Revelation, Divine and Human

Revelation, Divine and Human May 5, 2022

 

Damascus Gate
Damascus Gate or, as it is known in Arabic, “Bab al-‘Amud” (The Gate of the Column), is my favorite among the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City. When I first lived there, coming from Sheikh Jarrah in more modern East Jerusalem, it was the gate through which I always entered the Arab Quarter, which remains my favorite of the Old City’s “quarters.” We’ve passed by it several times over the past couple of days.

(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

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We bade farewell to our tour group this evening.  It always seems that the time has been just a bit too short, and this tour was no exception.  I hope that they had a good time, that their knowledge and understanding of some of the scriptural stories and the history of the land have been deepened, and that their faith has increased.  I haven’t blogged much about our time here over the past few days, but I’ll probably do some summary entries when we’ve returned.

 

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Here’s a passage that struck me some time ago while I was reading Michael Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006):

 

How were people expected to know that these words of Revelation were indeed of divine origin?  One answer to the question was that the Prophet Muhammad, through whom the words came into the world, was a trustworthy man whose life and behavior conformed to established patterns of monotheist prophecy.  The books of sira [biography] and maghazi [specifically military biography, literally “raids” or “campaigns”] provided what one needed to know about this exemplary life and behavior.  Then what if someone wished to put Muhammad’s credentials as a prophet to the test?  In that case, one proof came in the Quran itself (the famous “challenge verses”): doubters were challenged to produce Arabic words of similar quality and beauty; their failure to do this confirmed the authenticity of both the Messenger and the Message.  (36-37)

 

Here are some of those “challenge verses”:

 

And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our Servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful.  But if you do not – and you will never be able to – then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.  (Qur’an 2:23-24)

 

Or do they say [about the Prophet], “He invented it?” Say, “Then bring forth a surah like it and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.”  (Qur’an 10:38)

 

Or do they say, “He invented it”? Say, “Then bring ten surahs like it that have been invented and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.”  (Qur’an 11:13)

 

Say, “If mankind and the jinn gathered in order to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were assistants to each other.”  (Qur’an 17:88)

 

Then let them produce a statement like it, if they should be truthful. (Qur’an 52:34)

 

There is an obvious parallel in Latter-day Saint history:

 

Shortly before publication of the Book of Commandments (the forerunner of the Doctrine and Covenants), some members of the Church evidently criticized the wording of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations.  After all, Joseph was very poorly educated and quite unsophisticated.

 

The revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 67 was given through Joseph Smith, at Hiram, Ohio, early in November 1831:

 

And now I, the Lord, give unto you a testimony of the truth of these commandments which are lying before you.  Your eyes have been upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and his language you have known, and his imperfections you have known; and you have sought in your hearts knowledge that you might express beyond his language; this you also know.  Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the least that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you; or, if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true; but if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true.  (Doctrine and Covenants 67:4-8)

 

The critics selected William E. McLellin, a schoolteacher, a future apostle (and, alas, a future apostate), to take up the challenge.  He had an exceptionally sharp mind, so he was a natural choice for the role.  It appears, though, that McLellin failed to produce a convincing text, and the controversy soon died away.

 

The story is briefly treated, by the way, on pages 142-143 of Saints: The Standard of Truth: 1815-1846, the first volume in the new official history of the Church.  And this passage from Richard L. Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling also seems appropriate when considering such matters:

 

Not long after this attempt, the issue arose again. A conference on November 8 instructed Joseph Smith to review the commandments and ‘correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the holy Spirit.’ Correcting ‘errors’ in language supposedly spoken by God again raised the question of authenticity. If from God, how could the language be corrected? Correction implied Joseph’s human mind had introduced errors; if so, were the revelations really his productions?

The editing process uncovered Joseph’s anomalous assumptions about the nature of revealed words. He never considered the wording infallible. God’s language stood in an indefinite relationship to the human language coming through the Prophet. The revealed preface to the Book of Commandments specified that the language of the revelations was Joseph Smith’s: ‘These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.’ They were couched in language suitable to Joseph’s time. The idioms, the grammar, even the tone had to be combrehensible to 1830s Americans. Recognizing the pliability of the revealed words, Joseph freely edited the revelations ‘by the Holy Spirit,’ making emendations with each new edition. He thought of his revelations as imprinted on his mind, not graven in stone. With each edition, he patched pieces together and altered the wording to clarify meaning. The words were both his and God’s. 

 

Posted from Jerusalem, Israel

 

 


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