From an apologetics perspective, it has been my observation that Mormons, as a whole, are less concerned with such matters as contradictions and errors in their sacred texts than Evangelicals are. Of course, this is shown also in that there is no "Chicago Statement" for the Book of Mormon (“BoM”). The reason for this may be related to Mormon dependence on the internal witness.
However, our subject here will not be on BoM or Mormon contradictions so much as it will be about a particular reply to critiques on such points.
There are those who have made much of contradictions between several (between two and nine) accounts of Joseph Smith's "First Vision." Only one of these accounts is "canonical" for Mormonism, however, and the chief disputes concern a written account Smith himself provided at another date. Referents indicate three primary sources of contradiction:
- Did he believe all churches were wrong, or not? In a personal account Smith claims:
... by Searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament...
In the "canonical" account, however, Smith says:
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right..., for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong...(Pearl of Great Price).
- How old was he? In the personal account Smith says he was 16. In the canonical account, he is 14.
- Who did he see? In the personal account, Smith says he sees Jesus, but mentions no one else. In the canonical account he claimed to have also seen the Father.
Some add discrepancies such as lack of mention of an "evil power" in the former account, and lack of reference to a local revival as an influence, and others make issue of historical inaccuracies. The latter are beyond the scope of this article, while answers to the former will be essentially the same as what we discuss below with reference to item 3.
Our purpose in these next few lines will be to answer this question:
- Do these contradictions admit to harmonization by normal principles? Craig Blomberg pointed out in How Wide the Divide that certain BoM discrepancies do admit to solutions not unlike those used by Evangelicals. We will suggest some possible parallels and see if they admit similar answers.
This article is written in part because certain Mormon responses on this subject have "answered" the matter not by explaining the contradictions, but by offering an "et tu" strategy. The favorite subject (used, I have noted, by Mormon apologists Jeff Lindsay and Charles Pyle) has been Paul's conversion accounts in Acts (Link 1 below). Lindsay seems to have borrowed some Evangelical apologetics languages when he says:
Do reliable documents written or approved by Joseph contradict each other? No (a possible exception: in one place the wrong town may have been mentioned), but the accounts focus on different aspects of a significant and overwhelming experience. This is not real evidence of fraud, any more than Paul's varying accounts of his first vision in the New Testament make Paul a deceiver. Hundreds of details are associated with any major event in history or in one's life, and which ones are included and given focus is a function of the mindset, purposes, and maturity of the writer.
Though somewhat general, Lindsay's answer is substantively like those one might hear from a mainstream Christian apologist who notes mindset and purpose as a reason for differences in an account. Later, we'll look at how Lindsay deals in one of the specifics.
The question that first needs to be answered, however, is whether Lindsay can offer viable contextual solutions equivalent to those we offer in the link about Paul's stories. Genuine contextual factors [i.e., like the use of Greco-Roman rhetorical and literary techniques (such as the variatio), allusions to the OT] provide equitable answers for Acts. Is there a social and literary equivalent to variatio that existed in 19th century America, and which may explain Smith's variances?
In another item, Pyle unfortunately immediately goes wrong when he says he will "pretend for a minute that I am a first-century critic of the New Testament” (using the same technique of most present-day anti-Mormons). The first century contains contextual answers. It is misguided to simply "pretend" to be something if you are not willing to contextualize when you do it.
Perhaps Pyle was speaking tongue in cheek, and it might be suggested (based on what I have seen in his past works) that he is overplaying some alleged difficulties in Acts to make a point. For example, it would be hard to believe that Pyle is unaware that not all Jews hated Christians in this period; therefore, it is not at all unlikely that Ananias had a good reputation among the Jews of Antioch, and it is also unlikely that he is unaware that converted Jews continued to follow the Law as a sort of "good neighbor" policy. Most of his objections are of the standard our article linked above addresses.
When it comes to explaining Smith's issues, Pyle seems to hint at memory problems by Smith. Of course, if Mormons hold to a looser doctrine of inspiration, they relieve themselves of a burden that Evangelicals shoulder. Whether they can construct a consistent and useful doctrine of inspiration is another matter entirely.
With the preliminaries laid, let us now go back and look at those three issues. Neither Lindsay nor Pyle mention the first two, so we will speculate on our own as to how they might be resolved (if at all).
...by Searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but they had apostatised from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament...
In the "canonical" account, however, Smith says:
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right..., for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong... (Pearl of Great Price).
This is extremely hard to reconcile by any account. If this were a Biblical issue one might suggest that the second version is some sort of negation idiom, but to do so one would have to demonstrate (as we did in the linked article #2 below) that such idiomatic usages appear in literature contemporary to Smith (19th century American literature). Otherwise no resolution presents itself.
In written accounts one might suggest a copyist error where numbers are concerned. However, there is no history of copying Smith's accounts by hand over an extended period, and one would have to posit a confusion between digits as unalike as a 4, 5 and a 6. Nor is any idea of estimation or rounding acceptable, unless it can be shown that such estimation was customary for the period, and indeed subject to be rounded up or down. It seems unlikely that this can be regarded as explicable as anything but an error.
This one has been addressed by Pyle and Lindsay, who appeal to the typical harmonization solution that silence does not equal disagreement. They compare this to the Gospel accounts of one versus two angels in the tomb, and may well have compared it profitably to Luke only reporting Peter at the tomb and John adding himself, or the party of women at the tomb differing in each Gospel.
In principle the answer is sound. On the other hand, other parties may be suspicious of the addition of the Father in this Vision, which has been so critical in regards to the Mormon doctrine of divine embodiment.
The principle of alleged conspicuous silences Link 3 below) offers no recourse for appeal. Here, Smith was not bound by lack of office supplies, and ma besay-il does not adhere in situations where a difference is of great importance. Here, with a Mormon doctrine at the core, whether "it didn't matter" is highly questionable, and actual reasons why Smith would omit the Father's presence (specifics which neither Pyle nor Lindsay provide) will need to be offered.
Lindsay is right to say, "Leaving something unsaid is not the same as a contradiction." He is also right to suggest that some differences may have occurred as Smith "interpreted and emphasized details of that event in different ways." However, it stretches credulity to suggest that this difference may be attributable to emphasis on "the plain truth that God and Christ were distinct individuals that he saw."
What changed in those few years between the two accounts to alter the need for emphasis on this point? This needs to be explained (for this and for other differences such as the lack of mention of a revival, which would probably be easier to explain).
Some also note that the Gospels are by different authors, while Smith wrote both of his own accounts, and claim that this makes a difference. Perhaps it does, but this answer will not adhere as well where Luke's records of Paul's conversion are concerned.
In conclusion: We should take caution in approaching difficulties in the Mormon texts, lest we undercut our own efforts.