Does Scholarship Support Article Eight of the Articles of Faith?
By Bill McKeever
The LDS Church has had a history of being very critical regarding the accuracy of the Bible. In fact, it is the only book among the LDS standard works accepted with qualification. Article eight of the LDS Articles of Faith reads, "We believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly ..."
Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church, declared, "Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 327). According to the Book of Mormon, only fools believe the Bible is a sufficient spiritual guide. 2 Nephi 29:6 states, "Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible."
Probably one of the most vocal LDS critics of the Bible was Apostle Orson Pratt. He claimed, "... who in his right mind could for one moment suppose the Bible in its present form to be a perfect guide? Who knows that even one verse of the Bible has escaped pollution, so as to convey the same sense now that it did in the original?" (Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, pg. 47.) If Pratt's assessment is true, how can a Mormon know if James 1:5, the verse which Joseph Smith used to draw him to the "sacred grove," was indeed correct? For that matter, how do they know if all of the other pet "proof-texts" Mormons so often use are accurate? It would seem reasonable that whatever test for accuracy could be applied to James 1:5 could also be applied to every other biblical verse as well.
A Latter-day Saint may claim that the Bible is inaccurately translated, but proving it is another matter. In all actuality, it is not the Bible's "translation" that is really being questioned, it is instead it's "transmission." Many have claimed that the Bible was copied incorrectly over the years, resulting in many portions being purposely left out, added to, or changed.
To bolster this claim many Mormon leaders have attacked the Bible's credibility by pointing out that there are many differences among various ancient Bible manuscripts. They insist that these differences, or variants, prove the Bible is unreliable. The problem with such a pronouncement is that it really does not reflect the findings of scholars who have critically examined how our Bible came to be. Consider the following quotes:
Accuracy of the Old Testament:
"A careful study of the variants of the various earliest manuscripts reveals that none of them affects a single doctrine of Scripture. The system of spiritual truth contained in the standard Hebrew text of the Old Testament is not in the slightest altered or compromised by any of the variant readings found in the Hebrew manuscripts ... It is very evident that the vast majority of them are so inconsequential as to leave the meaning of each clause doctrinally unaffected" (Gleason Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament, pg. 25).
Accuracy of the New Testament:
"Only about one-eighth of all the variants had any weight, as most of them are merely mechanical matters such as spelling or style. Of the whole, then, only about one-sixtieth rise above `trivialities,' or can in any sense be called `substantial variations.' Mathematically this would compute to a text that is 98.33 percent pure" (Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, pg. 365).
Should a Mormon doubt the trustworthiness of the above scholars, perhaps they should give heed to BYU Professor Richard L. Anderson. Mr. Anderson spoke on the accuracy of the New Testament at the Fourteenth Annual Symposium of the Archaeology of the Scriptures and remarked:
"For a book to undergo progressive uncovering of its manuscript history and come out with so little debatable in its text is a great tribute to its essential authenticity. First, no new manuscript discovery has produced serious differences in the essential story. This survey has disclosed the leading textual controversies, and together they would be well within one percent of the text. Stated differently, all manuscripts agree on the essential correctness of 99 percent of all the verses in the New Testament."
It would appear that critical scholarship does not concur with much of the caviling made by LDS leaders. If this is the case, is it wise for Latter-day Saints to brush aside the many verses in the Bible which contradict Mormon teaching?
BYU professors vs. the Book of Mormon
Today Neo-orthodox BYU professors have a higher view of the reliability of the Bible than the The Book of Mormon does. BYU associate professor Charles Harrell writes in This Is My Doctrine:
Aside from the countless minor scribal errors, scholars maintain that, “in general, the Bible has been transmitted and translated remarkably well.” BYU religion professor Stephen Robinson notes that “informed Latter-day Saints” are in general agreement that, since the time of its compilation in the late second or third century, the Bible has been preserved with reasonably high fidelity and “the texts are essentially correct in their present form.”
This assessment of the integrity of the Bible is somewhat more favorable than that given in the Book of Mormon and by the Prophet Joseph Smith. The Book of Mormon states that “when it [i.e., the Bible] proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord” (1 Ne. 13:24), but “after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, . . . many plain and precious things [are] taken away from the book” (1 Ne. 13:28). Since LDS scholars generally concur that the Bible as we now have it is an essentially faithful translation of the surviving manuscripts, some have chosen to interpret 1 Nephi 13:24 as meaning that these plain and precious truths were either removed from individual manuscripts before the Bible was compiled, or they were present in certain manuscripts that never found their way into the Bible. Nephi specifically states, however, that it was “the book” itself that would go forth “from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles” (1 Ne. 13:23–25), and only “after” that did he see “the formation of that great and abominable church, which . . . [has] taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious” (1 Ne. 13:26).
In Joseph Smith’s day the Book of Mormon’s assertion of biblical corruption was generally understood as meaning that the Catholic Church had corrupted the Bible—a perception widely held by Protestants of all persuasions. A June 1832 editorial in the LDS Evening and Morning Star explains that, in fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy, “the most plain parts of the New Testament have been taken from it by the Mother of Harlots while it was confined in that Church,—say, from the year A.D. 460 to 1400.”