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Pearl of Great Price: An Introduction

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Pearl of Great Price: An Introduction

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The Pearl of Great Price is an assortment of short LDS scriptures, all of them produced by Joseph Smith between 1830 and 1843. Joseph Smith—History is an account that Joseph produced in 1839 about how he came to become the prophet of the Restoration, focusing especially on how he came into possession of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith wrote the Articles of Faith in an 1842 letter to summarize what Mormons believed. In this study, we will look at the other three books in Pearl of Great Price, all of which claim to have a close relationship to the Bible.

The Book of Moses is an excerpt from the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) that Joseph produced in 1830 and 1831. After an opening chapter about God revealing himself to Moses, the book consists of a revision and expansion of Genesis 1:1-6:13 (Moses 2-8). The largest section of new material focuses on Enoch (Moses 6:21-7:69). The main point of the Book of Moses is to revise the early chapters of Genesis to make them more explicitly Christian. Recall that Joseph Smith held that the prophets who lived before Jesus came knew about Jesus by name and taught explicitly the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the salvation of the world. This is one of the main themes of the Book of Mormon. Since the Old Testament writings do not refer to Jesus or his redemptive acts in this explicit way, Joseph set about revising the Old Testament to make it consistent with the Book of Mormon.

For example, in the Book of Moses, Enoch gives a speech in which he quotes God as saying:

“If thou wilt turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized, even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of  grace and truth, which is Jesus Christ, the only name which shall be given under heaven, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men, ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, asking all things in his name, and whatsoever ye shall ask, it shall be given you" (Moses 6:52).

Here the Book of Moses weaves together statements from at least five verses from the New Testament in a speech that Enoch supposedly gave thousands of years before Jesus even came:

  • “Repent, and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ…and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38)
  • “the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”  (John 1:14)
  • “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)
  • “Whatsoever ye shall ask…in my name, he will give you” (John 16:23)
  • “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Matthew 7:7)

This rather obvious Christianization of Genesis in the Book of Moses not only shows an obvious dependence on the New Testament, it ignores the clear evidence that the Old Testament revealed the coming of the Messiah in a gradual, progressive unfolding of truth through its long history (see the article on "Prophets Today" for more on this point).

The Book of Moses also teaches some doctrine at variance with the Bible, notably in matters pertaining to the fall of Adam and Eve. Two points stand out here. First, the Book of Moses claims that Satan and the “Only Begotten” both offered to become the Savior of the world, and when Satan’s offer was rebuffed he rebelled and became the devil (Moses 4:1-4). Second, the Book of Moses claims that Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the forbidden fruit was actually a good thing because it made it possible for them to have children and attain eternal life (Moses 5:10-12). Neither of these doctrines is compatible with the Bible’s teaching (see the articles on "Jesus, Lucifer, and the Sons of God" and "Was the Fall of Adam and Eve a Bad Thing").

Joseph Smith—Matthew, produced in 1831, is another early excerpt from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. It is a revision of Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the end of the age in Matthew 23:39-24:51. Joseph’s revisions on the whole are not particularly remarkable or significant. Joseph makes more explicit that the “great tribulation” of which Jesus spoke would pertain to the Jews (JS-M 1:18, 21). He also adds to Jesus’ famous statement, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled,” a gloss to explain that “this generation” means the one “in which these things shall be shown forth” (JS-M 1:34). Apparently, Joseph felt that this addition cleared up a possible false prophecy by Jesus. However, what Jesus meant in context was that his generation would not all pass before the Jerusalem temple was destroyed—and that prediction was literally fulfilled when the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70.

The Book of Abraham is the most controversial book in the Pearl of Great Price. It is a short book that Joseph claimed he had translated from Egyptian papyri. Joseph did his initial translation in 1835 and revised it in 1842. The core of the book is another revision of the first two chapters of Genesis (Abraham 4-5) along with a revision of Genesis 12 (Abraham 2). The completely new chapters describe Abraham in Chaldea (Abraham 1) and God’s revelations to him concerning heavenly bodies and the preexistent spirits of human beings (Abraham 5).

The papyri, which Joseph claimed contained the Book of Abraham and other untranslated Egyptian writings of the patriarchs, disappeared for almost a century until fragments of the papyri that had survived the Chicago fire of 1871 resurfaced in 1966 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Notoriously, the surviving portions of the papyri turned out to be pagan Egyptian texts called the Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead, dating from about the first century BC, and contained no text that corresponded to the Book of Abraham or anything that might have come from one of the patriarchs.

Our focus in this study, though, is again on the relationship between this LDS scripture and the Bible. Frankly, one cannot believe the creation accounts in both Genesis and the Book of Abraham; you can choose to believe one or the other, but not both. This is because the Book of Abraham teaches an explicit polytheistic account of creation:

“And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth. And the earth, after it was formed, was empty and desolate, because they had not formed anything but the earth; and darkness reigned upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters. And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light; and there was light” (Abraham 4:1-3).

As we explained in some detail in the article on "God and Creation: The Bible and Joseph Smith's Changing Doctrine", this teaching that “the Gods” organized the universe cannot be reconciled with Genesis—or with the Book of Mormon, for that matter. For Christians who take seriously the belief that God’s revelations will be consistent with one another, this fact alone should be enough reason to reject the claim that the Book of Abraham is a restoration of a lost book of scripture.


For Further Reflection

  • What should we think about the way that the Book of Moses presents Old Testament figures like Enoch preaching explicitly Christian messages in New Testament language?
  • Can one believe both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Abraham?

For further study:

Book of Abraham Page. You can find here all of our resources on this controversial book, including IRR’s award-winning documentary The Lost Book of Abraham.