Consider the following two scriptures about the scriptures:
We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly . . . (A.of F. 8 )
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha — There are many things contained therein that are true, and its is mostly translated correctly; There are many things that are contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. (D&C 91:1-2)
Both passages suggest that the texts in question — the Bible and the Apocrypha — are inspired but not entirely so. Should we understand them to be making different claims? For example, I suspect that if one were to substitute the word “Bible” for the word “Apocrypha” in the second passage, many Latter-day Saints would take this to be a fair description of how they regard the Bible. And yet the Bible is part of the Standard Works of the Church, part of the canon upheld by the common consent of the Saints. In contrast, the Apocrypha is not part of the Standard Works.
It seems to me that we have basically three ways of thinking about this. First, we can say that Bible and Apocrypha actually enjoy the same status, but that the Bible has been “translated correctly” in the JST. This would certainly be consistent with the rest of Section 91, where the Lord commands Joseph not to “translate” the Apocrypha.
The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it cannot make sense of the fact that the Bible is part of the canon because Joseph never finished his work of translating it. (Although one might still be able to make an argument about the superiority of the Bible to the Apocrypha in comparative terms on the basis of the JST, i.e. they are both unreliable, but the Bible is more reliable than the Apocrypha because of the JST.)
Second, one could say that actually the 8th Article of Faith and Section 91 are referring to different levels of reliability, with the Bible being “the word of God” while the Apocrypha simply contains some true things. Such a distinction has support in the text of the two passages. Pointedly, the Apocrypha is not referred to as “the word of God.”
This interpretation, however, is undermined by the remainder of Section 91, which suggests that the unreliability of the Apocrypha could be remedied by “translation.” If this is the case, then the remedy would be the same that the 8th Article of Faith envisions for the Bible, suggesting that they suffer from the same infirmity. (Nephi’s discussion of the “book the proceedeth forth from the mouth of a Jew” and its subsequent corruption also seems to undermine the view that Section 91 and the 8th Article of Faith are referring to different kinds of unreliability.)
Third, one could simply say that the Apocrypha and the Bible are equally reliable, but that the Bible is canonized, and hence has more doctrinal and institutional authority. This, I think, is actually the most defensible interpretation of the two passages, but it does have two rather startling implications.
The first is that the basis of a canonized text’s authority is not a function of its reliability, or at any rate reliability is not a sufficient basis for canonization. The second is that there is scripture available to us now that is nevertheless uncanonized. Both conclusions raise all sorts of interesting questions, like why a text might be canonized other than its reliability? What other uncanonized, currently available scripture might we identify? What does it mean for something to be scripture without being canonized? Etc. etc.