This month, I’ll be presenting a paper on the JST at a conference. I’m going to outline the use of the JST in Mark and then suggest that the moves that the JST makes could and should be adopted by LDS biblical scholars. One section of the paper argues that the JST–indeed, all revelation–is not inerrant. Joseph’s use (and nonuse) of the JST later in his ministry suggest that he did not take the JST as a perfected form of scripture.
A colleague reviewed the paper and then posed a broader question to me (paraphrasing): So if revelation isn’t perfect, then can we claim any absolute truth?
Here’s my answer to that (really important) question: absolute truth exists, but you can’t access it perfectly from a prophet because every revelation comes through a prophet who is bound by cultural and intellectual and spiritual and linguistic limitations and will thus be conveyed in a limited sense.
I’m open to the possibility that pure communication might be able to occur from the Spirit to a person, but that person (whether prophet or not) would not be able to perfectly express that pure communication because she or he is limited by what Joseph Smith called “the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”
In speaking to those who struggle with how to live in a system which places great emphasis on absolute truth but then (at least by my reckoning) claims that we can’t access (or, at least, can’t convey from one person to another) those absolute truths, I’ve found it helpful to think about it as a three-legged stool: personal revelation, scripture, and prophets are the three legs. You need all three–two would not be stable. Not one of the three (or even all three together) will be perfect, but it can be functional–it will allow you to climb up and see things from a higher plane than you would otherwise. It doesn’t need to be perfect to work. Functionality and perfection must not be confused; in a fallen world, we shouldn’t seek or expect perfect revelation. Functional is enough.