Revelation, Adaptation, and the Temple: “Everything is a Remix”

Red brick store in Nauvoo, where the first endowments were done on May 4, 1842.

However the divine inspiration or divine origin of the Torah might have worked, it apparently did not involve starting with an absolutely clean slate.James Kugel

In my book on Genesis 1, I introduce several ideas about revelation, like accommodation. Today, I want to briefly present the principle of adaptation, another important principle of revelation.

Why is adaptation important? Well, expectations matter. Expectations shape our experience. If we — parents, teachers, friends, leaders —create unrealistic or incorrect expectations, we contribute to setting people up for spiritual failure when those expectations aren’t met. I believe understanding adaptation helps us make sense of ancient and modern scripture and the temple as well, and helps shape proper expectations.

Adaptation is the idea that revelation creatively adapts, updates, reinterprets, recontextualizes, or otherwise integrates preexisting elements of the prophet’s culture and environment, giving these elements new meaning and significance in the process.

Revelation, we might say, is a remix.

This goes both for prophets in the scriptures and today, as well as personal revelation. God rarely creates meaning completely ex nihilo but transforms something we’re already familiar with, giving it new meaning. (This is one reason why you can’t draw a bright line distinction between the human and divine in scripture, since the divine often adapts the human.)

Aspects of revelation, then, will strongly reflect their environment, and are a necessary part of that revelation, not a detriment to its revelatory quality. Environmental similarities may or may not indicate “borrowing” or “remixing,” but they don’t automatically preclude revelation.

One problem is that readers of scripture are rarely acquainted with the cultural context of a passage the way the original recipients were, whether in 600 BCE, 60 AD, or 1830. Thus, it’s easy for us to assume that every aspect of those things came straight out of heaven, and was just as new and strange to the ancient recipients as it is to us. But remember:

Jesus transformed water into wine, he didn’t produce it ex nihilo.

Revelation, like the wine at Cana, need not be produced in a vacuum or be entirely unique to qualify as such.

God didn’t create Israelite or Greco-Roman culture, but he certainly adapted them. The Bible is

“not an abstract otherworldly book dropped out of heaven. It was connected to and therefore spoke to these ancient cultures. The encultured qualities of the Bible are therefore not extra elements that we can discard to get to the real point, the timeless truths. Rather, precisely because Christianity is a historical religion, God’s Word reflects the various historical moments in which Scripture was written.”
Enns, I&I

Although these categories are a bit fuzzy, we can specify various kinds of adaptation: doctrinal, historical, ritual, legal, linguistic, etc.

Here are just a few of many many examples, drawn from across scripture.
  1. When Nephi tells us he is likening Isaiah to his people, he’s announcing an adaptation of Isaiah to a new setting.
  2. The Israelite tabernacle/temple draws heavily on Egyptian and other ancient Near Eastern ritual complexes in a variety of ways; structures, symbolism, types of sacrifice, various implements that are used therein, etc. These similarities are built-in to the whole thing.
  3. Israelite creation texts adapted from others, both earlier in Israel (Genesis 1 adapts from Genesis 2-3 as well as Psalms 74 and 104) and also outside, that is, non-Israelite texts (Genesis 1 reflects Babylonian aspects.)
  4. Matthew, Mark, and Luke portray the last supper as a traditional passover meal which memorialized the deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 12.) However the Gospels expand and transform the passover meal into a covenant ritual memorializing Jesus’ death, which brings freedom from spiritual slavery to sin. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many, for the remission of sins.” (Mat 26:28) Alluding to Exo 24:8, Jer 31:31, and Zec 9:11, the parallel passages (Mar 14:24, Luk 22:20, 1Co 11:25) describe this as a new covenant made through Jesus’ sacrificial blood. Early Christianity thus drew on and adapted the old symbolism in transforming the Passover supper into a distinctly Christian ritual involving Jesus’ death, covenant, and salvation.
  5. The rainbow is given new significance as sign of the covenant in Genesis 9:17… unless you want to argue that water vapor did not bend light until after Genesis 9.
    “As Ramban points out, the rainbow is an already existing natural phenomenon that is henceforth invested with new symbolic significance” JPS Torah Commentary
  6. The Law of Moses (an Israelite “law code”) both codifies pre-existing cultural norms and draws laws from non-Israelite law codes.
  7. While the Bible links the origins of Israelite circumcision with Abraham and covenant in Genesis 17, circumcision existed outside Israel and long before. Indeed,

    the rite was common among most of those with whom Israel had direct contact  practiced in one form or another from at least the third millennium B.C.

    -“Circumcision.” Dictionary of the Old Testament- Pentateuch,

    The disdain for the “uncircumcised Philistines” (Judges 14:3 among others) may reflect this fact; While it took on  special covenantal significant for the Israelites, in essence, “everybody’s doing it.” So while inspired Israelites “borrowed” circumcision from their neighbors, they also transformed it into a sign of the covenant.

    During OT times circumcision was practiced by most of the other nations near Israel, including the Egyptians, so in and of itself it was not a distinguishing mark. But the significance attached to it by Israel was unique.”

    Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

  8. Regarding  more recent Church history, Spencer Fluhman writes that

    Some elements of the [D&C] revelations were recognizable to early Saints as reflecting Protestant understandings…. As just one example, when the revelations now appearing as section 20 called for quarterly conferences, early Saints instinctively called them ‘general conferences.’ Quarterly general conferences, as it turns out, had been a staple of early Methodist church government, and Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other Latter-day Saint converts with experience in Methodist churches relied on the models they had grown up with.

So there’s adaptation of various kinds in the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, and D&C. I’ve argued before that God can even adapt “myth” (notoriously hard to define but not a synonym for “false”) and does so in Genesis. Indeed, as devoted and informed a Christian as C.S. Lewis was absolutely fine with that idea.

The ancient Israelite temple certainly had clear connections to its environment. So when it comes to the modern temple ordinances, language, covenants, ideas, architecture, etc. should we expect them to have no precursors, no similarities at all to its environment?

Richard Bushman has warned us with persuasive examples, that we should be wary of facile assumptions about environmental borrowings, a position I fully share. Yet I see no reason to argue the opposite extreme— typical of folk Mormonism— that revelation of the endowment (or of anything else) came spontaneously out of heaven, through a cultural and social vacuum, and into human minds somehow totally devoid of or unaffected by pre-existing conceptions or proclivities…. Frankly, I have some difficulty understanding why this should be such a big issue, except to those with a fairly limited understanding of how a prophet gets ideas. Since prophets and religions always arise and are nurtured within a given cultural context, itself evolving, it should not be difficult to understand why even the most original revelations have to be expressed in the idioms of the culture and biography of the revelator.”
-Armand Mauss, “Culture, Charisma, and Change: Reflections on Mormon Temple Worship” Dialogue

Now typically, the issue raised here is Freemasonry. You may not know anything about that, and you probably don’t need to, other than it was a very popular ritual society of self-improvement in early America, and Joseph Smith, family members, friends, prominent Church and American political leaders, were all Masons.

I’m not going to discuss details, and I don’t think they matter too much, provided we understand the idea of adaptation. I do, however, want to say this: some elements commonly and facilely attributed to Masonic adaptation have much stronger parallels in aspects of Biblical ritual which are not apparent on the surface. Which is all I can say, really. (If you DO want to get into the details, don’t do it shallowly, and do it equally in both the ancient and modern contexts.)

Which brings me, finally, to Netflix. There’s a new series called Inside the Freemasons. Instead of a sensationalist exposé, it’s a documentary of a British young man preparing to follow his father’s footsteps and be initiated as a Mason. The series got unprecedented access to some Masonic ritual and buildings. I’ve got a post half-written called “non-traditional temple prep” and that series is on it. But I didn’t want to recommend it without talking about adaptation first.

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5 thoughts on “Revelation, Adaptation, and the Temple: “Everything is a Remix”

  1. I’ll have to check out this documentary. Some time ago I watched a different one on Netflix, but I remember thinking that it was just a bunch of “some people say” assertions and basically worthless.

    The Church provides support to your point in the Church History Topics essay on Masonry:

    “There are different ways of understanding the relationship between Masonry and the temple. Some Latter-day Saints point to similarities between the format and symbols of both the endowment and Masonic rituals and those of many ancient religious ceremonies as evidence that the endowment was a restoration of an ancient ordinance. Others note that the ideas and institutions in the culture that surrounded Joseph Smith frequently contributed to the process by which he obtained revelation. In any event, the endowment did not simply imitate the rituals of Freemasonry. Rather, Joseph’s encounter with Masonry evidently served as a catalyst for revelation.”


    1. This is a casual one, originally a 3-parter on youtube, combined together here.

      And I’d forgotten that bit from the Church essays! Thanks for the reminder.


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