One of the most common, but most poorly reasoned, arguments against the Book of Mormon is that its very existence flies in the face of Revelation 22:18, which says: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.” How do Mormons explain away what appears to be a clear statement in the last book of the New Testament prohibiting the addition of any new scripture?
This argument is important to those who not only argue that the canon of scripture is closed, but come close to venerating the Bible, making it not only a source of wisdom, inspiration and guidance, but also an object of worship and adoration. They see additional scripture as an attack on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Holy Bible, rather than as additional evidence of the divine mission of Jesus Christ. For them, this one verse of Revelation is a handy hook from which to hang the Book of Mormon in effigy.
The trouble is, the hook can bear no weight. There are at least four fundamental problems with this interpretation of Revelation 22:18.
The “Book” John Spoke of Could Not Have Been the New Testament
I recently read a blog by another author who explained how John the Revelator finished writing the Revelation and then sat down and gathered together the canonical books of the New Testament and gave them to the Christian church in its current form. It’s a great story, but more properly categorized as fantasy than history.
Nothing we have in the New Testament is self-reflective, by which I mean that none of the New Testament writers ever said anything about the New Testament itself. The reason for this is that the 27 books of the New Testament were not brought together as “scripture” until more than 350 years after the death of Christ. (For a short discussion of the origins of the New Testament, see http://www.religionnewsblog.com/7212/how-were-books-of-new-testament-chosen). There was considerable debate as to which books were authoritative and which were not. (Curiously, the organization of the New Testament reflects this. For example, the epistles of Paul are organized from longest to shortest, except for Hebrews, which was thrown to the back of the line because folks weren’t quite sure that Paul ever wrote it. Revelation appears to have been put at the back of the book because it dealt with the second coming of Christ and the end of the world).
Thus, when the author of Revelation (scripture scholars are still throwing pies at each other over whether it was written by the disciple John or some other guy in a robe) referenced “this book,” he could not have been discussing the New Testament. This is consistent with what these verses actually say. In verse 18, “this book” is defined as “the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Emphasis added). Similarly, in verse 19 we are told, “And if any man shall take away from the the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part of the book of life.” (Emphasis added). It is apparent that “this book” thus refers specifically to the revelation given to John.
The Book of Mormon makes no effort to add to or take away from the words of the Revelation of John. To the contrary, those familiar with the Book of Mormon might recall that the prophet Nephi says that he was shown the same things that were shown to the apostle John, but he was forbidden to write about it, because that task was reserved to John:
“And behold, the things which this apostle of the Lamb shall write are many things which thou has seen; and behold, the remainder shalt thou see. But the things which thou shalt see hereafter thou shalt not write, for the Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them….And I, Nephi, heard and bear record that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel.” (1 Nephi 14:24-25, 27).
Revelation Is Unlikely to Have Been the Last Book of the New Testament Written
The second problem with this reading of Revelation is that it quite likely was not the last book of the New Testament written. As a result, reading Revelation 22:18 as a prohibition of future scripture requires us to reject several books of the New Testament itself.
Dating the books of the New Testament is a cottage industry for Bible scholars, and there remains very little consensus as to when each book was first penned (or even by whom). There appear to be two major schools of thought about the timing of Revelation. One puts it at about 70 A.D., the other assigns it to a later date, probably 95 A.D. In either case, it wasn’t the last New Testament book written. If the later date is accepted, then it was written prior to the Gospel of John (which, if it was written by John, would mean that the apostle himself did not believe that the Revelation prohibited new scripture). If the earlier date is accepted, then it likely falls somewhere in the middle of the chronology of New Testament books. Either way, if you actually believe that Revelation 22:18 prohibits subsequent sacred writing, you are going to have to tear some pages out of your Bible.
The irony is, if you accept the Mormon view of Revelation 22:18, every book of the New Testament retains its sacred, canonical status.
The Same Prohibition Was Given By Moses in Deuteronomy
What really makes this reading of Revelation unworkable is that similar statements exist elsewhere in the Bible. The earliest is in Deuteronomy 4:2, in which Moses declares, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” If we took that directive literally, then we’ve clipped the Bible down to an ADD-friendly 250 pages, and successfully rejected Christianity as heresy. Such a reading makes no more sense when applied to Revelation than it does when applied to Deuteronomy.
Christ Himself Promised Great Light and Understanding
To me, the most persuasive argument for an open canon of scripture comes from the words of the Savior himself, as recorded in the Gospel of John. Speaking with his disciples at the Last Supper, Christ promised them that he would send them the Comforter, or the Holy Ghost, which would “guide them to all truth.” John 16:13. The reason the Comforter would be necessary was clear: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.” John 16:12 (emphasis added). Jesus made clear that he had more to say than what he had covered in his mortal ministry, and promised that such truth would be revealed at a later time, through the power of the Spirit of truth.
There is nothing in the New Testament which declares that this additional truth has been revealed, or that Christ had spoken the final word about anything. As Joseph Smith once observed, if any man declares that there were to be no more revelations after the death of the early apostles, such could only be known by revelation, since there is nothing in the Bible which says that. Indeed, Christ never suggested that there would never be another prophet; instead, he gave guidance as to how to distinguish false prophets from true ones. (Matthew 7:15-17).
The pattern of prophecy in the Bible is clear. When His people have needed instruction, He has provided it through divinely chosen representatives. The counsel of such representatives of God was recorded and preserved as scripture. Any time there were no such representatives were on the earth, it was clearly bad news, as the people of God fell away into disobedience and idolatry.
What the Mormons believe is that God is unchanging, and that He follows the same pattern now for His children. This includes the opportunity to have additional scripture that testifies of the reality of God and the divinity and atoning sacrifice of His Son.