Today’s guest post is by Christian V.

[During the Babylonian captivity,] Jewish scribes got to work, pulling together centuries of oral and written material and adding reflections of their own as they wrestled through this national crisis of faith. If the people of Israel no longer had their own land, their own king, or their own temple, what did they have?

They had their stories. They had their songs. They had their traditions and laws. They had the promise that the God who set all of creation in order, who told Abraham his descendants would outnumber the stars, who rescued the Hebrews from slavery, who spoke to them from Mount Sinai, and who turned a shepherd boy into a king, would remain present with them no matter what. [1]

The process of creating the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh—what Christians today call the Old Testament, though with some differences—was complex. In the quote above, Rachel Held Evans movingly describes the early process of creating such a record about 500 years before Christ. But according to Wikipedia, the final decisions regarding which books would be included and which would be excluded did not occur until centuries later, sometime between 140 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.  Meanwhile, the New Testament was finalized by about 250 C.E., though the canonization debates continued on in at least some communities until about 400 C.E.

Of course, I’m using the word “finalized” pretty loosely, since even today, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and others disagree about exactly which books should or should not be included in the biblical canon.

The process of crafting the Bible was essentially done by committee. Prominent rabbis, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, and church fathers, in the case of the Christian Bible, communicated with one another, debating the merits of certain books for decades until a consensus was reached. The end result is a book that crosses numerous genres and literary types: Legends and myths, history, laws, poetry, hymns, lamentations, prophecies, sermons, letters. It’s got kings, prophets, prophetesses, priests, and warriors, but it also has prostitutes, fishers, widows, and shepherds.

The Book of Mormon has a somewhat simpler compilation story. [2] Prophets and kings passed down their records in a relatively linear fashion, and then left the job of abridging the material into a single book to basically one man, Mormon. He had unilateral authority over what to add, and he was working from a relatively limited universe of material that, presumably, was already believed to be divine.  He didn’t have to sort through all of the material produced by his culture and struggle to discern what was sacred and what was heretical, as the biblical authors had to do. He just had to determine which pieces of the pre-approved material was most important.

Despite the different process, Mormon achieved a similar result. The Book of Mormon is arguably more narrative driven than the Bible; it doesn’t really have an analogue to Paul’s letters or the Book of Proverbs, for example. But it is still genre-defying, mixing together anecdotes from individuals’ lives with sermons and psalms, as well as a relatively detailed account of various wars and an aside about the Nephite monetary system.

Applying The Process To Today

I was thinking about this process of creating scriptures on Martin Luther King Day. Many people view Dr. King as something of a prophet. [3] And it got me thinking, if I were tasked with creating a new book of holy scripture today, what would I include?

In part, it might just be a sort of greatest hits of sermons and speeches from the last few decades or centuries. Sometimes a single sermon is all you need: We know relatively little about the lives of Amos and Hosea, because the ancient bible-compilers concluded that we mostly just needed the messages they wrote. But other times, it is important to tell the story of a person’s life as well as their words. We get a good amount of detail about Samuel’s life before we get around to him anointing Saul as king, and with Paul, we have a thorough account of his conversion and ministry before we move on to his letters. So if I were creating a modern bible, who would I include as “prophets,” and which of those prophets get life stories versus just their writings or speeches?

And what about people with whom you mostly agree, but perhaps don’t think everything they wrote is the word of God? If I find a great deal of wisdom in C. S. Lewis’s writings, do I edit them down and only include the stuff I am confident he got right, or do I just throw everything in and hope that future generations understand that he was imperfect, treating some of his words the way we sometimes treat Paul’s writings about women and silence and head-coverings?

Scriptures also include history, and not just linear, straightforward, history, but the same story repeated multiple times with unique focuses or explicit contradictions. The Old Testament repeats the stories of Saul, David, and Solomon, with different details and evidently a different purpose in each retelling. The New Testament includes four different versions of Jesus’ ministry, each focusing on the parts that matter the most to that author. So not only would I have to decide what events from history deserve to be included in my hypothetical new Bible; I would have to determine whether some events ought to be told from multiple perspectives.

Then add to that the poetry, the hymns, the myths, the allegories, and whatever the modern analogue to the Book of Job is, and it becomes a pretty daunting task.

What Would You Include?

I asked my boyfriend what he would include if he could compile a new bible, but he got a bit bogged down in trying to decide the proper scope of such work. Was it a Mormon Bible? One that opens with the Restoration and is heavy on stories from the lives of modern prophets and on their writings and sermons, with the occasional bit of church history thrown in? Or is it a Bible for the Anglo people (i.e., his ancestors), in which British settlers in America are a bit like the Israelites in captivity, far from their homeland and in need of remembering where they came from? In that case, things like the Magna Carta and Shakespeare and Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England might be most important. Or maybe it is a global Bible, full of the stories of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

Of course, hanging over all of this is the question of how religious the book would be. Is it about God’s relationship with a particular people, or God’s relationship with all mankind? Is it explicitly Christian? Explicitly Mormon?

Obviously, there is no right answer to any of these questions, but that’s why I came here: I wanted to open the question to all of you. Who or what would make it into your modern Bible or Book of Mormon if you were assigned to craft a new one today, drawing on the last 50 years or 100 years or 1,000 years? Which legends and poems and stories and histories and sermons do you think you would want to pass down to future generations as the summation of your hopes or beliefs or just of cumulative human knowledge?

As I’ve thought about it over the last few days, I have come up with some of my own ideas. But I want to see what everyone else comes up with before I comment with some of my own.


[1] Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, by Rachel Held Evans.

[2] I am pretty skeptical of a historical Book of Mormon, but it is a useful illustration for purposes of this post.

[3] A google search for “martin luther king jr. prophet” returns hits for things like “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Prophet as Healer;” “Prophet, priest, and king: understanding the real MLK;” “Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Prophet;” “Was MLK a Preacher or a Prophet?;” and “American Prophet: Martin Luther King Jr.” Certainly, for me, it is impossible to listen to his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he gave the night before his assassination, and not conclude that he was something of a prophet.