Deliberate textual ambiguities?

Substantial effort is expended to harmonize conflicting texts, such as the Harmony of the Gospels in our Bible Dictionary, Creation account harmonizations, investigations of whether Matthew or Luke got the ordering of the temptations “correct,” and so on. But what if the writers of scripture deliberately put in ambiguities? We have some evidence for this; Joseph Smith, in his revisions, seems to have left differing versions (e.g., Luke 3 versus Isaiah 40, creation accounts in Moses versus Abraham, incomplete harmonization of all events in the Gospels, and so on). Maybe some of these were just that he didn’t have time to finish, but there are passages that he seemed to be comfortable with explicit differing accounts.

It seems possible that these apparent contradictions and ambiguities might actually be there on purpose, and in fact may not even be meant to be resolved. If so, what might the message of such ambiguities be? 

Perhaps one message is that life is ambiguous, that in many cases there is not one definite answer, no one-size-fits-all explanation or even historically accurate account. But I’m not reveling in or embracing ambiguity per se; I’m not arguing directly for a Rashomon effect; but rather that the differences might be suggestions to us that we should be looking beyond the superficial. Certainly the differing Creation accounts each have rich symbolic interpretations that I benefit from and would not want to do without. Might Mormon culture, with its firm sense of certainty, be missing a key point of the scriptures?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Deliberate textual ambiguities?

  1. TT

    Excellent idea. More than just he authors themselves who are ambiguous, the compilers of scripture too included texts in tension alongside each other.

  2. Secco

    Precisely! And I think we are supposed to not just learn from attempts at harmonization (which have merit, I’m not down on comparative studies at all) but also from the need to hold multiple meanings simultaneous.

    Symbolism and poetry are both methods for conveying multiple meanings in very compact form…and both are heavily used in scripture & temple…adding further support for this notion IMHO…

  3. I think an excellent example of this is Mal 4:6 about the hearts of the children and fathers and so forth. We have multiple versions of this scripture in the restoration. The angel Moroni quoted it to Joseph Smith differently than the KJV when he appeared to Joseph Smith (inserting the part about “the promises”). But, Joseph Smith riffed on this scripture later and did not always use Moroni’s version. Sometimes he used it just as it is in the KJV. Further still, in 1844, he used it in a sermon and said we should translate “turn” as “bind” or “seal,” which is related to “the promises,” but fundamentally a different reading of that verse. He seemed perfectly comfortable with the various versions.

  4. The Right Trousers

    Yes, we’re missing something. We love to be precise, we revel in unambiguity, if it’s truth we expect a single authoritative explanation, and we don’t know Hebrew so we don’t get the puns and we miss a lot of peotic cues. We’re pretty far from the mindset of the Old Testament authors.

    Honestly, I think they’d laugh at us for how we wrest the creation accounts in Genesis, after they were done marvelling about how the sky isn’t actually made of water.

    FWIW, my favorite tension is between grace and works as a qualifier for salvation. It’s strong enough that you can’t resolve it only from the scriptures. You have to go to God and ask him how he thinks you’re doing rather than trying to extract a judgment from vague and often conflicting statements. You get a narrow ruling for yourself only, handed down by the only qualified Judge.

  5. While I think we can make a lot from the various creation accounts (i.e. spiritual vs. physical) I’m not sure how we tell what difference is just bad accuracy from what is intentional to some point.

  6. Ambiguity is what makes life interesting. When LDS authors and teachers downplay and dismiss tensions and conflicts, we miss so many interesting looks into the author’s life and circumstances, as well as the situation of the contemporaneous church. What’s wrong with asking questions like “Why does Luke emphasize this event and Mark chooses to emphasize something different?” That kind of discussion should have a meaningful place in Gospel Doctrine classes?

  7. Secco

    Thanks for the other comments. While I’m sympathetic to the idea of dualism in many gospel concepts, from suffering to salvation, what I was hoping to drill down on here was the textual traditions, actual scriptural paradoxes where we seem to have out-and-out conflict between different passages of holy writ.

    Along those lines, Jacob J, yes, this is a good example, thank you for it. I’m still looking for what I think is out there, an example of JST modifications that are non-identical, which might conclusively demonstrate that JS saw his modifications not in an either/or sense but rather as complementary.

    One I’m reminded of is a sermon of Joseph Smith’s quoting the “wise as serpents/harmless as doves” scripture (and its usage in D&C 111) even though the JST changes this to “wise servants” (JST Matt 10:14). It’s as if both are OK. In this case where there is not clear conflict between the two renderings, perhaps my case isn’t made so well, but it does open the door to my thesis that perhaps one of the clues that Scripture writers have left for us is these things that we want to ignore as contradictions. Proving contraries, and all that…

  8. Velska

    Perhaps a partial answer could be that we all understand figures of speech in a personal way, carrying off what our experience tells us is important. That’s why it may be beneficial to let different versions of the same circulate.

    I believe that often the truths that the Lord is trying to convey defy human language altogether, and we get approximations at best.

  9. Mark Ashurst-McGee

    I think that reader-response critic Wolfgang Iser argues that good literature has gaps and ambiguities in it. This makes the reader’s mind work to connect the dots. Different readers connect the dots in ways that work for their own mentalities and lives.

  10. Secco

    I think I’ve found the compact proof-of-principle text that I’ve been looking for, in order to dispel the notion that the apparent ambiguities are just scribal error or corruption: JST revisions to Matthew 4 and Luke 4.

    There is a minor but interesting difference in the two Gospels (both KJV and underlying Greek texts): In Matt the order of the temptations is bread/pinnacle/mountain, but in Luke it is bread/mountain/pinnacle. JST actively revises both accounts across multiple verses, but does not harmonize the order. The logic is that we know that Joseph Smith actively looked at these two accounts (as evidenced by the multiple JST revisions in each account), but left the ambiguity of the ordering intact.

    Since the ordering is mutually exclusive, one of the two is not strictly historical (unless Jesus went through the whole triplet of temptations twice, I suppose). But this didn’t bother Joseph Smith.

    I’m sure there are more meaningful examples, but at least this one proves my point. Thanks for listening :-).

    PS: Now as to why Luke and Matthew differ on the order of the temptations…well…separate post topic.

  11. One of my favorite authors, John Dominic Crosson has some interesting comments about the differences in the Gospels. He points out that the author of Matthew used Mark while composing his Gospel (as well as the author of Luke used Mark for his Gospel as well). In doing so, they deliberately changed the narrative around to portray different ways of understanding the Christ. The author of John used different sources altogether in composing his Gospel.

    Even more importantly, the early Christians who had these Gospels were not stupid and clearly knew that there were contradicting differences between the Gospels and accepted them anyways. The problem is when we take these Gospels whose narratives were meant to be understood symbolically (and the early Christians understood this) and then we turn around and try to force literal understandings into them.

    An example: The Sermon on the Mount.

    Most likely Jesus never gave the Sermon on the Mount as it is contained in Matthew. Nor did he give the same sermon as it appears on the plain in Luke. Rather both the authors of Matthew and Luke incorporated a collection of aphorisms by Jesus and placed them into a single sermon. Matthew placed this sermon onto a mountain to make a symbolic narrative link to Moses. Luke did not.

    Of course this understanding will force a different understanding of this Sermon as it occurs in the Book of Mormon. However, I think this would simply place Joseph Smith among the authors of the Gospels who utilized the sermon in a way to tell an important narrative about Christ and his visit to the Americas.

  12. Since the ordering is mutually exclusive, one of the two is not strictly historical (unless Jesus went through the whole triplet of temptations twice, I suppose). But this didn’t bother Joseph Smith.

    In exploring why this didn’t bother JS I think we need to be open to the possibility that he simply didn’t recognize the discrepancy. Perhaps this specific case can be proven otherwise; but overall, I sometimes wonder whether the shift to valuing ambiguity in interpretation is one part of a larger contemporary (perhaps even “post-modern”) trend. At the same time I do realize that many religious traditions have valued certain kinds of ambiguities (such as paradoxes) for quite some time (which is why I linked over to the previous post). However, I tend to be wary of claims that LDSs have always self-consciously valued ambiguity (perhaps Givens’ “People of Paradox” falls into this category). Instead, I see ambiguity as something that most Mormons have disdained most of the time; and something that some Mormons have found very “fruitful” some of the time. This is all to say that in exploring textual ambiguities within Mormonism, we should be careful about the kind of assumptions we have about the value of ambiguity, and the historical value assigned to the notion.

  13. Ed Goble

    The places where things are ambiguous or translate in strange ways unclearly, such as with the rib story, or as with Jacob’s wrestling with the angel are tip-offs that there is something underlying in the text that has double entendre. Many times the words can be euphemisms, or can be read in other ways that have a totally different context than the surface reading. This is an almost kabbalistic way of hiding a more spiritual meaning in the text than is on the surface reading.