Thursday, 2 December 2010

Accounting for Mormonism’s “Lost Books of the Bible” Part 1: The “Missing” Books

The Mormon Church claims to have identified at least twenty books they think to be missing from the Bible. We are left in no doubt that these are considered serious omissions. Listing these missing books in his book The Articles of Faith, Mormon apostle James Talmage wrote:

“Those who oppose the doctrine of continual revelation between God and His Church, on the ground that the Bible is complete as a collection of sacred scriptures, and that alleged revelation not found therein must therefore be spurious, may profitably take note of the many books not included in the Bible, yet mentioned therein, generally in such a way as to leave no doubt that they were once regarded as authentic.” (Talmage, Articles of Faith, 1960 ed.p.501)

Books

The picture conjured in people’s minds by such comment is of sizeable volumes, something the size of one of the Major Prophets or a gospel. A major account of essential events, a comprehensive and indispensable code of instructions without which we are spiritually impoverished.

This deficiency is routinely trotted out as explanation for why key Mormon doctrines cannot be found in the Bible. With an “as far as it is translated correctly” Bible (Mormon 8th Article of Faith) robbed of so much in the process of transmission (1 Nephi 13) anything might be orthodox.

When Mormonism produces additional and sizeable “books of scripture” such as the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants the inference that “books” means substantial volumes containing many key lost doctrines is reinforced. When twenty such missing “books” are identified it is an alarming revelation and feeds the popular conception that the Bible is unreliable and incomplete.

But when the Bible talks about “books” it is usually translating a word such as the Hebrew sepher or the Greek biblia which translate “writings” and can mean anything from a letter (Jude is just 1 chapter containing 25 verses), to a legal document (the “book” in 1 Samuel 10:25 is an example) to a lengthy chronicle that describes a meta-narrative (Chronicles and Kings). It is important then to not take too literally in the modern sense the word “books.”

We have already said that just because a book is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean it was intended that it should be in the Bible. That something is only missing in the way Mormons mean it if it is meant to be there in the first place. Of the twenty books listed by Mormons some certainly are mentioned but not included in Scripture while others are, curiously, included in the “missing” list - even though they are found in the Bible, or even don’t exist at all. We will come on to those.

Reporting, Recording and Redacting

The popular picture among Mormons of prophets and of Scripture is Joseph Smith bent over his gold plates dictating to a scribe an “inspired” translation of the Book of Mormon. Of Smith giving messages directly from God, such as are found in the Doctrine and Covenants. Messages meant to read like the “Thus saith the LORD” sections of Isaiah, Jeremiah and others.

When Mormons talk about the “fullness of the gospel” they have in mind not just a sufficient for salvation message but an exhaustive record designed to fit them for godhood and issued straight from the throne room of the Almighty untouched by profane hands.

God does indeed speak through prophets in the Bible but much of the Bible is historical narrative, wisdom literature, songs and poetry, proverbs, laws and statutes, etc. the stuff of humanity. What needs to be understood is that Scripture is not simply dictated by God.

God works through men in the familiar process of transmitting oral tradition, making written chronicles - and redaction, or editing. This makes it no less the Word of God but it helps explain that many “books” are not so much lost as used as sources in the editing and transmission of works that are in the Bible.

Six so-called “missing books” fall into this category of sources whose content is available to the Chroniclers who made the records we do have and who made good use of relevant parts of these sources.

These six so-called “missing books” Nathan and Gad, Shemaiah, Jehu, Uzziah, and the Seers all relate to the monarchic period in Israel. “The authors of Kings specifically claim to have access to written sources of information about the monarchic period, both for Israel and for Judah.” (Study Note to 1 Kings 14:19, ESV Study Bible, 2008)

This was a period when literacy was widespread in and around Palestine and writing was employed in legal, business, literary and religious texts. In the period from 1200 BC to the fall of Judah in 587-586 writing has been described as pervasive. The picture we have is of writers and Chroniclers drawing on a vast store of royal archives, temple libraries and archives, as well as foreign annals and inscriptions to produce what has been carefully passed down to us.

The writings of Nathan and Gad, of Shemaiah and Jehu, Isaiah’s record of Uzziah and the Chronicles of the Seers were all used to supplement existing material in telling the story of Israel and Judah.

The period covered by Nathan and Gad is covered in Samuel. Chronicles covers the same period as Kings.

The Chroniclers’ use of Shemaiah and Iddo, cited in 2 Chronicles 12:15, explains how they were able to supplement the material in Kings.

The same might be said of Jehu, a source cited in 2 Chronicles 20:34, Uzziah cited in 2 Chronicles 26:22

The Chronicles of the Seers cited in 2 Chronicles 33:19. This last expands on 2 Kings 21:17-18 in emphasising Manasseh’s prayer and humble repentance as key to his reign.

The “missing books” were available to and drawn on by the Chroniclers whom God led to write as they did, and whose writings cover the same periods and events as contained in those “missing” documents, and therefore we can be confident that nothing is missing in the sense that it should have been there in the first place.

Songs, Poems and – Biology?

The Book of The Wars of The LORD, mentioned in Numbers 21:14, is thought to be a collection of victory songs, possibly a continuation of what was begun in Exodus 17:14 where a memorial was begun of the defeat of the Amalekites. It is quoted in Numbers because it is relevant to the events and the geography at that part of the story.

The Book of Jashar, mentioned in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18, is similarly thought to be poems or songs relating the deeds of heroes. Jashar may be related to the Hebrew words “sing” or “upright”.

Both Jashar and the Wars of The LORD are cited when a portion of their content relates to the part of the narrative in which they are cited. What is important here is the narrative, not the sources. Their relevance is to the story and not necessarily to the whole history of salvation (Tim.3:14-16) which would explain their absence from the Bible.

As to the Acts of Solomon, the reign and life of Solomon is described in 1 Kings chapters 1-11 but the Acts of Solomon, mentioned in 1 Kings 11:41, is unknown to us and neither is anything known about it.

But then much of the literary output of Solomon is unavailable to us today including most of “three thousand proverbs and his songs [which] numbered a thousand and five.” He is also reported to have “described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish.” (1 Kings 4:32-33)

As we have discovered, not everything mentioned in the Bible is intended to be in the Bible. Some things are clearly not going to serve any practical purpose to us some three thousand years later and, given this list, aren’t you glad?

New Testament

Mormons name seven missing New Testament records, three from Paul, two from Jude, a missing text quoted in Matthew and a “declaration of belief” alluded to in Luke’s gospel. Only two from the seven can be said to be “missing”, both from Paul.

In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul refers to an earlier letter in which he instructed Christians in Corinth “not to associate with sexually immoral people.” In the letter we do have he goes on to expand on that instruction, qualifying his remarks and, no doubt, answering questions they raised on the subject.

We know what Paul wrote about in that first letter insofar as he refers to issues of immorality and there is no reason to suspect that the missing letter covered ground essential to our understanding not covered in the two letters we have or in other New Testament texts.

In Colossians 4:16 he refers to “the letter from Laodicea.” Letters of this kind were passed around the churches and, although we don’t have this letter, there is no reason to think it covered material not covered in other “round-robin” letters such as Ephesians.

It will not do to infer that the Bible is inadequate just because you identify writings that aren’t contained within its pages. Talmage writes of, “Those who oppose the doctrine of continual revelation between God and His Church, on the ground that the Bible is complete as a collection of sacred scriptures...” That “complete” is misleading in implying an unexpurgated text when the Christian Church speaks of a complete and closed canon in terms of a sufficient and unexpurgated message. The difference is profound and important.

Neither will it do to insist that writings are missing when, in fact, they are not missing, and indeed in some cases they are non-existent. So where are the “missing books” that aren’t really missing at all? We discuss this in part 2: the existing (and non-existent) books.

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