Tips for reading and understanding scripture


How can one best read and understand the scriptures?

The proper interpretation and understanding of scripture is essential to the continued health and vitality of ever believer's faith, and it is a key means whereby interested seekers can come to faith.

And, what do we do if we come to something in scripture that we believe may be a contradiction?

This article offers some principles and procedures which may help.

1. Understand the nature of revelation

The scriptures won't be understood if we don't understand the nature of revelation. This is addressed on this page.

2. Read contextually

"Exegesis" is a fancy word for the interpretation or explanation of scripture.

OFten, when we’re speaking of exegesis, we are trying to understand how the first hearers/readers of those scriptures understood them. We assume that the historical background of that scripture can tell us something about how to interpret it.

There are a few stages in getting the scriptural author's meaning from their brain into our brain:

  1. The author’s starts with something that they intend to communicate.
  2. The author must take their intention, and put it into words. They may or may not succeed fully at this.
  3. The reader will then read and understand the text in his or her own way.

Exegesis tries to help us better at understand what an author may have meant, and how they wrote to express that meaning. To make things more tricky, we remember that the author is usually from an ancient culture, and even Joseph Smith's early 19th century culture is very foreign to us in some ways.

This means that their ways of thinking and writing will probably not be the same as ours—and may be completely foreign to us.

The historical-grammatical method of exegesis helps us to try and get a more accurate understanding of the first two stages of transmission so that the interpretation made at the last stage of transmission can be best informed.

Latter-day Saints are encouraged to seek to understand scripture in its original context. Scripture contains several admonitions to not wrest it.[1] Nephi in the Book of Mormon has to pause his quotation of/commentary on Isaiah in order to explain "the manner of prophesying among the Jews" so that his people could understand Isaiah.[2]

This suggests that we, too, may learn more if we try to understand scripture in context.

President Brigham Young stated:

Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation, or as you are with your workmen or with your households. You may understand what the Prophets understood and thought—what they designed and planned to bring forth to their brethren for their good.[3]

Four types of context

  1. Genre: Scripture has many genres of writing. There is legal code, historical texts, narratives, poetry, and more. Understanding the genre of scripture can help us in interpreting that scripture.
  2. History: Scripture was written at a particular time and in a particular culture. We often need a lot of tools to help us understand when scripture was written and under what cultural filters. Two useful study bibles that provide some of this are The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible and the Jewish Study Bible.
  3. Textual: A verse of scripture does not exist by itself. It is in the midst of many other verses. We should read before and after the part we are studying to understand what the author is talking about.
  4. Language: Words obviously have meaning. They can have different meanings to different people at different times. Since most scripture is written in a different language than the one we grew up speaking, we need someway to understand them. (Even English speakers may make mistakes reading the Doctrine and Covenants, since English in Joseph Smith's era has significant differences in meaning compared to today.)

A translation by an expert is only the first step. We may then need more help to understand what the translated English word might be getting at. Even English words as contained in the King James Bible (the Church’s officially preferred translation for English readers) may be hard to understand because they either aren’t in common use anymore or because they have shifted in meaning over time. Often, we are most at risk of making this kind of mistake with an English text—because we assume we know what English words mean.

An example of this problem is the word "virtue" in the Bible. In Ruth 3꞉11, we read "And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requires: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman." And in Proverbs 31꞉10 we read "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies." With these verses we might easily conclude that the King James translators meant something like "to be chaste."

But, Luke 6꞉19 reads "And the whole multitude sought to touch [Jesus]: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all." So, did chastity left Jesus’ body after a woman touched him? We undestand better when we realize that "virtue" for the King James translators was closer what we call "power" than "chastity." The footnote at the end of this paragraph has many suggestions of tools to help.[4]

3. Read holistically

As the Lord says five times in the Doctrine & Covenants, "what [he says] unto one [he says] unto all."[5] Scripture must be read holistically. If we are to understand it, then it must be understood as a whole. This so we can understand how the scriptures complement, supplement, expand, update, retract, and/or revise each other.

To read scripture holistically, you should first have very clear in mind what topic you want to explore or question that they want answered. For instance, suppose you want to study the topic of charity in the scriptures. Next, you should try and imagine which terms touch on that topic. For instance, the scriptures contain over 600 occurrences of the words "charity," "charitable," "love," "loved," "loves," "lovest," "loving," "loving kindness," and "loving kindnesses." Finally, you could read every occurence of those words contextually (following the steps laid out below) President Russell M. Nelson suggested something like this method when he read every name used for Jesus Christ in all scripture.[6]

There may be topics that don't fall so easily under identifiable word clusters. For instance, to learn about the Creation we need to read the four creation accounts in Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the temple. We should understand that the Lord has not revealed all things pertaining to creation but will reveal them at his second coming.[7] In cases such as these, we might need other tools, some of which are in the footnote.[8]

There are also many wonderful and free resources available on-line.[9]

One should also consider what Latter-day Saint leaders have said about the passages of scripture that we're studying. The BYU Scripture Citation Index and the LDS General Conference Corpus are fantastic resources.

4. If scripture is making a scientific claim, weigh it with science

Our theology is not threatened by science. Properly understood, any truth will fit with any other truth. Scripture provides one way to learn truth, and science provides another. D&C 88꞉77-79 says:

And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are. Things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms

Science can, should, and does support revelation on many particulars. We should welcome its voice to our spiritual reasoning when determining what God is trying to reveal to us or what he may reveal to us. This isn’t to say that current science will always agree with revelation or that revelation will eventually change to fit the demands of the scientific community,

But, there is no need to see revelation and science at war, nor do we need to compartmentalize our understanding of truth. Science will generally reveal God's physical laws, while revelation will generally reveal God’s spiritual laws.

At times, science will seem to not agree with scripture. This could mean:

  1. our understanding of science is incomplete or wrong
  2. our understanding of scripture is incomplete or wrong
  3. scriptural authors are not perfect, and what they wrote is incomplete or wrong.

As President Dallin H. Oaks recommended:

Religious persons who pursue scientific disciplines sometimes encounter what seem to be conflicts between the respective teachings of science and religion and must work through how to handle these apparent conflicts. Others, such as I in my pursuit of business and law, can be less troubled. For me, that detachment ended when I was appointed president of Brigham Young University. This new position required me to search out, learn, and articulate answers to questions I had previously been privileged to ignore....

Colleges and universities must of course teach science—facts and theories—but Church educators, like the BYU faculty, refrain from substituting science for God and continue to rely on the truths of religion. In the study of science, teachers and students with religious faith have the challenge to define the relationship of science and religion in their thinking. They have the special advantage of seeing countless scientific evidences of the Divine Creator. In those exceptional circumstances where science and religion seem to conflict, they have the wisdom to wait patiently in the assurance that truth will eventually prevail. In doing so, most conclude that religion does not have the answers to all questions and that some of what science "knows" is tentative and theoretical and will be replaced in time by new discoveries and new theories.

Some try to deal with apparent conflicts by compartmentalizing science and religion—one in one category, such as Monday through Saturday, and the other in another category, such as Sunday. That was my initial approach, but I came to learn its inadequacy. We are supposed to learn by both reason and revelation, and that does not happen when we compartmentalize science and religion. Our searchings should be disciplined by human reason and also enlightened by divine revelation. In the end, truth has only one content and one source, and it encompasses both science and religion....

Latter-day Saints should strive to use both science and religion to extend knowledge and to build faith. But those who do so must guard against the significant risk that efforts to end the separation between scientific scholarship and religious faith will only promote a substandard level of performance, where religion and science dilute one another instead of strengthening both.

For some, an attempt to mingle reason and faith can result in irrational scholarship or phony religion, either condition demonstrably worse than the described separation. This danger is illustrated by the case of an international scholar who was known as an expert in English law when he was in America and as an expert in American law when he was in England. Not fully distinguished in either field, he nevertheless managed to slip back and forth between the two so that his expertise was never properly subjected to qualified review in either. As a result, he provided a poor imitation in both. A genuine mingling of the insights of reason and revelation is infinitely more difficult....

Each of us should pursue...truth by reason and by faith. And each of us should increase our ability to communicate that truth by an inspired combination of the language of scholarship and the language of faith.

I am confident that when we progress to the point where we know all things, we will find a harmony of all truth. Until that time, it is wise for us to admit that our understanding—in religion and in science—is incomplete and that the resolution of most seeming conflicts is best postponed. In the meantime, we do the best we can to act upon our scientific knowledge, where that is required, and always upon our religious faith, placing our ultimate reliance for the big questions and expectations of life on the eternal truths revealed by our Creator, which transcend human reason, "for with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37).[10]

How can one approach apparent contradictions in scripture?

Not every scriptural passage agrees with every other. At times, there can even be what seems like a direct contradiction.

There seem to be historical contradictions in scripture

Some of the seeming contradictions in scripture may be termed historical contradictions.

  • The Death of Judas: Did he die by hanging (Matthew 27:5)? Or did he fall headlong and have his bowels gush out (Acts 1:18)? Academic attempts to harmonize these two passages ceased at least as early as the late nineteenth century. Scholars today generally see both accounts as irreconcilably contradictory.[11]
  • Jesus Calming The Sea: The Gospels differ in the succession of events when Jesus calms the storm at sea. In the Matthean account, the Lord chastises his apostles for not having enough faith and then calms the storm whereas in the Markan and Lucan accounts he calms the storm and then chastises his apostles. The Johannine account lacks the story.[12]
  • The name of Moses’ Mountain: The [five books of Moses] differ ... in [their] naming of the mountain from which Moses received the Ten Commandments. In some instances it is "Horeb" (Exodus 3:1; 17:6; 33:6; Deuteronomy 1:2; 4:10) and in others it is "Sinai" (Exodus 19:1–2, 11, 18, 20, 23; 34:2, 4, 29, 32; Numbers 3:1, 4, 14). This is one of the reasons that many scholars see the Pentateuch}} as the composition of multiple authors/redactors.
  • The Timing of the Savior's Crucifixion: The Gospels differ in their timing of the crucifixion of the Savior. Was it during Passover? Before Passover? Or after Passover? Scholars believe that the difference is ultimately irreconcilable, and one simply must choose which account to believe.[13] Generally, Mark is favored since it is considered the earliest to be authored.[14]

There seems to be theological tensions/contradictions in scripture

Some of the seeming contradictions in scripture may be termed theological tensions/contradictions.

  • High Christology and low Christology: It has long been observed by scholars that the Markan account of the Savior portrays Jesus as more human—lowly, and mortal—than the Johannine account which portrays Jesus as godlike from the antemortal realm to the end of his life. Scholars generally believe that the Markan account holds what they term a "low Christology" and the Johannine account a "high Christology."[15]
  • Performing alms: How can we not perform our alms in public (Matthew 6:1) but also let our light shine before the world (Matthew 5:16)?
  • Becoming and not becoming a child: How can we set childish things aside (1 Corinthians 13:11) and become as a child (Matthew 18:3)?

The principles we discuss below might also be useful when we approach non-canonized but respected teachings by general authorities of the Church.

1. Latter-day Saints should defend scripture as much as possible

When we are able, we have a duty as Latter-day Saints to defend truth. Scripture admonishes us to always have a reason for the hope that is within us.[16]

One way that Evangelical and Catholic apologists defend the Bible is by saying that a contradiction cannot be termed a contradiction until all other scenarios that make the two or more passages in question in conflict are ruled out. For instance, "Matthew 28:2 says there was only one angel at the tomb of Jesus, while Mark 16:5 [says] there was one young man clothed in a long white garment. Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 tells us there were two angels at the tomb."[17]

Instead of revealing a contradiction, some accounts may be more detailed than others. The young man in the long white garment may just be a description of an angel that Mark decided to give. We can't say that a passage is truly contradictory until all scenarios for resolving the contradictions are ruled out. Latter-day Saints may consider whether this principle will be useful for them in defending the high authority of scripture.

2. Latter-day Saints do not believe in scriptural inerrancy

We have an advantage, however, that many Christians do not have—we do not believe in the inerrancy of scripture. So, we are often comfortable saying that a contradiction is simply a mistake by one author. That said, Latter-day Saints tend to see scripture as having a high degree of authority. So we are rightly reluctant to use "it's a mistake" as an explanation.

Using the principles below will reveal how we can believe in the reliability of scripture.

3. You need to have an intelligent way to study the scriptures and understanding the nature of prophetic revelation

As we might expect, Church leaders have urged us to read scripture intelligently. The first section of this article discusses one approach for doing so.

Seemingly contradictory accounts can both be true but discussing different things.

For example, two friends, David and Michael, go the store. David can report this event to his parents as if only he went to the store: "Oh, this afternoon I went to Wal-Mart." Michael can report the same event as if only he went to the store. Both boys are equally right.

It should be remembered that the presence of contradiction in the relation of a historical event does not negate the occurrence of the event. One should focus on the essential reality of the event being described itself rather than the presence of contradictions in the relation of the event or the ahistoricity of one account of that event. The broad outlines of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and Book of Moses can be trusted as historically plausible.[18]

Similarly, scriptural authors may be writing from a historical perspective. Scholar Pete Enns gives the example of God’s opinion of the Assyrians: in the book of Jonah, God really likes the Assyrians and wants them to be saved; but in the book of Nahum, God destroys them. Is God contradicting himself? Or are biblical authors just writing from their distinct, historically-situated perspectives?[19] God may certainly like the Assyrians and want to save them, but that doesn’t mean that his justice won’t be brought down on them if they deserve it.

Sometimes differing and competing theological perspectives in scripture were meant to be contrasted. As the author of Proverbs tells us: "iron sharpeneth iron" (Proverbs 27:17).[20] This is one of many reasons that scripture should be read both contextually and holistically.

4. Line upon line and its two features

Citing scripture, Latter-day Saints frequently talk about how revelation comes through the prophets "line upon line, precept upon precept."[21] "Line upon line" has two features or functions:

  1. It reveals core truths over time directly to the prophet.
  2. It makes small additions or clarifications to previous revelations without threatening the core value of the first revelation. It's like reporting to one's parents that they went to the grocery store after school and then, getting futher into the conversation, reporting that one's friend also came with them.

Thus, rather than contradicting a previous passage, a subsequent passage may be complementing or supplementing the first.

5. God commands and revokes as seems good to him

In Section 56 of the Doctrine & Covenants, the Lord states:

3 Behold, I, the Lord, command; and he that will not obey shall be cut off in mine own due time, after I have commanded and the commandment is broken.
4 Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good; and all this to be answered upon the heads of the rebellious, saith the Lord.[22]

This scripture does not condone moral relativism. God's understanding of right and wrong will not change. But these scriptures teach that sometimes there are multiple paths to the same goal. The Lord will choose between these ways as world conditions and human choices change.

Additionally, there are times where more emphasis needs to be placed one moral end over others. There are many times when—in our quest for worthy goals—there are competing moral goods. Sometimes, our best thinking and tools do not allow us to know what is the most important moral good to achieve and how to structure our behavior.

Revelation may "contradict" itself and change as tactics and approaches need to change.

6. We are often told only enough to encourage us to repent

Doctrine & Covenants 19:6–7, 10–12 states:

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my glory. For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore Eternal punishment is God's punishment. Endless punishment is God's punishment.

Prior to this time, Joseph Smith's revelations seem to indicate that "endless punishment" might refer to something like eternal torment in a burning hell. This revelation shows us that what we know about some matters may be just enough to help us progress.

7. Apostasies and restorations can bring losses of knowledge, which may need to be restored gradually

Latter-day Saints believe in the concept of dispensations: periods of time in which God reveals his will through a prophet. A dispensation begins when God calls a prophet to receive revelation on behalf of the human family. A dispensation ends when there is widespread rebellion and apostasy. After the period of apostasy, God called prophets again.

With apostasies, knowledge about God can be lost from others. In ancient times, scriptural records were preserved on rolls of papyrus, clay tablets, and "writing-boards—flat boards of wood or ivory cut out in such a way that an inlay of wax could be written upon. The boards were hinged together to become a folding book."[23] These might not have been accessible to the next person that God deemed worthy to be called as prophet. Knowledge to that prophet would then have to be restored "line upon line" just as it was before.

8. The scriptures in question may be focusing on a specific question rather than historical accuracy

Scripture (especially the Old Testament, Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham) are often written to express a single over-riding message.

The revelation of that message may have been short. "Hey, prophet, I need you to write about the importance of charity." The prophet/author(s) of the different books of scripture may then be composing their narratives around that message. Ancient authors were often not focused on historical precision, and more on the message which events were to convey.

Authors of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon are often writing from the third person: talking about revelations received in the past by prophets and recounting them historically rather than receiving a dictated revelation in the style of Doctrine & Covenants. Scripture writers are often doing something closer to the work of historians and recounting what prophets have revealed in the past rather than doing the work of prophets and dictating revelation as they receive it from God.

WRiters may be recounting this history based off of oral tradition. Any number of potential discrepancies can arise in a text due to human error in reconstructing the history.

This may be one of the reasons that the Book of Mormon so strongly emphasizes the importance of preserving records to accurately record how God has dealt with his children.

9. Scripture may preserve moral fallibility so that we can learn from it

For example, consider the words of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf regarding Solomon:

The ancient King Solomon was one of the most outwardly successful human beings in history.[24] He seemed to have everything—money, power, adoration, honor. But after decades of self-indulgence and luxury, how did King Solomon sum up his life?
"All is vanity," he said.[25]

This man, who had it all, ended up disillusioned, pessimistic, and unhappy, despite everything he had going for him.[26]

[. . .]

Solomon was wrong, my dear brothers and sisters—life is not "vanity." To the contrary, it can be full of purpose, meaning, and peace.

The healing hands of Jesus Christ reach out to all who seek Him. I have come to know without a doubt that believing and loving God and striving to follow Christ can change our hearts,[27] soften our pain, and fill our souls with "exceedingly great joy."[28][29]

We notice that Elder Uchtdorf 1) declares Solomon wrong; and 2) uses scriptures to establish what he believed was the correct view. Indeed, Elder Uchtdorf uses many scriptures that contradict Solomon's view. But another important element of this is that Elder Uchtdorf didn't state that Solomon was wrong for expressing the view or that the scripture wasn't inspired for having a "wrong" view. Rather, he used Solomon's downtrodden state to illustrate an important principle of life.

Thus, there may be errors of perspective on doctrine and not doctrine itself in the scriptures.

10. There’s a difference between a contradiction and a paradox

A contradiction is making a claim and then denying it: stating X and then denying X. If I say that God will judge justly and God will not judge justly, I am contradicting myself.

A paradox is making a seemingly contradictory statement but it’s actually just affirming two propositions that can both be true simultaneously: affirming X and then affirming Y. If I say that God will judge us justly and that God will judge us with mercy, that might be a paradox (mercy by definition gives us more than justice says we deserve), but both can still be true.

Reflecting on these paradoxes may teach us something important that either truth alone would not.

11. Further revelation from modern prophets may resolve other contradictions in scripture

One of the glorious messages of the Restored Gospel is that the heavens are still open and God still speaks to his children through living prophets. We know that prophets can provide future revelation to resolve uncertainties or seeming contradictions in scripture.

One example of this principle in action may be how the Doctrine & Covenants resolves a contradiction in the Bible. In Exodus 33:11 it is affirmed that "the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend." Just nine verses later, Exodus 33:20 says that: "Thou [referring to Moses] canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live." As an even starker contrast from 33:11, John 1:18 affirms that "[n]o one has seen God at any time." 1 Timothy 6:16 (NIV) gives praise to the God who "alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see."[30]

Doctrine & Covenants 84:21–22 reads "And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live." These verses seem to suggest that without the power of godliness intervening and helping man to take in God's glory, no man can see God the Father. This passage makes sense of much of the others from the Bible and may be seen as revelation clarifying previous revelation and resolving an apparent contradiction.

12. There may be ideological purposes behind contradictions

There may be certain ideological purposes behind certain contradictions. For instance, some have proposed that David's slaying of Goliath may have actually been done by a man named Elhanan. The contradictions exist, some scholars propose, because writers either wanted to undermine or shore up David's credibility and legitimacy as king of Israel.

Assuming that this is true and that Elhanan was the one that actually killed David (just for the sake of argument), we can extract a several principles that may help us to understand how to deal with these types of contradictions/tensions:

  • It may be that one of the writer's position came via revelation from God and the other(s) writer's did not. It may be that the other writer is trying to undermine the first writer's position by arguing against it.
  • It may be that neither of the writers' positions came via revelation from God but that they were trying to do something good nonetheless. In this example and assuming that it is true, shoring up David's credibility/authenticity as king of Israel may have actually been a good thing, but the writer that credited Goliath's death to David was doing it the wrong way. One could assume the opposite: that Elhanan was credited with the death of Goliath wrongly but not for a nefarious purpose. We don't necessarily have to see the disagreement as something nefarious.
  • The best way to tell which writers' position came from God may be to read the rest of the scriptures and find if other authors agree with one of the writers. Perhaps if more writers agree with one over another, then we can take that position as the true/correct one. Scripture returns to the theme of establishing God's word in the mouth of two or three witnesses many times.[31]
  • It may not be necessary to find consensus nor synthesize. In this case of David/Elhanan, perhaps we can just take the disagreement and find it to be an interesting aspect of the Bible. There isn't anything major at stake in believing that Elhanan and not David killed Goliath. At most it just means that a tradition about David or Elhanan is wrong. It doesn’t change the more important fact that David was the king of Israel and that the Savior descended from David. The same principle could apply to other controversies: perhaps we needn't worry if there’s a contradiction.
  • We can know that something more important is at stake when the controversy in question centers around a moral/ethical question. Believers are more interested in knowing how to be a good person in the eyes of God. They need clear communication in knowing how to do that. They don't need to fret about every historical controversy about scripture.

13. Scripture can still be instructive and valuable as scripture even when it contains contradictions

This is especially true when dealing with mere historical contradictions rather than moral and theological ones, but scripture can still be instructive and valuable as scripture even when it contains contradictions.

Scholars have argued, and not without merit (and also not without some informed pushback), that the story of Joseph being sold into Egypt in Genesis 37:18–36 can actually be divided into two separate, unified narratives about how Joseph was sold. There seem to be narrative hiccups as one reads the story as currently contained in the Bible and this can be resolved by disentangling the two accounts. Verses 19, 20, 23, 26, 27, 31–35 can function on their own as one account and the rest of the verses—18, 21, 22, 24–25, 28, 29–30, and 36—can function as another narrative. It resolves the contradictions and clunky narrative seams that seem to be present in the current account as contained in our Bibles today.

The two accounts, however, when separated out, can still be instructive and valuable on their own as scripture and teach us true doctrine. We shouldn’t need to demand a pristine text in order to consider the it true and instructive.

Learn more

Specific alleged contradictions in scripture

Alleged contradictions in the Doctrine and Covenants

How can a Latter-day Saint reconcile the opinions of biblical scholars who say that certain figures of the Bible are not historical?

Latter-day Saint scripture mentions several ancient figures from the Bible and mandates their historical existence. Among these are Adam, Eve, Moses, Abraham, Daniel, Noah, Enoch, Melchizedek, Jethro, and others. The historical existence of these and other figures are doubted or otherwise totally rejected by several modern biblical scholars. How can a Latter-day Saint reconcile these opinions? In this article, we aim to lay out some general principles that might help answer that question.

Historical Plausibility

One thing to keep in mind when approaching this question is that the existence of biblical characters can actually never be proven nor disproven. It can only be made more plausible or more implausible. This is the basic notion of historical plausibility.

As explained by John Gee and Stephen Ricks:

Historical plausibility relies on the aggregate of information to provide a consistent picture of events and processes. It assumes that historical conditions at a given time and place are consistent and that change over both time and place are consistent and that change over both time and place varies consistently. That is, documents and artifacts produced at a given time and place have a certain commonality that may vary as both time and place change…Documents also follow certain patterns in layout, language, script, paleography, vocabulary, genre, specificity, onomastics, and cultural referents (including governmental, social, and religious institutions and practices). To the extent that a document matches others in these areas, it is historically plausible.[32]

There are many instances in which trying to validate the historicity of these characters will be impossible given all of the archaeological and historical constraints. Take Adam and Eve—how are we supposed to verify these people’s existence? And how would someone prove a negative, that they did not exist?

Modern revelation is a valid source of knowledge

Sometimes Latter-day Saints forget (or even deliberately discard) that modern revelation is a valid source of knowledge. The majority of biblical scholars do not accept this assumption and operate only on what they can determine from the archaeological record.

Modern revelation offers strong reasons to believe in the historicity of these biblical figures. That too is a type of evidence.

Question: Was Moses a real person?


  1. 2 Peter 3꞉16, Alma 13꞉20, Alma 41꞉1, D&C 10꞉63, D&C 88꞉77-79
  2. 2 Nephi 25꞉1
  3. JD 7:333. .wiki
  4. For understanding the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the author recommends either making an effort to learning those languages or using the features at that allow readers to click on the tab that gives the original Greek or Hebrew text, hover over the text to see the word that was translated, and then use the pop-up dictionaries. For understanding confusing King Jamesian English, the author recommends using the resources found at For understanding the meaning of a word in Joseph Smith's time, one should probably consult the King James Bible Dictionary (link above), 1828 Webster's Dictionary, and the Oxford English Dictionary. The reason that one should consult all three including the OED is because, as Stanford Carmack has persuasively argued, the 1828 Webster's Dictionary lacks important possibilities for how Joseph Smith might have defined a word in his mind when giving us all his scriptural productions. Stanford Carmack, "Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828)," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 15 (2015): 65–77.

    The goal of all this work is to establish that one has the superior interpretation of scripture or, in other words, the one that is most likely the correct one. Thus, one should seek for and document as much support for their interpretation of scripture as possible.

    To aid in doing exegesis, members might simply consult any one of the literally hundreds of scholarly commentaries that have been produced to interpret different books of the New and Old Testament as well as the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Many Latter-day Saints have been benefitted in using scriptural commentaries and study bibles such as the Harper Collins Study Bible, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the Jewish Study Bible. These study bibles contain essays at the beginning of each book to help explain authorship, historical place in canon, and historical context in which a particular book of scripture was written before allowing the reader to move forward with their study. The bibles also contain explanatory footnotes which allow the reader to see how an author is alluding to other passages of scripture as well as understand how to interpret certain verses. For Latter-day Saint scripture, members have enjoyed reading similar analytical commentaries such as Brant Gardner's Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon for the Book of Mormon; Steven Harper's Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guided Tour Through Modern Revelations for the Doctrine & Covenants; and the resources at Pearl of Great Price Central for the Pearl of Great Price. One might find the resources at Book of Mormon Central and Doctrine and Covenants Central very useful.

    Another resource for understanding the geography of scripture is The Scriptures Mapped. Scriptures tend to name locations that are unfamiliar to modern readers. Two professors at BYU, Stephen Liddle and Taylor Halverson, created this resource to help know what locations the scriptures are referring to.
  5. D&C D&C꞉1, D&C 82꞉5, D&C 92꞉1, D&C 93꞉49
  6. [citation needed]
  7. D&C 101꞉32-34.
  8. One might consult good doctrinal resources such as scriptural dictionaries. For the Bible, one might consult Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible; for the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon Reference Companion; for the Doctrine & Covenants, the Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion; and for the Pearl of Great Price, the Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion. These are great resources for reading scripture contextually and holistically.
  9. See the Topical Guide, Index to the Triple Combination, the Guide to the Scriptures, the search function on the Gospel Library app, the search function on, Eldin Ricks's Thorough Concordance of the LDS Standard Works (or Gary Shapiro's concordance).
  10. Dallin H. Oaks, Life's Lessons Learned (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, Co., 2011), 56-60.
  11. Kevin Barney, "The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible," in The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 152–53.
  12. Thomas M. Mumford, Horizontal Harmony of the Four Gospels in Parallel Columns (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 48.
  13. Frank Daniels, "When was the Passover? When was the Resurrection?" Friktech, accessed August 10, 2021,
  14. James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 1–3.
  15. Julie M. Smith, The Gospel According to Mark (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2018), 17–20.
  16. `1 Peter 3:15; see also Doctrine & Covenants 71:7–9.
  17. "How many angels were at the tomb of Jesus after His resurrection?" NeverThirsty, accessed September 26, 2022,
  18. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering Challenges to Evangelical Christian Belief (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); K.H. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006); Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2006); ESV Archaeology Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Crossway, 2018); Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019); John Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2013); Brant Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John Welch, ed., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014).
  19. Pete Enns (@theb4np), "Does the Bible contradict itself? From Pete Enns. #InstaxChallenge #theologytok #bibletok," TikTok, March 27, 2022,
  20. A volume built on this insight has been created for Latter-day Saints. Julie M. Smith, ed., As Iron Sharpeneth Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).
  21. Isaiah 28:10, 13; 2 Nephi 28:30; Doctrine & Covenants 98:12; 128:21
  22. Doctrine & Covenants 56:3–4. Emphasis added.
  23. Lenet H. Read, "How the Bible Came to Be: Part 2, The Word Is Preserved," Ensign 12, no. 2 (February 1982): 32.
  24. An poll listed Solomon as the fifth richest person to ever live. "According to the Bible, King Solomon ruled from 970 BC to 931 BC, and during this time he is said to have received 25 tons of gold for each of the 39 years of his reign, which would be worth billions of dollars in 2016. Along with impossible riches amassed from taxation and trade, the biblical ruler’s personal fortune could have surpassed $2 trillion in today’s money" ("The 20 Richest People of All Time," Apr. 25, 2017,
  25. See Ecclesiastes 1:1–2
  26. See Ecclesiastes 2:17
  27. See Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 24:7
  28. 1 Nephi 8:12
  29. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "Believe, Love, Do," Ensign 48, no. 11 (November 2018): 46–49.
  30. Emphasis added. For an insightful critique of the Evangelical interpretation of these verses, see James Stutz, "Can a Man See God? 1 Timothy 6:16 in Light of Ancient and Modern Revelation," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8/3 (29 November 2013). [11–26] link
  31. Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:5; Matthew 18:15–16; John 8:12–29; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 2 Nephi 11:3; 27:12–14; Ether 5:2–4; Doctrine & Covenants 5:15.
  32. John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 66.