rather than attributing all similarities in wording to one prophet consciously citing another, scholars have proposed numerous alternative explanations—coincidence, unconscious imitation, divine inspiration, formulaic, proverbial or cultic language, oral transmission, mutual dependence on unpreserved material, similarity of background and circumstances, redactional glosses. Although some of these alternative explanations no longer may be considered viable options and not all of them would apply equally well to a given passage, nevertheless, progress has been made in determining what influences might have produced a verbal parallel if it is not a quotation. However, completely reliable criteria for identifying what is (or even may be) genuine quotation have yet to be discovered. Part of the problem is terminological: Is ‘quotation’ clearly synonymous with ‘literary borrowing’ or ‘conscious imitation’? The other part is syntactical: given the absence of clear indicators, such as introductory formulae or quotation marks, determining dependence remains little more than an educated guess.

Richard L. Schultz, The Search for Quotation: Verbal Parallels in the Prophets, vol. 180, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 58.

We face similar questions when we see similarities between the Book of Mormon and a variety of other materials like King James Bible, Septuagint-based Bible translations, The Late War, and other sources.  In these debates, I often suggest that the best way to understand Joseph Smith and his thought process is to first ask more generally how prophets operate: the better we understand how Isaiah and Jeremiah thought and how they responded to the world around them, the greater will be our ability to understand Joseph Smith.  Likewise, to understand Joseph Smith’s thought processes toward the nature of scripture, we would do well to look to Biblical prophets, scribes and compilers.  The Book of Chronicles, for example, provides an interesting case study that is in some ways analogous to the Joseph Smith Translation and its adaptation, revision, and expansion of sacred source material.  And in a 2016 Maxwell Institute conference,  Phil Barlow correctly observed that the Book of Mormon “offered the world not a series of deductions, not a scholarly theory about the redacted components making up the Torah, but an overt depiction of a process resembling what the Documentary Hypothesis imagined.”

In that spirit, when I see commonalities between the Book of Mormon and other texts, I am often reminded of one of my favorite examples of textual relationships in the Bible: Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34.  Looking at the two chapters side by side, it is evident that there is a strong relationship between the two texts, of a kind that in our modern sensibilities we might call “plagiarism.”

Jeremiah 23Ezekiel 34
Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord.

Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord.

And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase. 

And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the Lord.

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.


But, The Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.
And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?

And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered.

And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country.

And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd.

And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; I the Lord have spoken it.

In the case of these two passages, who borrowed from whom?  We know that Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry began before that of Ezekiel, so it’s fair to assume that Ezekiel is borrowing Jeremiah’s language in his own prophecy against the leadership of Judah.  Biblical scholar Moshe Greenberg agrees: “The influence of Jeremiah, both in the image and in the terminology, on both components of this oracle is patent. It is plausibly accounted for by the assumption that Ezekiel had access to the words of his older Jerusalemite contemporary.”

But what does that prophetic borrowing look like, exactly?  Did Ezekiel have a thought to produce a prophecy against the religious leaders, and then find a similar passage in a Jeremiah scroll, selecting specific passages to borrow for his own prophecy?  Looking at the table above, it’s easy to conclude something along those lines.  The problem is, the table is very misleading.  Here is the full text of the two chapters, with those same corresponding passages highlighted:

Looking at the very uneven distribution of the corresponding verses between the two chapters, and also the significant difference in content and emphasis, it is more reasonable to conclude that at some point Ezekiel had internalized these written or spoken words of Jeremiah, and when he had the impression to produce a prophecy against the religious leadership of the House of Israel, some of the mental building blocks he employed in the production of that prophecy came from his memory of Jeremiah’s teachings.  In this model of prophetic revelation, the production of scripture does not always happen in the form of a stream of original thoughts from God to the prophet; rather, it often involves the recall of existing concepts that the prophet has “treasured up” (D&C 84:85) over time through pondering scripture and other resources.

Scripture: What Prophets Bring to the Process

In an article on Biblical inerrancy, Robert Millet says of the process of revelation:

In most instances, God places the thought into the mind or heart of the revelator, who then assumes the responsibility to clothe the oracle in language. Certainly there are times when a prophet records the words of God, directly, but very often the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) whispers to the prophet, who then speaks for God. In short, when God chooses to speak through a person, that person does not become a mindless ventriloquist, an earthly sound system through which God can voice himself. Rather, the person becomes enlightened and filled with intelligence or truth.

…Nothing could be clearer in the Old Testament, for example, than that many factors impacted the prophetic message—personality, experience, vocabulary, literary talent.

Experience, vocabulary, and — I would add — particular ways of expressing certain concepts, are all heavily influenced by our engagement with the written (including scripture and other kinds of literature) and the spoken word.  It is to be expected that revelation will always reflect these influences in its form, style, and wording.  This is evident in the words of Hebrew prophets like Ezekiel, and it is evident in the words of Joseph Smith.

Revelation in the World Around Us

The second question for us to consider is the relationship between texts and the environment and worldview of the people who produce them.

Despite its frequent excesses, the field of historical criticism of scripture is a very valuable framework for figuring out a scriptural author’s mindset and intentions.  This way of analyzing scripture differs from the devotional mode of reading scripture, where the goal is to derive important life lessons and even personal revelation.  But when it comes to scriptural exegesis (drawing out the meaning of a text), historical criticism is only one of many possible approaches that deserve a seat at the table.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI issued a papal exhortation entitled Verbum Domini, which contains some valuable tools for thinking about scripture.  One of my favorite sayings about scripture, cited in this document, is Pope Gregory’s saying that Viva lectio est vita bonorum: an ideal (“living”) reading of scripture is found in the lives of good people (or in a Catholic interpretation, the saints).  Where purely historical critical approaches to scripture can help us think in the abstract about questions of historical context, a more personally relevant and useful approach to scripture involves our seeing relationships between scripture and the lives of real people.

I would propose that Latter-Day Saints extend this idea further, and approach questions of the provenance of scripture — the process by which it is produced — with an eye toward the lived experiences of real people sitting with us in church.

We sometimes assume that the revelatory process by which scripture comes to us is of a completely different order than the revelatory processes we experience in our daily lives as believing and practicing Latter-Day Saints.  Why do we assume that?  One reason is that we know that the coming forth of the Book of Mormon involves plates and angels and seer stones, which are foreign to our everyday church experience.  But when we see the relationships between scriptural texts like in the aforementioned example of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, or we see relationships between Joseph Smith’s revelations and things in his environment like freemasonry, revelation seems to involve identifying, gathering, and incorporating existing resources as much as it is a process of receiving new ideas from heaven.  Do we have anything that we can point to in the lived experiences of ordinary Latter-Day Saints that can help us understand this mode of revelation?

A Model of Revelation: God as Logistician

Logistics is a discipline that is employed in business, military and other environments, to move resources to environments and situations where they are needed.  For example, if a company has a workforce that works primarily from their homes over a large geographical area and each of their employees is doing extremely time-sensitive work requiring a company computer with company software, the company might hire a logistics manager to ensure that some amount of spare company computers are in locations near employees.  That way, if any employee’s computer were to fail, the employee could resume work on a replacement computer with very little downtime.

I would suggest that much or possibly even most of the revelation that we experience in the church follows a model where the ideas and resources we need are placed into our environment (think of God as the logistician), and the revelatory process involves identifying those things and then incorporating them in ways that make them usable for the Kingdom.  Again referring to the example of Ezekiel 34- when Ezekiel had a prompting to produce a revelation challenging the Judean leadership, that revelation was not formed ex nihilo, or out of nothing. His approach to this revelation and even some of its core concepts and wording, had already been placed into his environment through his exposure to the work of Jeremiah.  Revelation does not need to be original in its provenance, its content, or its wording for it to be scripture, a text ordained of God for the blessing of His children.

Outside of scripture, we can point to many examples of this model of revelation in our lived experiences.  I recently wrote about a personal example in my younger years:

When I was about 15 years old and our ward scout troop went on a 45-mile hike over Glen Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains. At the end of the hike we were dirty and sweaty, and next to the parking area where our cars were, we found a path leading to a clear, cool river. We unlocked the SUV and van we had brought, put our packs into those vehicles, and jumped in the river.

After we were done cooling off, we went back to the cars and got ready to leave, but the adult leader who had brought the van could not find its keys. We searched everywhere to no avail, then gathered around for a prayer. We prayed that the Lord would show us where the keys were, then went back out to search…again, to no avail. We repeated that process with the same dispiriting outcome, and then decided that we would go to a lodge up the road and call for a locksmith to drive into the mountains to where we were, to get the van started for the 4-hour drive home.

I went with our YM leader in the SUV and we drove up to the lodge. He went in and after a minute or two, he came walking back out with a stranger. Our leader related that he had gone in to the front counter of the lodge and told them he needed help getting a blacksmith to start the van, and there was a man at the counter who overheard the conversation. He inserted himself into the conversation and asked what the make and model of the van was, and when our YM leader told him, the man said that in his job, he had helped to develop the ignition system for that specific model of Dodge van.  We drove him back to our van and opened the hood, and within a minute or two he had started the van.  He was someone with very specific resources to offer us, and had been placed exactly where he was needed to answer our prayer for revelation.

In this situation, we as a group had fixated on a direct-communication-from-heaven model of revelation, but our prayer was answered in a very different way, in the form of a logistical miracle.  Direct communications from heaven are possible, and they do happen among believers on a regular basis.  This is especially true among mystics, people with a gift of extraordinary spiritual sensitivity.  But it would be a mistake for us to assume that direct communications from heaven are the only or even the primary form of revelation.

Another example was presented in Bishop Dean Davies’ October 2018 conference talk “Come Listen to a Prophet’s Voice”, where he talks about the process of President Hinckley finding (or we might say recognizing) the right location for the Vancouver temple.  I’ve added emphasis to the relevant points in the narrative.

A beautiful site with religious zoning adjacent to the Trans-Canadian Highway was found. The property had excellent access, was dotted with beautiful Canadian pine trees, and enjoyed a prominent location which would make it visible to thousands of passing motorists.

We presented the site with pictures and maps in the monthly Temple Sites Committee meeting. President Hinckley authorized that we place it under contract and complete the necessary studies. In December of that year, we reported back to the committee that the studies were complete, and we sought approval to proceed with the purchase. After hearing our report, President Hinckley said, “I feel I should see this site.”

Later that month, two days after Christmas, we left for Vancouver with President Hinckley; President Thomas S. Monson; and Bill Williams, a temple architect. We were met by Paul Christensen, the local stake president, who transported us to the site. It was a little wet and misty that day, but President Hinckley jumped out of the car and began walking all over the site.

After spending time on the site, I asked President Hinckley if he would like to see some of the other sites that had been considered. He said yes, he would like that. You see, by looking at the other sites, we were able to make a comparison of their virtues.

We did a large clockwise loop around Vancouver looking at the other properties, ultimately arriving back at the original site. President Hinckley said, “This is a beautiful site.” Then he asked, “Can we go to the Church-owned meetinghouse about one-quarter mile [0.4 km] away?”

“Of course, President,” we responded.

We got back into the cars and drove to the nearby meetinghouse. As we arrived at the chapel, President Hinckley said, “Turn left here.” We turned and followed the street as instructed. The street began to rise slightly.

Just as the car reached the crown of the rise, President Hinckley said, “Stop the car, stop the car.” He then pointed to the right at a parcel of ground and said, “What about this property? This is where the temple goes. This is where the Lord wants the temple. Can you get it? Can you get it?”

We hadn’t looked at this property. It was farther back and away from the main road, and it was not listed for sale. When we responded we didn’t know, President Hinckley pointed to the property and said again, “This is where the temple goes.” We stayed a few minutes, then left for the airport to return home.

The next day, Brother Williams and I were called to President Hinckley’s office. He had drawn out everything on a piece of paper: the roads, the chapel, turn left here, X marks the spot for the temple. He asked what we had found out. We told him he couldn’t have picked a more difficult property. It was owned by three individuals: one from Canada, one from India, and one from China! And it didn’t have the necessary religious zoning.

“Well, do your best,” he said.

Then the miracles happened. Within several months we owned the property, and later the city of Langley, British Columbia, gave permission to build the temple.

In this instance, the exact location of the Vancouver temple was not revealed at the outset.  The location was eventually revealed through a process of recognition, as President Hinckley was brought to the environment and given inspiration in interaction with that environment.

Many Latter-Day Saints can point to an instance where they were confused about a specific subject, and they reluctantly attended a church meeting only to find that someone in the meeting had a breakthrough insight to share, that helped to resolve the confusion.  Church leaders often run into situations where they have a gap in understanding on an important issue like mental health, and at a moment of crisis, a new member moves into the ward and this individual happens to have recently been immersed in professional research on that specific problem.  Church history contains examples of this as well: in 2020 we are amazed at the church’s excellent financial resources, but it was not always so; for many decades the church was constantly burdened with debt, until N. Eldon Tanner — the right person in the right place when he was needed — led a turnaround in the church’s financial situation during the 1960s. The scriptures similarly point to people being “raised up” for God’s purposes; this phrase means that specific souls are given unique resources and understanding, and placed in particular environments, that allow them to exercise their gifts to further God’s purposes (see D&C 101:80).  Thomas Edison once remarked that “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  I would paraphrase that excellent quote and say that revelation is unrecognized by most people because it is often dressed in humanity and looks like experience.

In our thinking about the provenance and content of scripture, we would do well to take seriously this profound insight from the Catholic tradition, that one of the most valuable approaches to questions of scripture — and I would add that those questions can include provenance, content, meaning, and more — is to look at the lived experiences of Latter-Day Saints.  Doing so, we can understand that when we see indications of Joseph Smith and other prophets incorporating resources and ideas from their environment into scripture, this is very much a normal manifestation of what D&C 9:8 refers to as studying it out in our mind.  And the process of producing scripture is likely far more relatable to the ordinary Latter-Day Saint’s lived experience than we sometimes assume it to be.

2 thoughts on “Does Revelation Need To Be Original?”

  1. Good stuff! Reminds me of Terryl Givens when he compared revelation to the Mormon view of creation as organizing chaotic matter

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