Cambridge, MA. As I was preparing this third reflection on the Book of Mormon - you can still read one and two — it became clear to me that working in smaller scale – just a focus on 3 Nephi, just this one of all the books in the Book of Mormon – is indeed giving me more work, not less. Reading closely does open new vistas — all of it becomes interesting — and gives many insights and raises many questions. There is certainly no exception here, as I face the prospect of saying something about the three appearances and three sermons of Jesus in 3 Nephi. (Once again, I recommend Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, and likewise his Understanding the Book of Mormon.)
Here I will comment just on the first of Jesus’ three teachings. In 3 Nephi 12-14, Jesus in essence repeats the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). I mentioned last time that Krister Stendahl has written a learned article on the similarities and subtle differences between the Sermon in Matthew and the Mormon version of the Sermon. No very large change stands out, but small changes appear frequently enough. I suggest that you read these chapters with your New Testament nearby, using Hardy and Stendahl as aids. If you read closely, you will appreciate both the continuity and changes. In my own brief study - a start, though hardly decisive - I did not discover any smoking gun, such as would prove something decisive about Mormons, or about the use of the New Testament in the Book of Mormon.
It is interesting that 3 Nephi then puts the Sermon in a new, broader context. In chapter 15, Jesus explains in more detail how he fulfills yet does not terminate the Law and the Prophets; that the Prophets still matter seems particularly important, because some of the prophecies have yet to be fulfilled. In any case, it is all Christocentric, as he declares, “Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life. Behold, I have given unto you the commandments; therefore keep my commandments. And this is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me.” (15.9-10)
In the same chapter Jesus explains in some detail the meaning of John 10.16 (“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…”) These words are taken to be coming true in accounts such as 3 Nephi, where Jesus is now visiting and teaching a wider set of listeners, beyond those reported in the Gospels: “And verily, verily, I say unto you that I have other sheep, which are not of this land, neither of the land of Jerusalem, neither in any parts of that land round about whither I have been to minister. For they of whom I speak are they who have not as yet heard my voice; neither have I at any time manifested myself unto them. But I have received a commandment of the Father that I shall go unto them, and that they shall hear my voice, and shall be numbered among my sheep, that there may be one fold and one shepherd; therefore I go to show myself unto them.” (16.1-3) After further teachings on the scattered people of Israel and the Gentiles, Jesus drives home the point by quoting Isaiah 52:8-10 (“…The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”). According to 3 Nephi, this good news will in a rather direct manner reach all nations, including here in the new world, among the Nephites.
In Chapter 17 — quite unusual, but by my tastes also quite beautiful — Jesus heals the sick and then blesses the children. The latter rather tender scene ends in a rather dramatic fashion: “And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones. And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.” (17:23-24)
In Chapter 18, Jesus feeds the people with bread and wine, urging them likewise to do the same in memory of him. He exhorts the crowd to prayer, to letting their light shine forth, and to allowing strangers to join their community. With even stronger words to his chosen disciples, he again recommends a cautious openness to the admission to outsiders and strangers to the community.
And then he departs: “And it came to pass that when Jesus had made an end of these sayings, he touched with his hand the disciples whom he had chosen, one by one, even until he had touched them all, and spake unto them as he touched them. And the multitude heard not the words which he spake, therefore they did not bear record; but the disciples bare record that he gave them power to give the Holy Ghost. And I will show unto you hereafter that this record is true. And it came to pass that when Jesus had touched them all, there came a cloud and overshadowed the multitude that they could not see Jesus. And while they were overshadowed he departed from them, and ascended into heaven. And the disciples saw and did bear record that he ascended again into heaven.” (18.36-39)
Make of all this what you will. These further sayings and activities of Jesus seem not to be meant to be sensational, nor to outdo and marginalize traditional Christians – the rest of us. This first first extended teaching of Jesus is interesting to me because the whole of it represents a way of maintaining continuity with the Gospels even while seeking to authenticate — spiritually, by teaching — the message to this new community in the new land. Obviously, there is no need for a Christian reader, such as me or most of you, to be won over by this imagined arrival of Jesus with his new/old teaching and actions. But neither do I see any reason why we cannot listen, learn, and benefit from what we hear.
After all, it is in the Gospel of Mark, not the Book of Mormon, that we hear these words: “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." (Mark 9.38-40)