Prophetic Foreknowledge: Hope And Fulfillment In An Inspired Community by Anthony A. Hutchinson
Hope And Fulfillment In An Inspired Community
By Anthony A. Hutchinson
from Sunstone 11
An updated version can be found in The Word of God.
“For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” – Ecclesiastes 6:12
I have always been impressed by the Book of Mormon story where the older sons of Lehi begin beating their younger brother Nephi, in frustration at an initial setback in obtaining sacred records they had been commanded to retrieve, and in anger at the failure of Nephi’s own unflaggingly optimistic plans, they proceed to “smite” him until an angel appears and scolds them. Understandably, the brothers stop the beating, upon which the angel departs. Immediately following the angel’s departure, Laman and Lemuel again begin to murmur, and question the angel’s optimism. At the end of the passage it seems clear that, whatever the outcome of Nephi’s trip to Jerusalem for the records, sooner or later the brothers will be pounding Nephi again (as it turns out, it is sooner). (See I Nephi 3:20-31.)
I am always struck by the speed with which the elder brothers return to their old ways after the angelophany – it makes you wonder whether it simply stems from their absolutely depraved characters, or from the fact that even a revelation given by a visible angel guarantees no certitude in religious matters. Perhaps such an experience is so out of the ordinary and removed from “real” life that it can easily be rationalized away, particularly if it entails moral or behavioral imperatives that are hard to bear. As a result, such experiences generally do not provide us with any day-to-day certainty in spiritual matters that we do not already implicitly possess by means of our own faith and what Alma calls our “desire to believe” (Alma 32:27). Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we might all too easily try to rid our minds or memories of Marley’s ghost by declaring that it is merely the figment of our own fevered imagination, “a spot of mustard, a bit of undigested beef.”
The LDS missionary lesson plans teach that we came to this earth in order to grow through the exercise of moral free agency, a precondition of which is our learning to walk here on earth by faith and not by sight. If this is so (and I believe it is), then it seems natural that nearly everything we might have to deal with here will be, in some way or another, ambiguous. And whether this stems from the Plan of Salvation, or from the fact, as C.S. Lewis puts it, that the gods are unable to meet us mortals face to face until we have faces,1 the fact remains that life as we know it is ambiguous.
Such a confession sits somewhat uncomfortably in our religious tradition, since we frequently assert that the gospel is the wellspring of absolute truth and certitude. These assertions help us express our faith, our personal experience of God, and our deepest feelings about the things that we believe matter most. But they sometimes limit our sympathy for the ambiguities that others have had to live with. By extension, we tend to ignore our own need to walk by faith rather than by sight in this sometimes hard-to-understand world.
Ambiguity, however, is merely one of the epistemological prerequisites for moral free agency. Without some standards of judgment, no judgment can be made; as a result, there can be no real choice without standards. In the Latter-day Saint tradition, the theological concept of revelation counter-balances the moral and doctrinal agnosticism that might result from the ambiguity which we all see about us, and which is particularly evident in a pluralistic society such as our own. While this role of revelation as a source of certainty stems in part from the emotions experienced by those who believe they have received revelation (something Joseph Smith said we all should receive), the rhetoric we employ here sometimes raises false expectations about revelation and the people who receive it.
For example, many people sustain a view of prophecy that may be best described as a “prophetic television,” i.e., foresight where a prophet is supposedly graced with a panoramic and detailed view of “coming attractions” hundreds or even thousands of years in the future. Though this idea is usually held by its adherents to have its roots in certain scriptural passages, both biblical and LDS, I think it is an inadequate and misleading image of prophetic foreknowledge. This is not to deny that a possibility of such prophecy exists, but only to point out that not a single example in history of the exercise of such a power can be demonstrated. To deny with the Book of Mormon heresiarch Korihor the possibility of prophetic foreknowledge on the grounds that “no man can know anything which is to come” (Alma 30-13) denies God’s ability to grant people such knowledge; however, to point out the lack of any clear example of the prophetic television does not deny God’s power but simply demonstrates the ambiguity of mortality. While a Korihor-like denial robs the prophetic witness of its value and authority, the claims I make sustain this value and authority by attempting to better understand of what they consist.
“Behold, they say to me, ‘Where is Yahweh’s word? Let it come!’ ” -Jeremiah 17:15
The prophetic television model does not find support in a careful reading of the Bible. A remarkable consensus on this point exists among biblical scholars, both those who would deny the possibility of miraculous foreknowledge and those who confess the possibility of miraculously bestowed objective knowledge of the future. This consensus is phrased well by Raymond E. Brown:
. . . this conception of prophecy as prediction of the distant future has disappeared from most serious scholarship today, and it is widely recognized that the [New Testament] “fulfillment” of the [Old Testament] involved much that the [Old Testament] writers did not foresee at all. The [Old Testament] prophets were primarily concerned with addressing God’s challenge to their own times. If they spoke about the future, it was in broad terms of what would happen if this challenge was accepted or rejected. While they sometimes preached a “messianic” deliverance (i.e., deliverance through one anointed as God’s representative, thus a reigning king or even a priest), there is no evidence that they foresaw with precision even a single detail in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.2
To be sure, many New Testament and LDS sources regard their experiences as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. But such claims generally rely upon selective readings of the Old Testament. This filtering process partially succeeds in giving the various Old Testament passages a limping semblance of having “foreseen” a specific New Testament or Mormon event. Nonetheless, the passages at issue often have a clearer, more immediate literal sense related to their Old Testament setting than they have in their New Testament or LDS interpretations.
For example, Isaiah 7:14 – the oracle concerning a salvific future figure named Immanuel – comes up in practically any discussion where Christians provide examples of supposed Old Testament predictions about details in the life of Jesus. However, a careful reading of the passage with full attention to the actual semantic range of the words used in the Hebrew text reveals that the passage has a more immediate sense in the context of the Book of Isaiah itself. The historical situation behind the oracle, as revealed in its narrative setting, indicates this. At the time the author was writing, the northern kingdom of Israel has joined with the kingdom of Aram (i.e., Syria) in rebelling against the new Assyrian monarch Tiglath-Pileser Ill. The two kingdoms jointly attacked Judah in an attempt to force it to join the Anti-Assyrian league in rebellion. In Isaiah 7, Ahaz is apparently seriously reconsidering his policy of neutrality regarding the league, since he is portrayed as being accosted by Isaiah as he inspects the waterworks of Jerusalem, a crucial factor in the city’s ability to withstand any Syro-Ephramitic siege. Note in the passage the function the Immanuel oracle serves within this narrative setting.
1 In the days of Ahaz, king of Judah, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, king of Israel, went up to attack Jerusalem, but they were not able conquer it.
2 When it was reported to the house of David that Aram was encamped in Ephraim, the heart of the king and the heart of his people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind.
3 Then Yahweh said to Isaiah: Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shearjashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway of the launderer’s field.
4 Then say to him, “Take care you remain tranquil and do not fear; let not your heart be faint before these two stumps of smoldering brands [the blazing anger of Rezin and the Arameans, and of the son of Ramaliah], because of the mischief that Aram [Ephraim and the son of Remaliah] plots against you, saying, “Let us go up to Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and establish the son of Tabeel as king there.” Thus says the Lord Yahweh This shall not stand; it shall not be For Damascus is the head of Aram and Rezin is the head of Damascus Samaria is the head of Ephraim, and Remaliah’s son the head of Samaria.
9 But within sixty-five years Ephraim will be crushed, no longer a nation. Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm
10 Again, Yahweh spoke to Ahaz:
11 Ask for a sign from Yahweh, your God; let it be as deep as Sheol, or as high as the sky.
12 But Ahaz answered, “I will not tempt Yahweh!”
13 Then he said: Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God?
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman is pregnant, and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
15 He shall be eating curds and honey so that he may know to reject evil and choose good.
16 For before the lad knows to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.3
As is well known, this passage is beset with numerous sticky points of interpretation.4 Yet from the flow of the narrative here we can tell that Isaiah intended the Immanuel oracle as a sign to Ahaz of the reliability of Isaiah’s counsel concerning the Syro-Ephramitic war and the prior issue concerning Ahaz’s policy toward Assyria. The “young woman” who is seen as carrying the ideal king of the future is not identified in the passage as a virgin, since the Hebrew word alma does not mean “virgin,” but merely a young woman of marriageable age. Given this situation, it seems probable that Isaiah was expecting the events envisioned in the oracle to occur in the near future, at least during his or Ahaz’s lifetime. Perhaps with the birth and reign of good king Hezekiah, the hope for an anointed future David which the oracle expressed found at least partial fulfillment.
The Old Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures made a somewhat paraphrased rendition of Isaiah 7:14, and heightened the miraculous element in the oracle by translating the word alma by the Greek word parthenos. In the Hebrew text, Isaiah looked at a pregnant young woman and awesomely knew the child’s gender and future name; in contrast, the Greek translation has him looking at a young woman who is not even pregnant yet, indeed, who has not even had intercourse, and yet Isaiah foretells her pregnancy as well as the gender and name of the child to be born. This quirk of translation allows the Greek-speaking author of Matthew’s Gospel look at this verse (in Greek) and see its “fulfillment” in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Matthew and Luke regarded as the only son of God from his conception in his mothers womb, hence, being “of a virgin born.”
What we see here is a passage, divinely inspired and expressing deep hope, but perhaps not “panning out” quite as the human author of the words had perhaps expected, or at least in the way that he expressed it in the passage itself. Yet as these words underwent a historically conditioned evolution of text and language, they were reinterpreted and accommodated in light of these changes, as well as in light of subsequent events seen by later believers as acts of a loving God who fulfills his promises.
When one looks at the use of Old Testament prophetic scripture in the New Testament, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of the same process at work. A simple example is found in Hosea 11:1, which is quoted in Matthew 2:15. Hosea makes a clear poetic reference to the Exodus in these terms: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt.” Matthew, ever on the lookout for possible parallels between Jesus and the salvation saga of ancient Israel, appears to see in Hosea’s words actual foreknowledge of the flight into Egypt story that Matthew narrates: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,’Out of Egypt have I called my Son.'” This very ambiguity of Old Testament prophecy itself, coupled with the developing interpretive tradition which sees fulfillment by hindsight (not by foresight), accounts in large part for the Jewish reaction to Christian claims about Jesus, and subsequent Jewish skepticism toward Christian use of the Old Testament.
The frustration of some of the prophets at the failure of some of their prophecies to pan out as expected is demonstrated in at least one Old Testament text, Jeremiah 17:15, quoted at the beginning of this section. There, Jeremiah complains to the Lord because of the taunts he has suffered at the hands of his detractors who have heard his predictions, and have not yet seen them come to pass. Jeremiah challenges the Lord to bring to pass the word which he had given to Jeremiah.
The same sort of dynamic seems to be present in the New Testament, with the whole question of the delay of the Parousia, and the fading of early Christian apocalypticism in the mainstream traditions of the New Testament.5 If any of the material put onto Jesus’s lips by the Synoptic Gospels in the so-called “Little Apocalypse” (Mark 13 and Matthew 24) actually reflects sayings of the historical Jesus, it seems likely that the general pattern of only uncertain knowledge about the future applies even to the mortal Jesus of Nazareth. In these passages, Jesus is portrayed as having an apocalyptic expectation of the immediate consummation of history, reflected also in the early writings of Paul (see I Thess. 4:15).
“Deny not the spirit of revelation nor the spirit of prophecy for wo unto him that denieth these things, -Doctrine and Covenants 11:25
Many Latter-day Saints might believe that although the Bible’s pattern of knowledge of the future is at best ambiguous, we have clear examples of certain prophetic foreknowledge in the Restoration. But careful examination here yields the same results, and in probably more definitive form, since many of the source documents have not been lost in the course of millennia of textual transmission. In fact, the classic example used in LDS and RLDS apologetics to demonstrate Joseph Smith’s prophetic foresight, the 1832 Prophecy on War (D&C 87), if anything tends to invalidate the model.
When the revelation was given on 25 December 1832 at or near Kirtland, it clearly referred to the immediate political uncertainties provoked by the 1832 American Nullification Crisis. The 1832 Tariff Act, which favored Northern industrial interests at the expense of Southern agricultural concerns, because of the harm it wrought on foreign, primarily British, trade, had been declared null and void by the South Carolina legislature. President Andrew Jackson had responded by calling upon federal troops to suppress rebellion in the state. In the midst of this crisis, Joseph Smith received the Prophecy on War. In the preface to the revelation in the History of the Church, he explicitly established the Nullification Crisis as the background for the revelation (HC 1:301). In the revelation, he describes “wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning with the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls; And the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place” (vv. 1-2, emphasis added). Thus, he seems to state that the Nullification Crisis will result in world war. This becomes explicit in the next verse, which originally read thus: “For behold, the Southern States will call upon other nations, even the nation of Great Britain, as it is called, and they shall also call upon other nations, in order to defend themselves against other nations, and thus war shall be poured out upon all nations (v. 3, emphasis added). Clearly a causal relationship, demonstrated by the word “thus,” is seen here between the rebellion of South Carolina, the southern states’ appeal to Britain, and a war between all nations which would engulf the whole world, destroying the fabric of society (slaves raise up in war against their masters in v. 4; American Indians – the “remnants” of v. 5- vex the gentiles in v. 5) and culminating in the apocalyptic “consumption decreed” which makes “a full end of all nations” (v. 6) before the second coming of the Lord. Note that there is no hint in the text that could conceivably suggest that slavery itself would be at issue in the rebellion of South Carolina. For Smith in 1832, the prophecy predicted the immediate onset of a series of cataclysmic events preparatory to the Parousia.
Shortly after the revelation was recorded, the Nullification Crisis was peacefully resolved, and ceased to threaten the “death and misery of many souls” or any such string of events. Although the revelation apparently circulated among the Prophet’s intimates, it was shelved, never to be published in his lifetime. But the revelation had privately circulated, and Smith apparently felt that the Lord had spoken to him in the matter, though the prophecy itself had seemingly fallen on its face. (Indeed, he might have understood well Jeremiah’s complaint with the Lord mentioned above!) Yet the revelation remained alive in Smith’s imagination, although understandably he did not give out the text in public. Outside of the circle of his nearest intimates he only referred to the general idea of impending general war contained in the revelation, rather than to its failed timetable and scenario of coming events. In the Elders’ Journal in 1837 (vol. 1, number 2, p. 28), for example, Smith wrote,
Now we would recommend to the Saints scattered abroad, that they make all possible exertions to gather themselves together unto those places; as peace, verily thus saith the Lord, peace shall soon be taken from the earth, and it has already began [sic] to be taken; for a lying spirit has gone out upon all the face of the earth and shall perplex the nations, and shall stur [sic] them up to anger against one another: for behold saith the Lord, very fierce and terrible war is near at hand, even at your doors, therefore make haste saith the Lord O ye my people, and gather yourselves together and be at peace among yourselves, or there shall be no safty [sic] for you.
Here Joseph has clearly not given up on what his detractors might call a “failed” or “false” prophecy, although he does not cite the specific text of the prophecy, perhaps because he sees that its details indeed did not come to pass as expected.
Joseph’s further reflection upon the revelation, coupled with subsequent events, produced a change in his interpretation of the revelation near the end of his life. Since Joseph believed that the prophecy came to him from heaven, and that every word of the Lord would eventually be fulfilled, he was able, even encouraged, to reinterpret the words that he himself had earlier penned, and radically change their meaning.
On 2 April 1843, while giving some private items of instruction to close followers at Benjamin F. Johnson’s home in Ramus, Illinois, the Prophet recounted a dream he had had on the evening of 9 March 1843, in which an old man, fleeing from mobs, begged Smith for assistance from the Nauvoo Legion, received a somewhat guarded reply from Smith, and added, running from Smith’s sight, that he himself could place any desired number of men at arms at Smith’s disposal should the latter decide that his case was just. The interpretation of the dream, given by Orson Pratt apparently with Smith’s endorsement, followed: the government of the United States which had turned a deaf ear to the Saints’ pleas for protection, attacked by Great Britain, would beg for Smith’s aid in securing the Western territories by means of the Legion. After Pratt’s interpretation, Smith stated the following
I prophesy, in the Name of the Lord God that the commencement of bloodshed as preparatory to the coming of the son of man. [sic] will commence in South Carolina, -(it probably may come through the slave trade.)- this the voice declared to me. [sic] while I was praying earnestly on the subject 25 December 1832.6
Of interest here is the fact that the original 1832 text has undergone some serious reinterpretation: it is now linked with the hopes of Smith to use the Legion in aid of the U.S.A., and the cause of the wars has been changed from the 1832 Nullification crisis to perhaps the slave question. In 1851, seven years after Smith’s death and a year after the compromise of 1850 had brought the slave/free question to the front pages of American newspapers, the reinterpreted but textually intact 1832 revelation was first published, by Franklin Richards in Liverpool in the Millennial Star, and in the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price. It received great play just before and during the Civil War, which in fact began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on 2 April 1861. But even granting the remarkable insight (or coincidence) that war would begin in South Carolina, the suite of events predicted in the revelation just did not occur. Although the South made overtures to Great Britain, the English never did enter directly into the war, all the nations of the earth were not dragged into an American domestic conflict, and, of course, Jesus did not return again in glory at the end of this unfulfilled string of events. But the fact that the revelation when carelessly read seemed to predict at least the Civil War insured that it would not be shelved again (after all, there we had South Carolina firing the first shot, war between North and South, slaves rising against masters – perhaps – and, after the war, the great Indian wars on the Western frontier). It was included in the Utah canon of the 1876 Doctrine and Covenants, as was an edited version of its 1843 reinterpretation, now found as D&C 130:12-13 (note- the story of the U.S.A. begging help from the Nauvoo Legion against British invaders was shelved!). Although dire predictions were given from the Tabernacle pulpit during the Civil War predicting the overthrow of the American government and citing the 1832 revelation (see Journal of Discourses 9:55, 142-43; 10: 13, 15; 12:344), none survived in the LDS tradition after Appomattox as anything other than mere relics.
In the wake of World War I, seen by many of the Saints as part of the “consumption decreed” and wars involving all nations to precede the end, it seemed that perhaps the revelation was right on the mark in predicting future history. After all, world war had come after the Civil War and the Indian wars! But this, again, was an after-the-fact reinterpretation of the revelation. For such an interpretation, one had to filter one’s reading of the text much like Christian filtering of Old Testament prophecies. One had to ignore the causal relationship seen in the revelation between South Carolina’s revolt and world war, so clearly indicated in the revelation’s use of the word “thus” in verse 3. But this minor problem was resolved in 1921, when James Talmage and other members of an apostolic revision committee edited the text so that it fit more comfortably with this post-World War I interpretation. “Thus” was changed to “then.” This change weakened the causal tone of verse 3 and reduced it to a merely temporal sequence, allowing for the interpretive interposition of longer periods of time between Carolina’s rebellion, the call of the southern states to Great Britain, and subsequent world war. While the Kirtland Revelation Book clearly reads “thus” here, together with every manuscript copy and published form of the revelation until 1921,8 the revision committee ought not be accused of outright falsification in this matter. In the Kirtland Revelation Book, the word appears cramped at a margin, and with enough wishful thinking one might be able to wring a “then” out of it – but only if one really wanted to read “then” instead of “thus.” And this, apparently, is what the revision committee wanted to do in order to reinforce the Prophet’s gift of clearly foreseeing the future. Here is a case where the predictive element of the text was maintained only through textual reinterpretation and emendation.
This example of Joseph’s role as a prophetic predictor of the future follows the pattern noticed above among the biblical prophets. It does not support the prophetic television concept of prophetic foreknowledge. Other examples of this in Joseph’s writings abound. These include some which survived by adaptation in ways similar to the prophecy on war; others, neither ambiguous nor interesting enough to generate interpretive development, failed and faded; still others ostensibly view events yet held to be in the future by the Saints, and therefore are seen as not failed and have not needed reinterpretation. Examples of these various types of prophetic utterances whether failed and abandoned, failed and reinterpreted, or apparently failed but whose fulfillment is still deferred, include such prophecies as the 1829 revelation concerning the Canadian copyright of the Book of Mormon, as well as the so-called “Grease-spot prophecy” predicting the utter annihilation of the institutions of the United States government, and various sayings regarding the Kirtland Safety Society and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri.
“I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.”- I Nephi 11:17
Clear examples of a functional prophetic television are few in the Bible and the Restoration, if not totally absent. The only place, in fact, where they might seem to occur is in a specific class of documents brought forth by the Prophet Joseph Smith, including the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (including the Book of Moses), the Book of Abraham, and one or two passages from the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants (especially in sections 7 and 93). These documents, which claim to have ancient and divine origins, present a special problem in this regard. Let us take the Book of Mormon as a paradigm of this class of documents. The book contains several apparent examples of clear, unambiguous recounting of world and Book of Mormon history, including details in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, hundreds of years prior to the actual event. The Book of Mormon is an anomaly in this regard, for its prophecies fit neither the biblical nor the restoration pattern. There are three ways to resolve this anomaly.
(1) The Book of Mormon can be said to give us the true pattern of prophetic foreknowledge; the biblical evidence can be viewed as deficient, owing to textual corruption that eliminated all clear evidence of the true foreknowledge the ancient biblical prophets actually had. This position draws upon certain passages in the Book of Mormon that seem to call into question the textual reliability of the traditional texts of the Bible (see I Nephi 13-14). The difficulty with this position, of course, is that it does not account for the pattern of prophecy in the Restoration, which seems to fit the mold of biblical prophecy in the texts as they have come down to us without reference to some supposedly lost form of the Bible.
(2) One can admit the difficulty, and assert that historically the pattern of Nephite prophecy was substantially different from that found in the Bible. This position, too, relies on certain passages of the Book of Mormon – ones that contrast starkly the obscurity of the “manner of the things of the Jews” with Nephite “plainness” (see 2 Nephi 25:1-7). Again, the difficulty is that this position does not explain the divergence of Restoration prophetic patterns with those of the Book of Mormon.
(3) Finally, one can look more closely at the Book of Mormon itself to see whether its portrayal of prophetic practice ought to be accepted at face value as a historical record of what ancient Americans actually said and did.
The most noteworthy observation to be made here, of course, is that the Book of Mormon presents clear “prophetic television” type predictions only for world events up to but not beyond the point of history that the Book of Mormon itself was published by Joseph Smith: it seems to know of Jesus’ life and works, the gross outlines of ancient and medieval Jewish history, the discovery and colonization of the Americas by Europeans, and the beginnings of American independence. But beyond that point the book couches its further predictions – of the restoration of ancient things and the ultimate return of Jesus – in vague, ambiguous images and language more congruent with biblical and Restoration prophecy, or simply in concrete eschatological imagery borrowed from the Bible.
This fact is made all the more striking by the apparent anachronistic character of many of the examples of prophecy which do seem to support the prophetic television. I am not arguing in a circle here – I am not saying that since the prophetic television doesn’t exist clear examples of it must be anachronisms and therefore must not be trusted. The anachronisms I refer to are not the specific details of knowledge of the future at issue in any discussion of prophetic foreknowledge as such, but rather details of text and language that in and of themselves betray later authorship than that claimed by the document containing them.
For example, the first Book of Mormon textual example of apparent television-like prophetic foreknowledge, I Nephi 10:9, has the sixth century B.C. prophet Lehi foreseeing the ministry of John the Baptist in detail, right down to point of saying that he would “baptize in Bethabara, beyond Jordan,” The verses in the English text of the Book of Mormon are laced with language from various verses of the King James gospels. When this is recognized, the reference to “Bethabara” is highly troubling to a literal, historical reading of the passage. The English wording here has been borrowed from John 1:28 in the King James Version. The difficulty is that the word “Bethabara” in this text is most likely a later emendation to the text, first suggested by third century patristic writer Origen. The original text of John most likely read “Bethany,” which was changed because of the geographical difficulties it presented.9 With dozens of such examples abounding in the Book of Mormon (and, indeed, in all the documents of this class), it seems that this third view is probably the easiest way to account for the anomaly of predictive prophecy in the Book of Mormon, as well as that in the other documents of this type. The nineteenth century provenance of its English text – the earliest form of the book that is available – presents the possibility of modern interpolations and vaticinia ex eventu (backdated “prophecies” written after the event they supposedly predict – an occurrence also known in certain biblical texts). This does not impeach the inspiration of the Book of Mormon, nor its scriptural status within Latter-day Saintism. But it does bracket out the Book of Mormon evidence from consideration in trying to exemplify the historical practice of the prophetic gift.
When the text of the Book of Mormon is viewed under such a modern rubric, explanations of its portrayal of prophetic practice present themselves easily. Perhaps the very ambiguity of biblical prophecy inspired the literary portrayal of prophecy/foretelling in the Book of Mormon. With such clear evidence of precisely accurate prophetic foreknowledge as exists in this American scripture, many of the eighteenth and nineteenth century criticisms made of biblical prophecy seemed solved for the early Latter-day Saints, and, indeed, the Bible’s comparative failure in this regard could be chalked up to lost “plain and precious parts.”10 This same principle applies to the other books brought forth by Joseph Smith that present themselves as having been written anciently – the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, the Book of Moses, and the Book of Abraham. All of these works show the same kind of anachronistic contamination manifested in the Book of Mormon, and make them poor evidence for the actual historical practice of prophecy.11 Interestingly, their portrayal of prophecy seems to fit equally well into a nineteenth century theological discussion concerning prophecy and biblical authority.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” -Mark 13:31
A few short observations will help us put these data in theological perspective. The Book of Mormon, regardless of its reliability as historical evidence, teaches that God indeed does reveal himself, the objections of nineteenth century Deists notwithstanding. What I have discussed here does not undermine that essential point; it merely places nuances into our understanding of what that revelatory process exactly is.
It is also important to understand that the process of prophecy, accommodation, and imputed fulfillment of prophecy is based on faith and hope from beginning to end. Had Joseph not felt a need to have faith that God had spoken to him on Christmas Day in 1832, he would have felt free to shelve the prophecy when it appeared to have failed, and leave it there. But he did not. His faith that somehow the text had come not only from himself, but also from God, led him to reinterpret and cherish rather than to reject it.
A good evidence of this is seen in cases where people rejected Joseph and his preaching on the basis of what was seen to be a failed prophecy. When Ezra Booth apostatized, he wrote in 1831 about his disillusionment with a “failed” prophecy. On a preaching tour to Missouri, he expected to find “that Oliver [Cowdery] had raised up a large church” there because Joseph had seen this in vision. Yet this was not the case, and Booth and Edward Partridge were troubled by this. In writing to Partridge about the incident, Booth states:
when you complained that he [Joseph] had abused you, and observed to him, “I wish you not to tell us any more, that you know these by the spirit when you do not; you told us, that Oliver had raised up a large church here, and there is no such thing;’ he replied, “I see it, and it will be so,” This appeared to me [E. Booth] to be a shift, better suited to an imposter, than a true Prophet of the Lord.12
In this case, the issues raised by our discussion are clear: Smith and Partridge went on and exercised faith in the Lord and his word (despite the ambiguities and anomalies presented by prophecy that has “failed” according to the expectations of the prophetic television model), and enjoyed the blessings of the restored gospel; Booth, however, was unwilling to change his mind or his expectations. To use a phrase of Brigham Young, he “lost his soul and went to Hell.”
This example also shows the true well-spring of the process that forces reinterpretation and accommodation – the recognition that the Lord has spoken, and the hope that sooner or later, all the Lord’s words will be fulfilled, in some way or another.
The view of prophecy I propose sees the prophets of all age as very much like those of the current Church, in at least this respect: they are primarily concerned with addressing their own people, and their own time. As Brigham Young said in 1847 alluding to Joseph’s explanation of another of his “failed” prophecies,
The difference between a revelation of God, and a revelation of man an [sic] a revelation of the Devil is this: in one. . . of the Devil you will always see some great and dark thing which you cannot understand, and in a revelation of man you will allways [sic] see the man sticking out in it; but one that cometh from God is always plain and suited to the present condition of the people.13
Many Saints might find this perspective highly upsetting because they would rightly see it as undermining ideas that have comforted them in a troubled and uncertain age. I do not want to rob anyone of the comfort he or she finds in a principle of the gospel. Preaching the gospel should rightly give comfort to the comfortless – otherwise, it could not encourage us to have hope. But at the same time, the preaching of the gospel should make the comfortable and self-satisfied feel uncomfortable – otherwise it could not provoke us to repent. In the final analysis, we must try to speak the truth, and let others react to it as they will – under the guidance of God, one hopes. To those who feel that this perspective on prophecy pulls out the rug of faith from under them, I can only try to reassure them God reveals himself in the way he chooses. If the prophetic television does not exist in the real world, it is not the fault of the person who points this out, but rather the “fault” of God. He lets us go through life beset by mists of darkness thick enough to make us at times even wonder whether this thing that we feel in our hands and occasionally catch glimpses of through the mist is indeed a rod of iron leading to the tree of life. Faith strong enough to save can develop and grow only in the presence of such uncertainty. The reevaluation and reformulation required by the data and patterns discussed here ought rightly to be part of a healthy and growing religious life.
A comment from the New Testament will make the reason for this clear. There Jesus addresses a call of metanoia to all, to wine drinkers and sinners, and to the outwardly pious and righteous. Metanoia, a term coming from the Greek verb metanoeo “to change one’s noos, or mind,” can be translated variously, depending upon the setting in which the call is set. For those not keeping the law, the call is appropriately understood as a call to “repentance.” For the outwardly righteous, to whom many of the parables reversing ordinary expectations are directed, the call is probably more rightly understood as an appeal for a change in perspectives, a change in one’s way of thinking.14 Thus Jesus’ call, “Change your minds, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” should encourage us in reformulating our understanding of our faith. If we are interested in more fully understanding the prophets and their message, we must in this sense “repent” of ways of thinking that misrepresent our heritage, and obscure our need to walk by faith and not by sight. Indeed, if we are not to “deny the spirit of prophecy” as it has been actually lived out in the community, and is now being lived out, we must reevaluate our understandings, and make them conform to what we actually know about the way he has spoken and still speaks to his people.
3. My translation here is based upon a conjecturally slightly emended Hebrew text, based upon mainstream positions in the text-critical discussion of the passage. Cf. any standard critical commentaries on the Hebrew text, as well as the Textual Notes on the New American Bible (Patson, NJ : St. Anthony’s Guild, n.d ).
7. It is unclear whether the parenthetical aside about the slave trade being a possible cause of war is a scribal musing by Willard Richards or what Smith actually said. William Clayton’s account of the comment makes no reference to possible reasons for South Carolina’s rebellion.
9. See B. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London/ New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 199, also Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Anchor Bible 29-29A, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966) p. 44.
10. See Robert Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis, Missouri: Clayton, 1980) pp. 140-49
11. See J. H. Charlesworth, “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon,” pp. 99-138 in T. Madsen, ed., Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (BYU Religious Studies Center Monograph Series 4; Provo, Utah: BYU, 1978); K. Stendahl, “The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi,” pp. 139-54 in Reflections on Mormonism; W. Walters, “The Use of the Old Testament in the Book of Mormon” (M.T. Thesis, Covenant Theological Seminary, 1981) pp. 95-162, Blake Ostler, “Responsible Apologetics,” a review of Book of Mormon Authorship; New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (BYU Religious Studies Center Monograph Series; Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1982) in Dialogue 16:4 (Winter, 1983) pp. 140-44, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion on an Ancient Source” Dialogue 20:1 (Spring 1987) 66-124; George D. Smith, “Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon,” Free Inquiry 4:1 (Winter, 1983-1984) pp. 20-31. For a fuller treatment of the books of Abraham and Moses, see A. Hutchinson, “A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives in Redaction-critical Perspective,” paper delivered at the Mormon History Association annual Meeting, Omaha, Nebraska, 6 May 1983, forthcoming in Dialogue. For a discussion of the Joseph Smith revision of the King James Version of the Bible (now called the Joseph Smith Translation), see A. Hutchinson, “The JS Revision and the Synoptic Problem: An Alternative View,” Journal of the John Whitmer Historical Association 5 (1985) 47-53.
14. This idea has been Suggested by Raymond Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York/ Ramsey: Paulist, 1981), p. 95.