It is a thrill to behold Rob Bowman go to work reconstructing leadership structures in New Testament times. This topic has gotten much attention in academic literature, but not many have drawn out the implications for a Church that prides itself as being a restorations of primitive Christianity. Bowman’s posts so far have argued that contemporary Mormon practice deviates from what he finds in early Christianity: 1) Ordination to a priesthood office wasn’t always done by the laying on of hands by one holding the authority to do so and 2) The office of apostle in the sense of being a spokesman for the Lord was not meant to continue as such. Such deviations, he contends, make it impossible for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make unique truth claims about exclusively having priesthood authority.

For the sake of argument, let us temporarily grant the two main points that Bowman is striving to prove for early Christianity. Neither of these ideas would threaten the unique truth claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The restored principle of continuing, dialogic [1] revelation is more fundamental to us than a set priesthood organization and ritual forms. That can be seen in the earliest years of how the Restoration unfolded [2]. A Church that relies on continuing revelation won’t resemble earlier versions of itself in every particular [3]. Hypothetically, I can accept that ordination by the laying on of hands and having an authoritative, living spokesman for the Lord is necessary in our dispensation while suspending judgment on other eras. My faith in unique Mormon truth claims stem from the trust I have in witnesses to angelic ministrations restoring apostolic keys (with the implication that they were missing from apostate Christianity) and my acceptance of the revelations identifying the “only true and living Church” that God is well pleased with (DC 1:30) and that priesthood keys will never again be taken away (DC 13).

Where Bowman’s critique may matter is how Latter-day Saints appeal to the Bible to present our apostasy and restoration narrative to others. Like others that hold the Bible as scripture, we often appeal to proof texts that are filtered through the lens formed by our prior knowledge [4]. Bowman provides a valuable service by showing that those same proof-texts can be rationally read to produce a different conclusion when approached with a different lens. Collectively, the ancient sources are sparse and widely distributed over time. So understandably, Bowman’s interpretations sometimes contain arguments from silence. In general, such arguments are only persuasive in as much as there is a reasonable expectation that an item would be mentioned if it really happened or existed. Such arguments can lose their force when additional information is introduced or it can be demonstrated that the missing item would naturally be assumed anyway by its original audience.


Benjamin Merkle, a Baptist scholar, compiled list from the New Testament (Acts 6:6; 8:17, 19; 9:12, 17; 13:3; 19:6; 28:8; also see 1 Tim 5:22) depicting the laying on of hands which he writes “is often associated with the appointing of elders” or alternatively “is often associated with the appointing or commissioning of someone for a specific office or task.” I will grant that Merkle and Bowman have identified some cases where words used for appointing or ordaining did not entail the laying on of hands. The problem then becomes which set of cases is more applicable to the ordinations under dispute, like those of Matthias and Paul. Ultimately, I think these debates are irresolvable one way due to the insufficiency of the New Testament texts. My need for closure is probably less than those coming from a sola scriptura background. A non-canonical text from Brigham Young informs my approach:

I have known that Brother Marks “had no evidence but the written word;” But if this people have no evidence but the written word, it is quite time to go to the river and be [baptized] for the remission of their sins. Who cannot see that Elder Rigdon would sacrifice this people? Brother Marks says, if there are any ordained to offices equal with Elder Rigdon he [don't] know it. He [don't] know all the ordinations, nor he [won't until] he knows something more than the written word. [5]

The context of that remark is crucial for understanding LDS apostolic succession. Here Brigham claimed that no scripture up to that point (Bible and 1844 Doctrine and Covenants included) was sufficient to establish who the successor of priesthood keys held by Joseph Smith (and thus Peter) should be. While not written, Young and others had received verbal and experiential knowledge on how to resolve the succession crisis. Many of the lesser informed Saints after Joseph’s martyrdom witnessed a divine manifestation supporting Brigham Young’s succession claims.[6] I recognize that having non-written protocols for apostolic succession can create problems. Fundamentalist schismatic groups are the Mormon version of the ancient gnostics that claimed authority from apostles via secret tradition.[7]

Nevertheless, I am curious about filling in the gaps in the New Testament. One way to do so is to appeal to later Christian tradition. Ben Merkle explains that the word “ordain” as it is represented in Patristic Greek does denote the laying on of hands, but that it would be anachronistic to read that back into Biblical passages. While I haven’t explored what traditions say about Matthias and Paul’s appointment, I am aware of some traditions (Jerome, Pseudo-Clementines) that James was ordained to his apostleship. The case of James is much more intriguing, because in some interpretations his Acts 15 role appears to transcend that of Peter. At best Paul appears to be independent and equal to Peter. Around 200 AD (for example Irenaeus) it was considered important to create “Bishops Lists” or a chain of tangibly ordained bishops traced to the apostles to combat heresies. More deserves to be said about the usefulness of this information for reconstructing ordination during the NT times. I do wonder how effective a decentralized Protestant-like organization would have been combating heresy back then with even less canonical scripture that could be appealed to.

Traditions earlier than the New Testament can also help fill in some gaps as Christianity emerged from Judaism. Numbers 27:12-23 and Deuteronomy 34:9 discuss the ordination of Joshua. Keith Mattingly demonstrated that the laying on of hands aspect was the most important part of Yahweh’s instruction to Moses and that this provided for the congregation a visible sign of the word of God.[8] Both Patristic and Rabbinical texts appeal to these passages as a precedent for their ordinations. A rabbi’s student received permission to teach publicly and judge disputes by being ordained via the laying on of hands by his master. That was referred to as semikah (meaning laying on of hands). Near the end of a long analysis of Jewish sources, Hugo Mantel writes [9]:

The laying on of hands was a blessing that the student should prove successful in his teaching (in accordance with the verse, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him”). Since we know that from the time of R. Judah the Patriarch onwards it was not customary to lay on hands at the time of granting permission to a student, the origin of these Midrashim must be sought in the Temple period. We may also gather that in the Second Temple period it was customary to lay hands on students graduating as teachers in order to permit them to teach publicly, and to give decisions in ritual matters, ritual purity, and probably even to judge in financial cases not involving fines; for fines were under jurisdiction of the officially appointed judges. It was the granting of this permission which received the name semikah. A further proof, perhaps even clearer than the first, is certainly from the Temple period, and shows that semikah was practised then. In the Gospels we are told a number of times that the elders and leaders of the sect placed their hands on their students. The twelve disciples of Jesus laid their hands on seven young men who were to be the officials of the community (and, it would seem, the propagators of Christianity). Apparently these young men received by means of the semikah the right to teach Christianity in public, as, in fact, we find them doing, particularly Stephen. They taught publicly no less than the disciples themselves. Moreover, it is recorded that the prophets and the teachers of the sect in Antioch laid their hands on two of their group who went out as missionaries to spread their teachings in other cities.

Nevertheless, I do not detect a scholarly consensus that Christian ordination derived from semikah. For example, Everett Ferguson utilizes a distinction between semikah (a hard touch) and sim (a gentle touch accompanying a blessing) even though they are interchangeable in the LXX. [10]

In the Syriac version of the New Testament (unfortunately the Peshitta is our earliest text for the Acts and the Epistles) the equivalent of the Hebrew sim is uniformly used for the laying on of hands. Samakh, in contrast, occurs in the Syriac Bible chiefly for reclining at a table. All of the Syriac texts from the early history of the church use sim for the laying on of hands, and in Neo-Syriac the technical words associated with ordination are developed from this root.

Even if this line of inquiry sharply differentiates Jewish and Christian ordination, it likewise has later texts conflating ordination and the laying on of hands. Ferguson describes Christian ordinations as more immediately relying on Christ’s example of the imposition of hands in performing acts of healing.

The early Christians used the act as a symbol of a blessing. All of the circumstances in which the laying on of hands seemed appropriate in the church permit the rite to be interpreted as bestowing a blessing of one kind or another-the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of Christians, forgiveness or reconciliation. . . . This circumstance is in harmony with the earliest theological interpretations of ordination, which place the emphasis on the prayer and indeed call it a benediction. The imposition of hands was the outward symbol of the prayer -a personal benediction on the candidate and a petition for divine blessing upon him. This understanding of the hands breaks any necessary connection between the gesture and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.

What I gather from these articles (and others [11]) on ordination is that it is reasonable for a first century New Testament reader to assume that when a Church officer was appointed, that officer had received the laying on of hands; whether it was explicitly mentioned in the text or not. That is not to say that things that were typically done by the laying on of hands like bestowing the Holy Ghost, healing, or ordaining were never done in another manner. In fact LDS authorities and scholars have commented on such anomalous texts (John 20:22, 3 Nephi 9:20) in regards to rare, but different ways the Holy Ghost has been bestowed. We have never really been forced to accept that such an anomaly has ever occurred in regards to priesthood ordination. Dan Peterson has responded to two separate attempts by Mormon apostates to do just that with the Book of Mormon[12] and the Priesthood Restoration[13]. Bowman’s insistence that silence in a text about the laying on of hands or an equivalent initiation ritual means is not all that new or compelling. Still, I am grateful for him taking the time to explain why LDS interpretations of certain biblical passages is likewise not compelling when approached from a different paradigm.

[1] Terryl Givens writes in The Book of Mormon and Dialogic Revelations:

Similarly, scholar of early Christianity W. D. Davies wonders if Mormonism’s error is in taking “conventional modes of revelation found in the OT . . . so literally . . . as to give a facticity to what was intended as symbolic.” …

But of course, this tenacious embrace of revelatory literalism is neither an arbitrary biblical fundamentalism nor a Book of Mormon innovation. It is in fact rooted in Joseph Smith’s own, firsthand experience with revelation, a dialogic encounter with Deity that gave indelible redefinition to the promise of James the Apostle by simply taking it at face value, thereby setting both Joseph and the church he would found on a collision course with orthodoxy. ….

For millions of believers, the Book of Mormon has been the vehicle through which they could find their own sacred grove and reenact on a personal scale the epiphany that ushered in a new dispensation.

[2] See for instance Prince’s Power from on High, Tvedtnes’ Organize My Kingdom, Welch’s Opening the Heavens as solid works containing primary source material on LDS priesthood development; another useful source is an article in Early Christians in Disarray entitled “A World in Darkness”: Early Latter-day Saint Understanding of the Apostasy, 1830-1834. As a corrective to Parley Pratt’s reminiscence they intriguingly write:

If the very earliest missionaries taught the loss of authority, it seems not to have been an area of particular emphasis or even the distinguishing characteristic. More often they taught the evil effects of the apostasy, the immediate need to come out of the world, and to gather to Zion. Early Mormonism was not presented as merely a denomination per se in contrast with all other churches, but as the restoration of all things, the very dispensation of the fullness of times, modern Israel preparing for the millennial day.

[3] Kevin Barney writes in A Tale of Two Restorations:

If one is to restore the early Christian church, there are two basic ways to go about the task. One would be to restore it the way Nauvoo Restoration restored Heber C. Kimball’s home: to attempt to recreate it as it was and preserve it in precisely that setting. This is a sort of museum approach to restoration, and this was the path followed by Alexander. The alternative approach would be to restore not only the forms of New Testament worship, but also the means, which entail revelation between God and man. This of course is the path followed by Joseph. If one restores the means as well as the forms, however, a paradox arises, for revelation by its very nature can take the church in new directions responsive to changing conditions. It may be that a church patterned after a first century Hellenistic ekklesia is not what is needed by the Saints in, say, twenty-first century Russia. Some in the early Church of this dispensation were not prepared for this possibility.

[4] Blair Hodges’ Liken with Care is worth the read:

[There is an assumption] that all that is taught in the LDS Church now, or is being revealed through the continuing restoration of the gospel must be contingent upon or equal to something in “Original Christianity.” … “Original Christianity” is a very precarious term, however, and remains imperfectly defined. These assumptions can result in proof-texting the Bible and various other early Christian writings to find evidence of truth; if it matches the old texts, it must be true, Joseph Smith got it right. Such an approach can easily miss what the original writers intended. This is a practice of which both LDS and non-LDS are guilty. ….

When the sixth article of faith says “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth,” it does not mean that the Church on earth in Christ’s day exactly paralleled the current organization complete with Young Men/Young Women advisers.

[5] See Ronald K. Esplin, “Joseph, Brigham, and the Twelve: A succession of continuity” in BYU Studies 21:3 (1971) p. 301-41 (esp. 305). See also Times and Seasons Oct. 1, 1844

[6] See Opening the Heavens

[7] Compare this rebuttal by Bryan C. Hales of fundamentalist claims to Irenaeus’ against gnostics Against Haeresies

[8] Keith Mattingly, “The Significance of Joshua’s Reception of the Laying on of Hands in Numbers 27:12-23″ in Andrews University Seminary Studies 39.2 (Autumn 2001) 191-208.

[9] Hugo Mantel, “Ordination and Appointment in the Period of the Temple” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1964), pp. 325-346

[10] Everett Ferguson, “Jewish and Christian Ordination: Some Observations”  in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1963), pp. 13-19

[11] A good summary of several articles can be found with Robert Lee Williams, Bishops Lists p. 54, 58-60, Gorgias Press (2005)

[12] See Daniel C. Peterson, “Authority in the Book of Mosiah” in FARMS Review 18/1 (2006)

[13] See Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: Of ‘Galileo Events,’ Hype, and Suppression: Or, Abusing Science and its History” in FARMS Review: 15/2 (2003)

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