A handy selection of quotes about our Bible Dictionary

"I must tell you of a work that has moved quietly forward in the Church virtually unnoticed." —Elder Boyd K. Packer, "Scriptures," October 1982 General Conference address.

Do you know any Bible Dictionary literalists? Folks who take the BD as the gospel truth?

When the topic of prayer comes up I expect someone to dutifully turn to our BD, which makes a very interesting (and sometimes even useful)  claim about prayer, essentially that the purpose of prayer is to align ourselves with God’s will, rather than to convince God to do something we want. I call it “sometimes” useful because I think there’s much more that can be said about prayer from an LDS standpoint, and to the extent the BD ties a person to such a narrow position I don’t find it useful at all. In the words of Phillip Barlow: “many [BD] entries are not purely attempts to convey the biblical meaning of a concept but conscious expressions of modern Mormon theology” (Mormons and the Bible [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], 210).

I’m anti-literalist especially when it comes to the BD, (and the other add-on scripture study apparatuses like chapter headings, footnotes, etc. collectively called “Study Helps“). Since I’m just a regular dude it’s nice to have a little authoritative back-up when necessary. So here are a few quotes you can print up on little scraps of paper and glue into your already-bulging quads which direct us away from strict BD literalism.

From the BD itself:

“[The Bible Dictionary] is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth. Many of the items have been drawn from the best available scholarship of the world and are subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries or on new revelation. The topics have been carefully selected and are treated briefly. If an elaborate discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.”

—LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, “Introduction,” 599.

Robert J. Matthews, the late BYU professor of Ancient Scripture, who directed the creation of the BD (see Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Church Publishes First LDS Edition of the Bible”, Ensign, Oct. 1979, 9). His 1982 Ensign article introducing the new BD basically repeats the BD intro:

The new Bible dictionary is not intended as a revealed treatment or official version of doctrinal, historical, cultural, chronological, and other matters found in the Bible. Much of the information has been drawn from nonscriptural scholarly sources and will be subject to reevaluation as new discoveries or additional revelation may require. The topics are treated briefly and in an introductory rather than a definitive way, so that the dictionary could be used by the average reader as well as the more serious student or teacher. If an in-depth discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.

—Robert J. Matthews, “Using the New Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition,Ensign (June 1982), 47.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie, another member of the Scriptures Publications Committee, explicitly declares the fallibility of the BD and other scriptural helps:

“[Regarding the] Joseph Smith Translation items, the chapter headings, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, footnotes, the Gazeteer, and the maps. None of these are perfect; they do not of themselves determine doctrine; there have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them. Cross-references, for instance, do not establish and never were intended to prove that parallel passages so much as pertain to the same subject. They are aids and helps only.”

—Bruce R. McConkie, cited in Mark McConkie (editor), Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 289–290.

Of course, these quotes don’t specifically address the additional and sticky issue of “official doctrine.” The Study Helps are part of the printed Standard Works. Interestingly, the “Approaching Mormon Doctrine” statement doesn’t include the Study Helps in its parenthetical description of what constitutes our “Standard Works.” If people insist on including them anyway, we still have the above quotes which accord well with our oft-understated view of the fallibility of scripture.

A few fun things to say to fellow members while discussing these quotes:

  • Did you know the Bible Dictionary was patterned after a Cambridge University Bible dictionary?
  • Have you heard about the time Elder McConkie said the Study Helps aren’t “official doctrine”?
  • Have you ever consulted a more exhaustive Bible dictionary, like the BD’s preface suggests?

See also:

William J. Mortimer, “LDS Publication of the Bible,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

BYUtv, “That Promised Day: The Coming Forth of the LDS Scriptures” —Documentary describing the work of the Scriptures Publications Committee.

Nitsav, “OTFTW 1: Out of the best books,” faithpromotingrumor.org, November 25, 2009. —One of many FPR discussions about great scripture study resources you probably won’t find at Deseret Book.


  1. That “Prayer” entry seems to be the best known and most used, and I have to admit that I have found it useful on occasions, as well. It came up in a spirited and extremely interesting discussion of prayer in our GD class yesterday, but no one seemed to treat it as defining our doctrine of prayer.

    Overall, I am glad to see these quotes. I’m not sure that I would want to throw them out every time someone quotes from the Bible Dictionary in gospel doctrine class. It’s nice that the first one is right there in the introduction. I’ve not seen anyone really using the BD as a scriptural trump card, as opposed to the non-canonical Proclamation on the Family, for example. I have also found the scriptural cross references and pointers to the topical guide less helpful of late. I think that leads to some questionable prooftexting, and is often a substitute for deeper reading and pondering. Not that I’m not guilty of that myself from time to time.

  2. Thanks, Blair. Just what the doctor ordered.

  3. Right, kev, these quotes shouldn’t be paraded around by arrogantly gleeful debunkers, but should be used when appropriate to help certain people understand that it’s OK to use outside sources, that it’s OK to see the Study Helps as imperfect, etc.

  4. What? Bruce R. McConkie lumped the Joseph Smith Translation in with those? That is the money-quote of this entire post.

  5. Your posting of this is evidence of your wish to be Nasty Dirty Blogger Fodder, isn’t it, B?

    The only time I can recall the BD coming up in Sunday School in the past few years was in two brief discussions in my class regarding the Apocrypha, and once when we were trying to straighten out some of the New Testament Marys. My general sense then was that everybody was aware the BD was there, but that virtually no one had spent any time consulting it. It did seem to reassure a few folks that mentioning the Apocrypha was not like citing a book of witch’s spells. I think the BD can be very useful in places, especially for getting an overview of unfamiliar ideas like the Apocrypha or ancient history or Israelite feasts or OT quotations in the NT, and ward members would be better prepared for class if they used it more. On more familiar topics — prayer, fasting, tithing, priesthood — I dislike having class members mention it. They aren’t bringing up the BD to help elucidate an unfamiliar topic in those cases — you can almost always expect that somebody is trying to stifle discussion of a principle on which there may be varying ideas by showing how some phrase in the BD, sometimes wrenched out of its context even there, agrees with the position they are taking.

    But overall, the BD is a great (as in safe, trusted, easily digested) place to start when people become aware that there are more layers to the scriptures than they can adequately pick up in shallow SS sessions.

  6. The Bible Dictionary was written and approved by Apostles, Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.

    ‘nough said.

  7. Blair, all of your quotations claiming the Bible Dictionary is not doctrine are themselves NOT DOCTRINE!!! Therefore, I know I can continue to regard the BD as DOCTRINE, notwithstanding those who would strive to tear down my faith.

  8. Ryan T. Roos says:

    Well done, Blair. I really enjoyed this.

  9. clarkgoble says:

    My general sense then was that everybody was aware the BD was there, but that virtually no one had spent any time consulting it.

    This has been my experience too. Very few people even read their scriptures on their own let alone study them. I think I’d take some people with confused views over the BD’s authority but who consult it regularly as compared to the general apathy towards any real study.

  10. clarkgoble says:

    To add, I do wish the Church would come out with new scriptures. They did change the pictures and map sections some years back. But there’s tons more they could do by have a general scripture dictionary that includes not only he Bible but also the D&C, general Church history, and the Book of Mormon. And of course the footnotes are a joke as well. (How many just tell you to look at the topical guide?)

  11. I like the BD. I think of it as the gateway drug to trying for deeper better scripture study.

  12. #9

    While this may be true, it is also my experience that when the BD is pointed to in Church meetings (including the occasional Gen Conf use), it is used as the final answer on the matter. Any questioning of an appeal to the BD is equated with questioning the Lord’s Annointed Mouthpieces, and is thus question God Himself.

  13. #10, I doubt we will get new Church-published scriptures in a long time (if ever). Members are too accustomed to everyone having the exact same layout–to the point where I have frequently had teachers ask us to turn to a particular page and verse of the Bible instead of book, chapter, an verse.

  14. Like others here, I’d actually appreciate the general membership using the BD more often, though obviously with the caveats found in the OP.

  15. So Aaron B, if the BD is doctrine, and itself acknowledges its own limitations, and indeed encourages us to go looking at more exhaustive scholarly sources, and clarifies that it is “not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth,” and therefore refuses a doctrinal status, then it is clearly doctrine that the BD is not doctrinal, which in turn makes statements that the BD is not doctrine doctrinal, or at least consonant with doctrine. Just sayin’.

  16. Strange loops, self-reference, &c, &c…

  17. Since the BD’s entry on “Fear” refers to Adam’s act in the garden as a “sin”, and not a “transgression”, it’s clearly not infallible.

  18. “these quotes shouldn’t be paraded around by arrogantly gleeful debunkers.”

    Rats! That was my plan…

  19. At BYU I took both halves of New Testament from a professor (who shall remain nameless) who had been responsible for many of the alternate Greek translations in the footnotes; he confessed to our class that he had been inexperienced when recruited to work on that project and later found some of his footnotes cringe-worthy. All this was part of a discussion urging us to be active thinkers and deep scholars of the scriptures and not lean too heavily on any one study help–his classes were all about rigorous scripture study, and he was one of two religion professors I had at BYU who encouraged use of alternate Bible translations in order to improve scripture study. That said, I agree with those who have often been grateful for the easy access of the BD and other study helps. A quick BD refresher course on thank offerings and sin offerings can be very useful in Gospel Doctrine, especially if you are a teacher with a wiseguy commenter trying to hijack the lesson…..

  20. Crap. No gleeful debunking? What’s the point?

  21. Preach it, brother!

  22. Did you know the Bible Dictionary was patterned after a Cambridge University Bible dictionary?

    Yes, and an ancient version at that. Consider the entry on Baal as a sun god. Short summary. Baal rides on the clouds, he has two maces or clubs, thunder and lightning. He is banished by the summer heat and drought. The pretender to his throne is the god of irrigation. He returns with the winter rain, having defeated the serpent/dragon of chaos. So … is that a sun god (as an Egyptologist would tell you) or a rain/storm god like Jupiter, Zeus, the Thor, etc. from the Indo-European pantheon?

    The story of Elijah and God sealing the heavens against rain makes a lot more sense once you realize Baal is a rain god. So does placing the challenge at the top of a mountain where a storm god could be expected to throw lightning.

  23. I use the Bible Dictionary almost every week in my Primary class (9s). Some entries are over their heads, but for many, the first paragraph is perfect. It’s like one of those kid’s books that has the easy-reader part in large print, and the more advanced text in smaller print for optional reading.

    I like to think my kids will use the Bible Dictionary in their future lives, because now they know it is there. We’ll see. Ah, I seem to be coming down with that end-of-year, hate-to-see-this-batch-leave syndrome that afflicts Primary teachers.

  24. The time marker for the bible dictionary portion of the video “That Promised Day” is from 26:10 to 28:38.

    Robert J. Matthews: “I went through it day after day after day, removing anything that we felt was not doctrinally consistent with Restoration of the Gospel. For instance, in talking about The Fall of Adam in that Cambridge bible dictionary, they indicated that that was a gross mistake in the plan, that the plan of God went awry. We couldn’t settle for that. Also in the entry that they had on John the Revelator, or John the Beloved, as he is called, they told about how he died near Ephesus about 100 AD, and we know better than that from Latter-day Revelation. So I just crossed out everything that seemed to not be consistent with what we knew from Latter-day Revelation. And there were other items that are important to us that they didn’t talk about. One is Aaronic Priesthood, the Melchizedek Priesthood, the sign of the dove that was given to John the Baptist by which he recognized Jesus. A number of things that were doctrinally important to us, but were never mentioned in there.”

    See Robert J. Matthews “Using the New Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition.” Ensign, June 1982.

  25. clarkgoble says:

    Narrator #10, I doubt we will get new Church-published scriptures in a long time (if ever). Members are too accustomed to everyone having the exact same layout–to the point where I have frequently had teachers ask us to turn to a particular page and verse of the Bible instead of book, chapter, an verse.

    It’s funny as I teach the 9 & 10 year olds. I usually go to the library and get 3 Bibles because some always forget. However more than half the Bible in the library are Bibles from before the new edition. (Which I think came out around 1980!) So the page numbers never match – and of course these are kids so when they struggle finding a passage page numbers help. But honestly if Primary can handle it…

  26. #25, I’m quite confident in saying that there are many things that Primary can handle that adults can’t. They are young and not set in their ways.

  27. Thanks Blair! It always nice when my concerns are confirmed by apostles… :)
    I find it interesting how little we pay attention to introductions, prefaces, etc. I find this happens a lot with the YW program. The introduction to the manual itself says to use the scriptures as the main text for lessons, and that the manuals are only there as some suggested ideas. If all the YW teachers simply read that (and noticed the nice up to date stuff on lds.org) the quality of teaching in the YW program would quadruple overnight! :)

  28. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Bible Dictionary literalist. Yet. Actually, none of my students seem to use scriptures any more. They just look everything up on their iPhones.

  29. Ben Johnson says:

    Regarding Elder McConkie’s quote, I found a mistake in the topical guide on Sunday. A sister in the ward was giving a talk on the topic of “Light”. I decided to go to the topical guide to see the different uses. Turns out they mistakenly put an entry for “Life” in the “Light” section.


    Scroll down to the entry for Ether 3:14.

  30. If an elaborate discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.

    Wait… so if I want to know more about a topic, I should look elsewhere – but if that “elsewhere” is not in the scriptures (or a GD manual) it’s not correlated, so I can’t use it in Sunday School. But the BD told me to look there, so it must be OK, right? Except that we’ve been told repeatedly not to use anything besides the SS manuals and the scriptures in class.

    Maybe I can use it in my own personal scripture study, but then before I comment in SS, I need to check and make sure it’s not from an outside source so as not to contaminate the discussion. Which means I’ll spend more time in class reading through these other materials (and therefore studying) than I would gritting my teeth while other ward members say things like “the World wants us to think that it’s OK to get high and fornicate and kill puppies…”

    You know, this might work out. Maybe I’ll start going to Sunday School again.

  31. Awesome post, Blair.
    Thanks for the references.

  32. For other dictionaries, Elder Richard Hinckley (President Hinckley’s son) referenced the Anchor Bible Dictionary in General Conference. How’s that for a recommendation?

    Maybe I’ll throw together a post on dictionaries…

  33. comment in the spam queue?

  34. Our HT brought up the Prayer entry in the BD to us just this month, highlighting the “prayer is a form of work” part. We thought it was enlightening.

    BH: hard to imagine that you’re “just a regular dude”, all things considered. =)

  35. My understanding is that the BD is not just “patterned” after a Cambridge University study bible dictionary but that this is what it straightforwardly is with the addition of gloss, essentially, to conform it to Mormon usage and doctrines.

  36. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s right, john f. I’m old enough to remember the Cambridge bible dictionary on which the LDS one was based.

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