Why do we have certain Scriptures?

By: Guy Templeton
November 14, 2013

How many of you have ever studied the Book of Philemon in the New Testament?  According to the LDS Bible Dictionary,

This epistle is a private letter about Onesimus, a slave who had robbed his master, Philemon, and run away to Rome.  Paul sent him back to his master at Colosse in company with Tychicus the bearer of the epistle to the Colossians.  Pauls asks that Onesimus be forgiven and received back as a fellow Christian.

It makes me question why early church leaders included this private letter in the Bible. Why do you think they did?

It also brings to mind D&C 14 and 15.  These 2 revelations are identical word for word, except one was a mission call to Peter Whitmer, and the other was John Whitmer.  We’ve never studied these 2 sections in any Gospel Doctrine  class that I remember.  Is my mission call scripture?  Why do you think these 2 revelations in particular are canonized?

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22 Responses to Why do we have certain Scriptures?

  1. Will on November 14, 2013 at 6:57 AM

    A cure for insomnia

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  2. Hedgehog on November 14, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    We are reading the D&C together as a family at the moment, and we have wondered why all these personal blessings appear to have the scriptural canon, especially as you point out those almost duplicates. We haven’t come up with an answer though.

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  3. MH on November 14, 2013 at 8:11 AM

    Jared, I’d love to hear your take on these scriptures. (See we do talk about the scriptures.)

    I think that D&C 14 & 15 in particular were there to demonstrate Joseph’s prophetic ability. In this case, I think the bar was awfully low for these 2 sections to be included as scripture. I also find it interesting that both Whitmers left the church (though they were members in good standing when the Book of Commandments were originally published.) I don’t see any doctrine in these 2 sections that isn’t found in other sections, so I’m not sure why these are included. Perhaps my mission call is personal scripture, but it isn’t general scripture for the Church. I don’t think these 2 sections are general scripture either, but were personal scripture, and I don’t think these 2 sections should be in the canon any more.

    I think Philemon is questionable for different reasons. While slavery was legal in the days of Paul, and on the one hand it sustains the idea of “being subject to kings, magistrates, and rulers”, the idea of slavery is quite problematic for me. I don’t have any scriptural insights from Philemon, so I don’t know why it is included in the canon. It seems to support slavery, which is morally problematic, IMO.

    Joseph Smith said that Song of Solomon was not inspired. I’m not sure why it is included in the canon either.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on November 14, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    I think Song of Solomon was inspired by something all right . . . see Nate’s post this week!

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  5. Nate on November 14, 2013 at 8:40 AM

    Yes hawkgrrrl! Song of Solomon is inspired by erotic love, and that would make it soft-core porn by some standards. But I think it’s good to have it there, just to show that eroticism has a place in life, even for the religious.

    I think the reason these books are in scriptures are due to entirely random and arbitrary circumstances. God did not compile the Bible. Prophets didn’t compile them. Committees and ecclesiastical leaders compiled them according to whatever basis they were using to judge at the time.

    It’s good to remember that the scriptures are a bit arbitrary, God is a bit arbitrary, and we should take everything with a grain of salt, remembering to try and follow the Spirit in addition to the prophets and scriptures.

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  6. Steve on November 14, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    @Nate: Committees and ecclesiastical leaders compiled them…

    This made me think of the Lectures on Faith. My understanding is that:
    1) It was originally the doctrine part of the Doctrine and Covenants
    2) It was presented to a conference of the Church, testified of by a number of leaders and approved by said conference.
    3) Its was deleted by a committee comprised of George F. Richards, Anthony W. Ivins, Melvin J. Ballard, James E. Talmage, John A. Widstoe, and Joseph Fielding Smith.
    4) No vote was taken regarding the deletion by the Church members.

    Having read portions of it more of late, it saddens me to think of the truths we have lost due to lack of exposure to it.

    Thanks, Nate.

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  7. katie88 on November 14, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    I’ve always loved the message of forgiveness and mercy in Philemon, even though it is about a slave.

    I especially Paul’s words as it applies to each of us, that we are no longer slaves (to sin or anyone or anything else) but beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

    15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him
    16. no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother, especially to me but how
    much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

    I like Paul’s example of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness shown here:

    18. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.
    19. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay – not to mention to you that you owe
    me even your own self besides.
    20. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord.

    This is a profound example of Christlike love, asking that someone else’s debt but placed on our own account. That attitude could heal the world.

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  8. Kevin Rex on November 14, 2013 at 6:14 PM

    Many years ago, Elder Robert E. Wells, of Mormon fame because his daughter won Miss America (again, many years ago, I’m old, what can I say more), he held up in a stake conference “his” version of the scriptures, professionally bound together eliminating everything he didn’t want in there, like Song of Solomon (he didn’t mention that, but we assumed so), lots of the Old Testament, much of the Doctrine and Covenants. He said it made it easier for him to study. My version would be practically nothing left!

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  9. Mormon Heretic on November 14, 2013 at 6:49 PM

    Katie, as I mentioned before, this story is extremely problematic, especially for modern-day Americans. If you want to pull the story out of context and make it a story of forgiveness, well, I suppose you can do this, but let’s put it in it’s context and it becomes hard for modern Christians to reconcile.

    Paul is telling a runaway slave to forsake his freedom and return to slavery. And it’s not Onesimus that Paul is directing to forgive, it is the slaveowner Philemon. Shouldn’t this forgiveness be the other way around? Shouldn’t Onesimus be forgiving Philemon for owning him, rather the Philemon forgiving Onesimus for running away?

    New Hampshire’s state slogan is “live free or die”. Paul is saying the opposite: “live as a slave for Christ’s sake.” What??? This is precisely why so many Christians claimed that slavery was sanctioned by God. It’s also why we have no Sunday School lessons on Philemon. The story is VERY problematic, which is why it is NEVER mentioned in gospel doctrine class, and I can’t see why it’s considered scripture.

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  10. Jared on November 14, 2013 at 7:35 PM

    I look at scripture and talks as nourishment for the spirit. As with food that we eat, not all of it is useful to our bodies. It is the same with scripture and talks.

    When I was young, I found books and talks by Paul Dunn meaningful. I needed milk. But now that I am weaned from milk I have no use for scripture, talks, or books that qualify as milk. They may be interesting and even tickle are ears but they do not nourish our spirits.

    I think the key to determining what scriptures, talks, and books are nourishing to our spirits is found in what resonates in us and thereby draw us nearer to things of the Spirit.

    The Spirit will lead us to scripture, talks, and books that are nourishing to us individually if we will ask.

    Note: I entered a comment and when I clicked “Post Comment” everything was lost. I’ll be more careful and copy before posting.

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  11. hawkgrrrl on November 15, 2013 at 5:52 AM

    The Bible is full of slavery and the assumption that slaves were duty bound to their masters (and that masters likewise had obligations to care for their slaves and enforce their own standards on the slaves). This relationship isn’t far off from our duty to God and his obligation toward us. However, the real reason I think it was included is because all sorts of things were included that were attributed to Paul (several of which have been discredited by scholars). I would not be surprised to find Paul’s grocery list or his receipt for laundry included if someone had had those documents.

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  12. Jeff Spector on November 15, 2013 at 9:17 AM

    Firstly, I like Hawk’s explanation as it is about that, I think. But, we must always be careful not to assign our 21st century pre-judgement and definitions to something that was 1000s of years ago. We tend to define slavery in terms of 1800′s southern US thinking of owned human beings being beaten and raped by their masters. And certainly that might have been the case, but the term may have been more like “indentured servant” rather than our definition of slaves.

    For example, we think of the Israelites being enslaved by the Egyptians. However, their captivity probably resembles the Roman occupation of Israel, rather than the “Roots” version of slavery as depicted in the Ten Commandments. Sure they were forced to work for the Egyptians, but they didn’t build the Pyramids as commonly thought. They were more enslaved by the unwillingness to return to the land of their inheritance until Moses came along.

    That being said, many books of the scriptures are problematic because they may not have represented the best books available to correctly articulate God’s dealings with His people. They were chosen for how they portrayed the doctrine as taught by those who complied the books.

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  13. Mormon Heretic on November 15, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    I like Hawk’s explanation too, but I find that indentured servant is just as problematic as slave. Indentured servants often died from mistreatment in colonial America, so it is merely semantics in finding one term less objectionable than another. I suspect that the indentured servants of ancient Egypt probably were mistreated as well, whether or not they built the pyramids. I’d rather we clearly state that Paul’s advice was the subject of cultural understanding of his day.

    I don’t like it when we excuse leaders for bad advice. Paul stated that he saw through a glass darkly, and this is a perfect example of that darkness. Some of us say we believe leaders are infallible, but are loathe to point out those infallibilities, even when it is clearly bad advice (forgive a runaway slave, women should be silent in church, submit to husbands, etc, etc.) We have similar cultural blind spots today, and I think it is better to talk about them openly than excuse them away as not relevant because they are 2000 years old. We have better ethics than they did, and we put up with less mistreatment than ancient peoples did.

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  14. nuovoiconoclast on November 15, 2013 at 1:24 PM

    Hawk’s, Jeff’s, and Heretic’s comments are all good and largely on-point. I think, however, that it’s important to note when thinking about Paul’s views on slavery that if they were (as seems likely) Roman, they were likely somewhat similar to human chattel slavery as practiced in the American South but without the racial component (which is, at any rate, a late addition for purposes of justification). Paul often boasts of himself as a Roman citizen, and Roman slaves were property, without “personhood.” Even though they could buy themselves into freedom, they became in effect dependents of their former masters.

    Slaveowners in the antebellum South were often reminded of their duty to feed, clothe, and care for their slaves as well, often with reference to those same verses in the Pauline epistles. Many, maybe even most, did so to some extent. That, as I hope we’d all agree, is no excuse. Comfy shackles are still shackles.

    I’d be with Heretic on this one – I’m OK with leaders with warts. I might even prefer them; it’s why I have such admiration for Joseph and Brigham. If I insisted on living with the sinless, I couldn’t even live with myself.

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  15. Jeff Spector on November 15, 2013 at 3:09 PM

    ” Indentured servants often died from mistreatment in colonial America, so it is merely semantics in finding one term less objectionable than another.”

    I’m sure and parents often kill their children. All I am saying is that you cannot naturally imprint a very black and white view into nuanced things. Especially when the records are few and the context is very much outside the realm of our own modern existence.

    I don’t think the two terms are equal even though harsh things happened to both type of servants. Slaves were owned, Indentured servants were obligated for a finite period of time. Absent of facts, you have to assume you do not know the full situation as to why Paul would recommend that course of action for the slave….

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  16. mh on November 15, 2013 at 7:00 PM

    Jeff, what facts are we missing? Slavery is slavery. Indentured servants were mistreated, and some died, which is a life sentence of servitude, no different than the life sentence of slaves, who could also be released if their masters willed it.

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  17. hawkgrrrl on November 15, 2013 at 7:44 PM

    There were certain types of work in the ancient world that were only done by slaves, not by contracted workers. And as I said, there were some basic obligations provided by the owners, among them (obviously) room and board, which many of these individuals would not otherwise have. I’m not defending slavery, just pointing out how it worked in the ancient world. The slavery in the antebellum south was by contrast long past the time when slaves were a foregone conclusion throughout the world. We should have advanced beyond that point by then since there were paid employees doing the same types of work in the north that slaves did in the south. That to me is a key difference. But in the ancient world, was it exploitation? Or just the economic structure of the Roman society? I tend to think the latter.

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  18. Abu Casey on November 15, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    FWIW, wikipedia (yes, a problematic source, but it’s a start) claims that Philemon is one of the seven Pauline epistles that most scholars do believe were written by Paul (here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_Philemon). I don’t know what the religious value of the letter is, but if we’re going to take Paul seriously (which I think we only do when Joseph Smith is taking him seriously. There’s lots of stuff Paul says that Mormons would or should find problematic), we have to deal with his ideas about slavery. Of course “deal with” could also just mean “write off as a cultural artifact” like we do with slavery in the Old Testament.

    As for stuff like Song of Solomon, well, I think the process of canonizing the scriptures was a messy, human process. I have no doubt God had a hand in the process, but I think we assume to much if we grant those who canonized either the Old or New Testaments semi-prophetic status.

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  19. MH on November 16, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    Hawk, slavery in the south was seen as “the economic structure of [Southern] society”, so it was seen by locals as no different than Roman society. The fact is that the south had large plantations and needed slaves to run them–due to weather and a shorter growing season, slavery didn’t make economic sense in the North. (They used indentured servants.) Both Romans and Southerners exploited their slaves. It was often argued by southerners (and probably Romans as well) that slaves were better off economically by slavery than when Lincoln set them free. As slaves, they had a roof over their head, and knew where their food was coming from. As free slaves, they had no such guarantees. Poor Galileeans (like Jesus) or emancipated blacks suffered greatly from hunger. I’m just not seeing any difference between slavery of Rome and the deep South. I’m still not seeing any substantive difference between indentured servitude or slavery.

    A big reason why Lincoln freed the slaves was not only because he opposed slavery, but it was to strike at the economic center of the South. Lincoln was attacking the economic way of life. It also allowed blacks to join the army of the Union. General Ulysses Grant was impressed with the black military units, and when he became president, he actually fought against the segregation laws of the south. He also knew that it was a fight he couldn’t win without going to war again, and he was loathe to do that in wake of the Civil War. Slavery was absolutely a vital part of the economy of the old South.

    As a more modern parallel, we could compare prostitutes as indentured servants to a pimp. Telling a prostitute to go back to her pimp and ask forgiveness (if we choose to ignore the morality of prostitution) is extremely problematic. The relationship between pimps/prostitutes and masters/indentured servants is similar to indentured servants. We would never encourage a pimp to be forgiving of a runaway prostitute.

    As Americans, “all men are created equal”. That wasn’t true in the days of Rome. Philemon just doesn’t register for us because the culture was so different. As I said before, Americans especially have a constitutional mandate of freedom. Romans didn’t have a constitution like that.

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  20. nuovoiconoclast on November 16, 2013 at 4:10 PM

    MH, slavery is NOT slavery. Slavery has taken different forms at different times and places. I don’t seek to excuse any of it, but in America, our views of it tend to be skewed by our form of it and by the race-based struggles it created. Much ancient slavery was based on conquest in war rather than economics, and the idea of large bodies of slaves as agricultural laborers, who greatly outnumbered their masters, seems to have been a largely American phenomenon. As to its economic advantages, it was no more nor less advantageous in the South than in the North; most Southern slaveowners were small holders who could have done equally well with indentured servants. By the time of the Revolution or shortly thereafter, however, the practice of indentured servitude began to die out in North America since the racial justifications for slavery took root, and when people were indentured, they were white. It was easier to just buy someone and not have to worry about replacing them when the indenture ended.

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  21. Mormon Heretic on November 17, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    nuovoiconoclast , are you saying that slavery induced by being captured is war is somehow better than being sold into slavery?

    The fact of the matter is that many African slaves were captured in wars with other tribes and then sold to the Americans. What’s the difference? What makes this form of slavery more noble?

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  22. PS on November 18, 2013 at 7:57 PM

    If I were to venture a guess, I would say that we have these seemingly bizarre scriptural entries because when they were written, they were not intended to be scripture.

    Philemon was probably written by Paul, and as such, the Catholic Church decided to include it over some other candidates for canonization(there was a lot of pseudepigrapha circulating at the time from what I understand).

    Similarly we have many early Church revelations to individual members as part of our LDS canon. What may have been intended for one person alone came to be accepted as useful to all members, and made its way into the D&C, while other revelations by Joseph Smith did not.

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