A recent article by Colby Townsend highlighted the importance of textual criticism in studying Latter-day Saint scripture. Textual criticism tries by a variety of methods to understand the “original” or “best” wording of a document that may exist in multiple, conflicting versions or where the manuscripts are confusing or difficult to read. Part 1 of 2 of a set of forthcoming articles by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and Ryan Dahle commends Townsend’s efforts to raise awareness of the importance of textual criticism, while differing on some interpretations.
For example, the earliest manuscripts of the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the first chapters of Genesis (now canonized as the Book of Moses) sometimes vary in important ways. In a vision of Enoch described in a JST manuscript named “Old Testament 1” (OT1), we are told that after viewing the wickedness and misery of mankind “the God of heaven looked down … and wept.” However, in the “Old Testament 2” (OT2) manuscript, the text was revised to read “Enoch looked down … and wept.”
The OT1 version has been adopted in the current Latter-day Saint edition of the Pearl of Great Price (Moses 7:28) and as a consequence has been the subject of more extensive discussion by Latter-day Saint scholars than the later version. However, Townsend and Charles Harrell, among others, argue that the OT2 revision, where Enoch rather than God weeps, is a better reading of the passage.
Authors such as Eugene England and Terryl Givens have emphasized that the account of God’s weeping should be seen as evidence for His compassion and feeling nature. Townsend, however, takes such scholars to task for “fail[ing] to appreciate the details of this issue.” Rather than being a minor modification, he argues that the OT2 revision significantly “changes the meaning of the text” when it shifts “the action of weeping from God to Enoch.” Harrell, who also comments on Moses 7:28, sees the revision that omits God’s weeping as consistent with the “general arc” of the chapter as a whole, which to him “seems to accentuate only [God’s] wrath rather than his tender-heartedness.”
In their response, Bradshaw and Dahle argue that a more balanced understanding of Moses 7 emerges when comparing it to suitable Old Testament analogues, specifically Deuteronomy 32 and Isaiah 1. While the fusion of “justice” and “mercy” in the character of God may seem like an irreconcilable contradiction to some modern readers, ancient scripture writers had no problem in putting these seemingly opposite ideas together—often in close proximity within a single chapter of scripture.
Bradshaw and Dahle show how the God of Moses 7, as in Deuteronomy and Isaiah, quickly abandons the theme of judgment in the opening verses when He launches into a stanza of lament and a merciful promise of redemption for all people “inasmuch as they will repent.”
Although OT2 is a later revision, Bradshaw and Dahle conclude that, contrary to intuition, it is not necessarily a better reading than OT1. Pointing out how OT2 runs roughshod over key literary features of the chapter as a whole, they argue that OT1 provides a superior overall reading than OT2. That said, Moses 7 — whether we are speaking of OT1 or OT2 and especially when seen in the light of Old Testament analogues — paints a coherent and compelling picture of a loving Heavenly Father whose foremost preoccupation is to remedy the miserable situation of His mortal children.
In a separate discussion that highlights the potential significance of handwriting analysis to textual criticism, Bradshaw and Dahle respond to Townsend’s arguments that the spelling difference between the names “Mahujah” and “Mahijah” in the Book of Moses may be due to a transcription error.
Although the results of Bradshaw and Dahle’s analysis does not inspire confidence in some of Townsend’s interpretations, he is certainly correct to emphasize that more careful attention to original manuscripts and textual changes is warranted.
Look for Bradshaw and Dahle’s article in the near future in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.