A Tale of Two Scrolls: Jeremiah’s Replacement Scroll and Mormon “Restoration” of Scripture
Jeremiah 36 recounts an interesting incident in the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah. He dictated to his scribe Baruch everything that God had said to Jeremiah up to that point and then sent Baruch to read the scroll in the temple (Jer. 36:1-10). Baruch was then summoned before the king’s officials to read the scroll to them (36:11-15). The officials told Baruch that he and Jeremiah should hide; they then reported the matter to the king, who had the scroll brought and read to him (36:16-21).
As we already know from the whole book of Jeremiah, the king, Jehoiakim, was troubled by Jeremiah’s prophecies about Babylon conquering Jerusalem and bringing to an end the Davidic dynasty’s rule (36:28-31). As the scroll was read, Jehoiakim threw it piece by piece into his fireplace, eventually burning the entire scroll (36:22-26). When Jeremiah found out what had happened, he received a revelation from the Lord:
"Take thee again another roll, and write in it all the former words that were in the first roll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah hath burned" (Jer. 36:28 KJV).
According to the book of Jeremiah, this is what they did:
Then took Jeremiah another roll, and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah; who wrote therein from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the book which Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire: and there were added besides unto them many like words. (Jer. 36:32 KJV)
The incident in Mormon history to which this passage in Jeremiah is most relevant has to do with the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript, about which I will say something at the end of this paper. Mormon scholars and apologists, for their part, appeal to this passage to defend the way in which the LDS Church’s founding apostle and prophet, Joseph Smith, handled Scripture. They make a number of claims that they think this passage supports:
- The incident involving Jeremiah’s dictation of a replacement scroll establishes “biblical precedent for the restoration of lost scriptures.”1
- There is really nothing wrong with a prophet adding to the text of Scripture, since this is “a specific example in the Bible where God added to earlier scripture through a current prophet.”2 “If Jeremiah’s additions to the destroyed revelation do not disqualify him as a true prophet of God, neither do Joseph Smith’s additions disqualify him.”3
- If Jeremiah could add words to the original revelation he had received from God, then so could Joseph Smith or later LDS Church authorities make changes to the Book of Mormon.4 If Jeremiah could make “editorial additions in a second version of his writings,” then so could Joseph Smith, who made many editorial changes to the Book of Commandments (eventually called Doctrine & Covenants, or D&C).5
Some form of this argument goes back at least to Orson Pratt’s 1850 book Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, in which Pratt cited Jeremiah’s additions to his own prophetic material as precedent for adding new revelations to the canon of Scripture. “No revelations given from God need any alterations, additions, or diminutions, by the wisdom of man. If they need altering, God alone has the right to alter them, or to add to them, as he did in the case of a revelation which he gave to Jeremiah, which was burned by the king of Judah….” 6
According to these Mormons, then, Jeremiah 36 establishes precedent for the addition of new books to the canon of scripture, for the addition of new material to existing books of scripture, and for the changing or editing of the text of existing books of scripture. Mormons can therefore appeal to Jeremiah 36 to justify the “restoration” of supposedly lost books of scripture (e.g., the Book of Mormon), changes to the modern versions of those scriptures (such as changes to the English text of the Book of Mormon after it was originally published), changes to modern scriptures (such as changes to the text of Doctrine and Covenants), and presumably even changes to the text of the Bible, which Joseph Smith made in his “inspired translation.”
This is an awful lot to claim on the basis of this incident involving Jeremiah. Let’s examine these LDS arguments closely, and fairly, to see what Jeremiah 36 does and does not imply.
1. During the period in which the Bible was written, it is quite true, there was nothing wrong with a prophet producing a new book of Scripture to be added to the existing canon. For example, there was nothing wrong with adding Jeremiah’s book to the canon that included Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and a good number of other books already considered Scripture by his time. Likewise, there was nothing wrong with adding the Gospels and Paul’s epistles to the canon of Scripture. So, as long as the canon of scripture remained open, there was nothing wrong with a genuinely inspired prophet or apostle producing a new book of Scripture that was then added to the canon. This does not in any way prove, though, that the canon of Scripture remains open today. Jeremiah 36 does not address this question; it neither affirms nor denies that at some point the canon would become closed. Orthodox Christians have good reasons, grounded in the teaching of the Bible itself, to conclude that the canon has been closed since about the end of the first century.7
2. Nothing in Jeremiah 36 can possibly imply that later individuals, even (alleged) prophets, can make revisions to existing books of Scripture. What Jeremiah did was to reproduce the inspired revelations that God had given him and then to add new revelations that God gave him that supported and expanded on what had already been written. Jeremiah did not add something to Isaiah or to Leviticus; he did not insert new material into those books. As Pratt himself admitted, had Jeremiah done something like that, he would have been dead wrong:
To add to the words of the book of John’s prophecy, means nothing more nor less than to add words or sentences of our own to his book, so as to alter the meaning, and to publish such additions as the words of John. For Isaiah to have added to the words of the books of Moses, so as to alter their meaning, and to have represented Moses as the author of these altered writings, would have subjected him to a curse.8
Yet this is precisely what Joseph Smith did with the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible: he added words and sentences of his own to the books of the Bible, thereby altering the meaning of the Bible, and the LDS Church publishes these additions as parts of its Bible.9 These additions to the Bible are not represented as Joseph Smith’s inspired comments on the Bible, but as material written from the perspective of the original authors, whether Moses, Isaiah, John, or whomever. For example, Joseph Smith added two verses to the Gospel of Luke that begin, “For it is well known unto you, Theophilus…” (Luke 3:19-20 JST). Obviously, if the text is addressing Theophilus, the first-century Christian to whom Luke originally addressed the Gospel (Luke 1:3), it is supposed to be understood as material representing the original author Luke. Yet these words were added to the Bible by Joseph Smith, allegedly by divine inspiration. But as even Orson Pratt admitted, this is not something anyone, even a prophet, should be doing with another prophet’s inspired book of Scripture.
3. Jeremiah actually did not add anything to an existing part of the canon of Scripture. When Jehoiakim destroyed the scroll on which Baruch had written the revelations God had given to Jeremiah, there was no canonical book of Jeremiah. It did not exist. The text of the first scroll that Baruch had penned had not yet been added to the canon of Scripture, and so, when Jeremiah dictated a new scroll with material that had not been on the first scroll, Jeremiah was not “adding” anything to an existing book of Scripture. What Joseph Smith, on the other hand, did was to add all sorts of changes not only to the Bible but also to his own allegedly inspired translation of the Book of Mormon and his own allegedly divine revelations in Doctrine & Covenants—after he had approved their publication and dissemination as scripture. Furthermore, the LDS Church continued to make changes to Joseph Smith’s allegedly inspired translations and revelations long after he had died. Some of these changes are hard to explain as anything but substantive alterations intended to remove difficulties from the LDS scriptures.10
4. According to Jeremiah 36:32, Jeremiah dictated to Baruch, and Baruch wrote down, everything that Jeremiah had previously received and that had been written on the first scroll. Nothing was omitted; nothing was changed. Then Jeremiah dictated new material to be added to his own written collection of revelations he had personally received. Again, Jeremiah’s action here contrasts with that of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church with regard to the LDS revelations. They not only added new material, they deleted some of the previously canonical material and extensively rewrote other supposedly canonical material. Jeremiah’s stated intention, according to God’s own command to him, was to reproduce faithfully what had previously been written on the first scroll—not to make extensive changes to correct problems or clear up difficulties in the text of an existing scripture.
5. As I mentioned toward the beginning of this paper, the incident in Mormonism to which Jeremiah 36 is really most relevant involves the notorious loss of 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. In the spring of 1828, Joseph Smith had dictated the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon to Martin Harris, a farmer who was helping to finance the project. Because Harris’s family members, especially his wife Lucy, were skeptical about Smith’s claims, Smith allowed Harris to take the manuscript home to show his wife. The manuscript went missing and was never found (see D&C 3). Although no one knows what happened to it, one plausible report was that Lucy Harris burned the manuscript.11 At the time, however, Smith and Harris apparently believed that one or more of the townsmen to whom Harris had shown the manuscript had stolen it. Smith was therefore concerned that if he produced a new “translation” of the same material, the missing manuscript would turn up and show significant differences with the new manuscript. To get around this potential disaster, Smith claimed that the Lord had directed him to translate a different part of the gold plates—on which (rather conveniently) a parallel version of the same material supposedly had been produced by Mormon (see D&C 10).
Contrast Joseph Smith’s handling of the loss of a manuscript of his revelations with that of Jeremiah. Numerous individuals had heard Jeremiah’s first scroll read aloud by Baruch (Jer. 36:10-15, 21); yet, after the first scroll was lost (burned), Jeremiah confidently dictated the same revelations to Baruch to be written on a second scroll (Jer. 36:28, 32). Joseph Smith, on the other hand, dictated a different text after his first manuscript was lost (possibly burned, possibly stolen), lest anyone produce the first manuscript and show that the two differed. Jeremiah’s act was that of a man who was genuinely inspired by God and not worried about what other people would say; Joseph Smith’s act was that of a man who claimed to be inspired but who was obviously worried about what other people would say. The difference is telling.
When we examine Jeremiah 36 more carefully, then, we find evidence for the lack of divine inspiration in the additions, deletions, revisions, and dictations of scripture issuing from Joseph Smith and the LDS Church.
3. Stephen R. Gibson, “Why Did Joseph Smith Make Changes In the Doctrine & Covenants?” in One-Minute Answers to Anti-Mormon Questions (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1995).
4. Jeff Lindsay, “Have There Been Thousands of Changes in the Book of Mormon?”
6. Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, No. 1 (Liverpool, England: R. James, 1850), 5.
7. See Luke P. Wilson, “Lost Books and Latter-day Revelation: A Response to Mormon Views of the New Testament Canon” (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 1992); Robert M. Bowman Jr., “LDS Apostles and Prophets: What Did the New Testament Apostles Say?” (Alpharetta, GA: North American Mission Board, 2007).
8. Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, 4-5.
9. The fact that the LDS Church places these additions in footnotes and in an appendix to the Bible does not change the fact that it is representing these additions as part of the Bible—as “the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible” (see the “Explanation concerning Abbreviations” in the front of the LDS edition of the King James Version of the Bible).
11. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:575, 855.