D&C 20:1, Plain Reading, and Literal Reading; or, Chexegesis Before You Wrexegesis

The line “check yourself before you wreck yourself” is from a rap song and also happens to be good advice. “Chexegesis before you wrexegesis” adapts that wisdom to the realm of scripture, that you shouldn’t make strong declarations about scripture’s meaning without checking up on what it actually says and means.

If you’re unfamiliar with exegesis (pronounced EX-uh-JEEZ-us) it refers to the process of formal interpretation of scripture, the “drawing out” of meaning from the text. It’s often contrasted with eisegesis (pronounced ACE-uh-JEEZ-us) where instead of drawing out (Greek ex-) the meaning that resides there, you are instead reading in (Greek eis-) the meaning you want to see, importing something that isn’t really there.

“Plain reading” implicitly claims that all you need to understand scripture is clear language, and gives lip service to context, but in practice denies it is necessary. By contrast, “literal reading” of scripture tries to understand the text as its original author or audience(s) might have, and this requires things like historical context, genre recognition, #adlink text criticism (if the text has changed at all during transmission, editing, etc.), cultural context, etc. I think we need to engage in more literal reading in the Church, and not just with issues of creation and science. Literal reading helps us steer clear of “wrexegesis.”

Let’s apply the different frameworks of “plain reading” and “literal reading” to D&C 20:1, which some Latter-day Saints have claimed is revelation establishing Jesus’ birth on April 6, precisely 1830 years before the Church was established. This has even been represented in manuals, though they have backed away from monolithic views on this topic; when Church leaders have expressed different views, and manuals reflect only one of those views, it gives the impression that that view is the revealed, official, and unified view of Church leaders. That’s a problem, and one that I find is resolved by reading more Church history and gaining awareness of the variety of views held by prophets and Apostles current and past.

So, to resume. The core problem with “plain language” reading is its false assumption that 1) all the necessary information needed to understand a passage is explicit in the words of the passage, and either 2) the modern reader inherently knows all this contextual information, or 3) none of this contextual information is relevant to understanding meaning.

D&C 20:1 demonstrates why plain reading is problematic. In order for D&C 20 to be revelatory data proving Jesus’ birth, three things are necessary.

1) The function of D&C 20:1 must to be “precise calendrical data,” not “common literary convention of introduction” in use at the time. This is a question of genre and literary conventions; contemporaries are much more familiar with these conventions than people at a distance. Notably, no 19th century Latter-day Saint read this as revelation of Jesus’ birthday, and John Whitmer used near identical language in his journal on June 12.

“It is now June the twelfth one thousand eight hundred and thirty one years, since the coming of our Lord and Savior, in the flesh”

These strongly suggest the “literary convention” category.

2) The date of the revelation must actually be April 6 but the earliest manuscripts, available through the Joseph Smith Papers online, date the revelation to April 10. This is a question of both historical context and text-criticism, which involves investigating the differences between manuscripts and publications of the same text to establish the oldest or best text.

3) D&C 20:1 must actually be revelatory, part of the revelation. This appears to be the case on “plain reading,” since it’s verse 1. However, I rely here on Steven Harper, the Joseph Smith Papers, from a Deseret News article on this topic.

The recent discovery of the Book of Commandments and Revelations manuscript of D&C 20, however, showed that the verse was actually an introductory head note written by early church historian and scribe John Whitmer — something he did for many of the revelations, Harper said. “So those are separate from the texts that Joseph produces by revelation.”

The claim that D&C 20:1 provides revealed evidence of Jesus’ birthdate can only be made when engaged in “plain reading,” which denies in practice that linguistic context, text-criticism, historical context, or genre issues should play a role in understanding a text. Further, it does not matter how many hundreds of times one rereads D&C 20:1, because you cannot learn the information above from D&C 20 alone. Externally-sought contextual information is necessary.

Plain language reading of the D&C can result in serious misunderstandings and claiming things for revelation which it does not actually say when read in context. Indeed, crucial contextual information—linguistic, text-critical, historical, literary/genre— is necessary to understand it, and that contextual information is available only from extra-scriptural sources seeking to recover it, like the Joseph Smith Papers.

Now, if this kind of information is necessary for D&C, which is only 200 years old, set in America, and in English — and the existence of Church publications like Revelations in Context suggests institutional recognition that this is true — how much more so is contextual information needed when the distance between reader and the world of the text is 10 times more than between us and Doctrine&Covenants? For scripture of 2000 or 3000 years ago, from different places, different cultures, different languages, and radically different historical and theological contexts? Say, the New Testament and Old Testament?

Finally, a note to Seminary teachers, who are working hard and doing their best; this is not meant to frighten you or make you feel bad, nor do you need a PhD in 19th century American Religious history to teach. Rather, this is a caution to bear testimony boldly and interpret scripture cautiously. You can’t check everything, and intellectual humility is a key part of teaching for everyone, including those who do have PhDs in History. In practice this means, before you make absolute declarations, check it out. Consult some resources. Teach your students that our knowledge is progressive, line upon line; don’t be afraid to follow Elder Ballard’s advice and avoid overclaiming, which

must be avoided by our gospel teachers. It is perfectly all right to say, “I do not know.” However, once that is said, you have a responsibility to find the best answers to thoughtful questions your students ask.

Lastly, does the date matter? No. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the assumptions behind “plain reading” of scripture border on fundamentalism, and that kind of worldview often takes people out of the Church.

So please. Chexegesis, before you wrexegesis 🙂


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5 thoughts on “D&C 20:1, Plain Reading, and Literal Reading; or, Chexegesis Before You Wrexegesis

  1. I never thought I’d live to see the amalgamation of Ice Cube’s magnum opus with a discussion on scriptural interpretation paradigms, but hey… it works!

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  2. This is a great post. You’ve done a great job laying out your arguments against a really bad reading of 20:1, a reading which is unfortunately a bit too common (Elder Bednar repeated this belief as recently as 2014 in General Conference: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2014/04/bear-up-their-burdens-with-ease?lang=eng).

    One point you bring up that might need some tweaking is the idea that Whitmer wrote verse 1, however. You quote the Deseret News article from 2010 by Michael De Groote:

    The recent discovery of the Book of Commandments and Revelations manuscript of D&C 20, however, showed that the verse was actually an introductory head note written by early church historian and scribe John Whitmer — something he did for many of the revelations, Harper said. “So those are separate from the texts that Joseph produces by revelation.”

    The historical introduction to the Articles and Covenants on the Joseph Smith Papers website potentially complicates this reading (https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/articles-and-covenants-circa-april-1830-dc-20/1#historical-intro). It says that the version printed in the Painesville Telegraph likely came from an earlier version than the version Whitmer recorded in his manuscript revelation book. This version was purportedly copied by Martin Harris, and is also contained verse 1 in it, which would indicate that Whitmer did not write that verse as a heading.

    That does not detract at all from your main argument, however. You are entirely right, D&C 20:1 does not suggest in any way that Jesus Christ was born on April 6. It just says the church was organized on April 6, 1830 (in an overly formal way). Talmage was wrong to force that interpretation into the text (which really needs to be forced into the text, because that reading just isn’t there). And people who repeat it are not reading the text or looking into the context at all.

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  3. Good post, Ben. To my knowledge, the first mention of the comparison between the verbiage in D&C 20:1 and John Whitmer’s history for June 12, 1831, was footnote 12 in Jeff Chadwick’s BYU Studies article “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” and it only appeared there because I put it there. (-: I can’t remember how I came across that text, but it is obvious from the almost identical language in both Whitmer’s history and D&C 20 that this was just a flowery way of stating the current date, not a statement about Jesus’s birthday. Chadwick, however, does make a pretty fascinating case for dating Christ’s birth to December of 5 BC.

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