Chapter 16, The Apocrypha and the Book of Mormon
When Nibley discusses the Apocrypha in this context, he does not solely mean the extra-canonical books that the Catholic Church adds to their Old Testament, but all extra-canonical books, which would include many ancient texts that have collected dust for centuries.
Joseph Smith asked the Lord if he should “translate” the books of the Apocrypha in the Catholic Bible. In D&C 91, the Lord responded by saying it wasn’t necessary to do so. Instead, we must realize that there are truths and errors in all ancient books. The value comes to us if we read them by the gift of the Holy Ghost. Under the Spirit’s guidance, we are able to find the truths and light within a document and enhance our knowledge of the truth. Without that guidance, however, it is simply a book with information that may or may not be of intrinsic value to the average person.
For many in Joseph’s day, and for many in our day, this is a preposterous concept: God can give us an imperfect document that can help us learn about his gospel and heaven!
“An apocryphal writing is one that had been accepted as inspired scripture by any Christian or Jewish group at any time.”
So, this can include the Catholic Apocrypha, the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic Nag Hammadi library, and dozens of ancient books that have survived the millennia.
In fact, here are a few websites which contain English translations of such books:
Nibley correctly shows that the Christian Church has long had the belief that a book cannot be of God and be corrupted at the same time, and still be useful. They cannot believe the Mormons can believe Joseph Smith or Brigham Young with all of their flaws and errors, could actually be called of God to be prophets!
And yet this is what we learn from the ancient documents. Even the Bible is now considered to contain many books of questionable provenance and teachings. Moses can anger God and lose his chance at entering the Promised Land. Peter can deny Christ three times, and still be accepted as the lead apostle. Paul and the Jewish Christians (such as James) can argue over doctrine and teachings, and yet all still be considered Christians.
We find the Book of Mormon prophets apologizing for their weakness in writing. We find the Lord accepting Joseph Smith in his weaknesses, not in his strength or in HIS strength.
Nibley notes that for the Jews, the canon is not necessarily an all in one set of scripture that is equal. The Law of Moses reigns supreme over the writings of the Prophets, which is more important than other writings. Today, while not part of the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah and other rabbinical writings are considered sacred, as well.
Mormons also give varying levels of consideration to prophetic/apostolic teaching. We place our canon at the center of our faith. General Conference talks are inspired for us to study, even though we consider them binding on a person only after the Holy Spirit has confirmed the teaching to that individual. Of course, books written by prophets and apostles are also important.
However, the concept of continuing revelation can take an older teaching and turn it on its head. Nibley notes this in talking about the Great Tradition. Today, many general authorities since the days of Brigham Young down to Spencer W. Kimball taught about the curse of Cain that was on blacks, preventing them from having the blessings of the temple and priesthood. All it took was one revelation in June 1978 to change that. Now, LDS scholars and members are taking a new look at how earlier views and reasons for the priesthood ban were developed and accepted via traditional means, rather than revelatory means. Because Brigham believed and taught it, we should continue the tradition….
While Pres Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote vigorously against the “heresy” of evolution, most LDS today (including many general authorities) believe that God used evolution to create this world and life.
In regards to the concept of Messiah, we do see much about him in the Apocryphal books of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. While the news is old for most scholars now, it initially astounded those reading and translating the DSS to find so much information regarding a coming Messiah. In fact, it astonished them to find they await TWO Messiahs!
Nibley is correct in his list of ancient concepts that one finds in many of the apocryphal books.
When we consider how many things Joseph Smith “got right” in regards to the themes and teachings in the Book of Mormon, it makes me wonder how people (LDS and others) can take the book so much for granted.