Cambridge, MA. As readers know, I recently completed five entries on Third Nephi, the book within the Book of Mormon where Jesus appears thrice, and teaches in familar and new ways. The fifth entry, which contains links to all the others, is here. As I worked my way through 3 Nephi, I increasingly found helpful the books of Mormon scholar Grant Hardy, especially his reader's edition of the Book of Mormon, and his Understanding the Book of Mormon. We have stayed in touch since he contacted me first, and now he has graciously agreed to write two reflections on my reflections. Part 1 is below, and I will post Part 2 on Saturday. FXC
From Grant Hardy:
Not all world religions have a strong scriptural component, but for those that do, reading other people’s sacred books can offer a convenient point of connection for “interreligious learning, respect, and wisdom,” as Father Clooney — who, with his permission, I will usually call “Frank” from now on — writes in the opening paragraph of the series. As a Latter-day Saint myself, I appreciate the time and good faith that Frank has given to reading the Book of Mormon, and I hope to return the favor soon. For family scripture reading around our house, we read the Old Testament last year, we’re now quickly making our way through the New Testament, and once we’ve finished Revelation we will take on the Deuterocanonical books—that mysterious section of the Bible that few Protestants dare to enter. In our case, however, as we begin Tobit, Judith, and Maccabees, we will have an advantage over people coming to the Book of Mormon for the first time; that is, our reading can be guided and informed by numerous translations and commentaries ranging from the New Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible to the New Oxford Annotated Bible and even the volumes in the Anchor Bible series. For the Book of Mormon, there aren’t even old scholarly, academic commentaries, let alone new ones.
Despite working under this disadvantage, Frank made some astute observations at the beginning of the series. The first is that he decided that the sixty pages or so of Third Nephi might be a reasonable excerpt to get a flavor of the text. And so it is. Most Latter-day Saints would agree that the visit of Christ to the New World, as recorded in Third Nephi, is the climax of the Book of Mormon. He also listed three more key points: 1) “it is very complicated and seemingly realistic about the violence and evils of human life,” 2) “it is a history that is parallel to the Biblical accounts,” and 3) “the drama seems designed to point to Jesus as the center of it all.” Perhaps in my response I could take these up one by one.
Complicated Narration and Realistic Violence
The Book of Mormon does indeed offer a rather complicated narrative in which there are usually several minds at work on any given page (not including Joseph Smith or God, depending on your preference). The original writer of the account in Third Nephi is said to be Nephi, who would become one of Christ’s twelve Nephite disciples. Confusingly, he is named after his father, Nephi, and there is a still more famous Nephi—the progenitor of the Nephites—who lived some 600 years earlier. Nephi3’s account was edited and abridged nearly four hundred years later by a prophet named Mormon, who every so often inserts his own comments into the record and is guided by Jesus himself as to what he should include and omit from his shortened version of Nephite history. There are extensive biblical quotations as well; over the course of Jesus’ three visits to the Nephites, he quotes entire chapters of Isaiah, Micah, and Malachi, and he delivers a sermon very much like the Sermon on the Mount. I realize that these multiple layers of narration can seem almost mind-numbingly obtuse, but the sections headings in my Reader’s Edition go a long way in clarifying the underlying structure of the book.
Jesus’ arrival in the New World offers a thrilling conclusion to several narrative strands in the Book of Mormon. The first is a long series of prophecies of the coming of a Messiah or Savior of the world, prophecies that date back to 600 BC (1 Nephi 10:4-6). The second narrative strand was the establishment of a church about 150 BC that baptized its members and worshipped a future Redeemer who would someday take upon himself the sins of humankind (Mosiah 18). This church sent missionaries to both the Nephites and their darker, recalcitrant cousins the Lamanites. Eventually the Lamanites become more righteous than the Nephites and the last great prophet before Christ’s coming was a Lamanite named Samuel (Helaman 13-16; there is a racial aspect to the Book of Mormon, but it’s not as simple as light skin = righteous, dark skin = wicked.) In a third narrative strand, Third Nephi chronicles the fulfillments of prophecies that Samuel the Lamanite made when his warnings to repent were rejected—prophecies of the astronomical wonders that would attend Jesus’ birth in the Old World, and of destructions that would come upon the Nephites at the time of Jesus’ death.
As Third Nephi begins, the time frame for the first set of predictions seems to have passed and members of the Nephite church are in imminent danger of lethal persecution. They are saved when the new star and the night without darkness predicted by Samuel come to pass. Many are converted, but shortly thereafter doubts return, widespread warfare continues, and the central government collapses as they resume their wicked ways. Finally, thirty-four years after the earlier signs, a series of natural disasters heralds the death of Christ on the cross with tremendous storms, whirlwinds, earthquakes, tidal waves, landslides, fires, and three terrifying days during which a thick “vapor of darkness” (volcanic ash and smoke?) hung over the land. At this time of death, destruction, and despair, a voice from heaven announces that these are the judgments of God come upon the people, in retribution for their wickedness and rejection of explicit warnings and unmistakable signs. Shortly thereafter, the survivors hear the voice of Christ, after which he descends out of heaven as a resurrected being, clothed in a white robe.
It is surely a remarkable tale, but what does it mean? For Latter-day Saints, it suggests that the message of Christian salvation was not restricted to ancient Palestine; other people in other parts of the world were given the same opportunity to be forgiven of their sins through faith in Christ, even before Jesus was born. Frank is correct to note that one of the themes of Third Nephi is its continuity with the Bible. Jesus does not teach novel or esoteric doctrines to the Nephites; rather, he offers the same good news or gospel that he taught in Judea and he performs the same types of miracles. The idea Frank puts forward that Third Nephi provides an analogy for the way that believers even today can “encounter the risen Christ and hear . . . the same message that reverberates through the ages” is a lovely interpretation, and one that I had not thought of before (the benefits of cross-religious dialogue go both ways). As in Third Nephi, Jesus’ message of peace and healing can be especially welcome to those who have been recently traumatized by sorrow and devastation.
One of the characteristics of scripture, however, is that it is open to multiple interpretations. Latter-day Saints have often read Third Nephi not so much as a metaphor for personal religiosity, but as a blueprint for a literal Second Coming. At a time of skepticism, social turmoil, and evil, when signs from heaven (like the Book of Mormon) are lightly dismissed, Christ will return again in judgment and glory to fulfill prophecies long thought to be past their expiration date. The Book of Mormon narrative can be seen as a literalization or an enactment of biblical verses such as Matt. 24:29-30: Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (NABRE). Just as the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi can have multiple fulfillments, according to Jesus in Third Nephi, so also prophecies of the End Times were partially fulfilled among the Nephites shortly after Jesus’ ascension.
When I read Third Nephi, I am always dismayed by the violence that precedes Christ’s coming, and that includes the warfare as well as the natural disasters. The Jesus who appears to the Nephites is not the Jesus of liberal Protestantism; he is a God who can be angry as well as compassionate, he both judges and saves. The prophesied storms and earthquakes brought to an end the ongoing human disasters of murder, oppression, slaughter, and cruelty. Obviously, the destruction of entire cities is a blunt object by which to project divine wrath (I’m as uncomfortable as the next non-fundamentalist when religious figures blame hurricanes or earthquakes on atheists, gays, and abortion providers), yet the tender mercies shown to the Nephite survivors seem to provide a counterweight to the harsh realities of existence, as when Jesus allowed the people to feel the nail prints in his hands and healed their sick and disabled, or when he “took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them” (3 Nephi 17:20).
One of the continuities in the Book of Mormon is that Jesus is portrayed as both the stern, demanding God of the Old Testament, and also the kind, forgiving Christ of the New Testament. Many Christians through the centuries have been troubled by what seems to be a sharp distinction in the portrayal of God in the two testaments, or by how the terms of salvation seem to shift dramatically with the coming of Christ. The Book of Mormon is, among other things, an attempt to renegotiate that scriptural divide, as we will see again in the next, and final, installment.