A Mormon Responds, Part Two

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 contains links to all the others. 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 he graciously agreed to write two reflections on my reflections. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 follows below. FXC

Grant Hardy writes:

In the last blog post, responding to Father Clooney’s series on reading Third Nephi, I commented on the complexity of the narrative and stark juxtaposition of judgment and mercy. Here I want to take up two more of his initial observations: 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.”

A Parallel History to the Bible

It is useful to read the Book of Mormon as a sequel to the Bible, though as Frank suggests, it is perhaps more accurate to think of it as parallel history, since many of the events are said to have happened at about the same time (Jesus would have visited the Nephites before the stoning of Stephen and before Paul’s conversion). Whether taken as literal history or as imaginative religious literature, the Book of Mormon seeks to clarify, or perhaps even improve upon, the biblical record. For instance, the moral lessons of Nephite history are more didactic than those of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-2 Kings). So similarities and differences from the Bible are both worth noting.

One of the most striking differences between the Gospels and Third Nephi is that in the former, Jesus came to earth as a helpless infant. During his mortal life, most people—often including his closest associates—failed to perceive his divinity, and he died in an excruciating, degrading manner. There is a vulnerability and a weakness about the Jesus of the Gospels that has long resonated with his imperfect followers, who themselves may have been among the despised and humble. By contrast, no one is at all confused in Third Nephi about the identity or authority of Jesus. He appears to them not in mortal form, but as God, and they immediately receive him as such. Yet strangely enough, even the risen Lord is not beyond human connection. He seems to have been overwhelmed by the difference in his reception in the New World compared with the Old World, and Third Nephi reports that he wept when he declared “And now, behold, my joy is full” (3 Nephi 17:20-22).

One of my favorite passages occurs earlier in the same chapter, when Jesus dismisses the multitude, telling them that he will leave and return the next day. And then, he seems to change his mind: “When Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and behold they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them. And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you. Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither” (17:5-7). That is when he heals the afflicted, blesses their children, introduces the Eucharist, and adds his tears to theirs. I’m not sure how all this works with theological concepts of omniscience and omnipotence, but I like to think of the Eucharist—which Mormons, like Catholics, celebrate every week—as a plea for Jesus to stay a little longer, or at least to send his Spirit until he comes again.

It might also be helpful to think of the Book of Mormon as an alternative history, that is, as a thought experiment in how things could have been different. What if the Jews had read the prophecies of Moses, Isaiah, and Joel the way that later Christians did? What would Jesus have done in Palestine if the people there had welcomed him as the promised Messiah? This was the situation in the New World among the Nephite believers, who had long awaited the coming of their Savior. They were a branch of Israel who had been prepared to receive the Lord, and centuries earlier, their own prophets had told them that “when he [Christ] shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do” (2 Nephi 32:6, with a characteristic phrase from Deuteronomy).

 In addition to performing miracles, Jesus reaffirmed the basic principles of the gospel, including a version of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet as Frank noted, Third Nephi “puts the Sermon in a new, broader context.” No longer is it a series of wise sayings from a Jewish reformer or teacher; instead, these are the new commandments of God, delivered by him in person. Jesus also organized a church among the Nephites, complete with liturgy and clear lines of hierarchical authority—all things that, according to the historical record, developed over time in the Roman Empire.

Perhaps even more startling, the promised kingdom of God, which Jesus had proclaimed was nigh at hand in Jerusalem, actually arrived in the New World. Jesus’ visitation ushered in two hundred years of peace and unity: “The people were all converted unto the Lord upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Nephi 1: 2-3, with allusions to Acts 2:44 and Heb. 6:4). Though Mormons nowadays tend to be staunch defenders of capitalism and the free market, there is a radical religious utopianism at the heart of their scripture, one that is in many ways more akin to Catholic teachings of social justice.

Jesus at the Center

A great deal of ink has been spilled over whether or not Mormons are Christian. Both Latter-day Saints and their critics are highly defensive on the matter, and rightfully so—it goes to the heart of religious identity and salvation—yet I appreciate Frank’s generous assessment of Third Nephi: “These further saying and activities of Jesus seem not to be meant to be sensational, nor to outdo and marginalize traditional Christians—the rest of us. The first [sermon in  Third Nephi] 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” (which could refer to either Nephites or modern Mormons). Latter-day Saints are not traditional Christians or mainstream Christians, but we are clearly Christians of some sort (perhaps heretical Christians), and our new scripture is distinctive both in its unwavering focus on Christ and also in the way it seeks continuity with the Jesus of the Gospels.

At the same time, the Book of Mormon also asserts its connection to Judaism. The Jesus of Third Nephi has never seemed to me to be a Protestant Jesus. He proclaims the end of the Mosaic Law and the cessation of animal sacrifices, but he nevertheless asserts that God’s covenants with the house of Israel are still in force. The religious community he establishes does not supersede Israel. In fact, it’s just the opposite; Third Nephi ends with a promise that the Gentiles who repent and are baptized will be “numbered with my people who are of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi 30:2).

Jesus never mentions the word “grace” when he is addressing the Nephites; instead he appears as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, foretelling the destiny of the Israel in the last days and quoting his predecessors Isaiah, Micah, and Malachi. Which is a little strange, if you stop to think about it—why would God himself need to quote scripture to bolster his authority? But it’s about merging the Old and New Testaments rather than rhetorical credibility. God’s work is not yet finished, and he has not abandoned his chosen people. This blending of old and new may or may not be a good idea—indeed it may simultaneously be an affront to both Jews and traditional Christians—yet it is a sincere attempt to resolve a theological dilemma that has troubled many Christians through the centuries.

I will conclude with a final observation about how the Book of Mormon Christianizes the Hebrew Bible in distinct ways, one that may make sense to Catholics who have long treasured the Psalms as part of their Mass Lectionary and Liturgy of the Hours. The Nephites were said to have brought an early version of the Jewish scriptures with them to the New World in 600 BC, and that apparently included Psalm 95, which was quoted at Jacob 1:6, 6:6, and Alma 12:33-37. It might be helpful to think of Third Nephi as an enactment of Psalm 95. When Jesus appears to the Nephites, they receive him as Israel’s king and enter into his kingdom.

Psalm 95 is a kingship psalm about coming into the Lord’s presence with thanksgiving, acknowledging his power over the earth, the mountains, and the sea (amply illustrated by the natural disasters in Third Nephi). The hymn continues: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand”—all of which happens in Third Nephi, with a lengthy explanation of how the Nephites are the “other sheep” mentioned at John 10:17. And then this: “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness . . . Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways, unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.”

All through the Book of Mormon, people are cautioned about hardening their hearts against new revelation. The threatened destructions finally arrive in Third Nephi, forty years after Samuel the Lamanite’s warning, but the faithful Nephites who survive enjoy the presence of the Lord to an astonishing degree. And where the meaning of “enter into my rest” in the original psalm referred to taking possession of the promised land (Deut. 12:9), in Third Nephi the term is both physical and spiritual. Twice Jesus announces that the Father has commanded him to give the Nephites the promised land in the New World as their inheritance (3 Nephi 16:16, 20:14), but entering into the Lord’s rest also means joining the community of believers and eventually being reunited with God in heaven: “No unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith and the repentance of all their sins and their faithfulness unto the end. Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:19-20).

Hebrews 4:1 also alludes to Psalm 95—“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open . . .” (NRSV)—and the Jewish Annotated New Testament comments, “Since the promise went unfulfilled, those faithful to Christ can obtain it.” Yet in the Book of Mormon, the minority of Nephites who remained faithful at the time of the Lord’s coming did indeed enter his rest and his kingdom. (One of the most surprising modifications to the Sermon on the Mount is the deletion of “thy kingdom come” from the Lord’s Prayer, presumably because, for those standing in the presence of the resurrected Jesus on that day, the kingdom had already come; see 3 Nephi 13:9-10.)

Latter-day Saints believe that the voice of the Lord in Third Nephi is the same as in Psalm 95, and the same as in the Gospels. The question, for modern readers, is whether we will be like the stubborn Nephites who hardened their hearts against that voice and were destroyed, or like their believing brothers and sisters who listened, saw Christ, and experienced the coming of his kingdom on earth. Admittedly, this is a rather self-serving challenge from a book that proclaims itself to be a new revelation from God, but non-Mormons might view Third Nephi as an innovative, even provocative way of bringing home a point that will echo with all Christians who believe that the living God still speaks to the minds and hearts of his children: “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart.”

I do not want to dismiss or even downplay the theological differences that separate Mormons from traditional Christians, but Father Clooney has provided a fine example of what it means to open one’s heart to other faith traditions—to listen and learn from each other, to celebrate shared values, and to marvel at the varieties of religious experience in the world. I only hope that Latter-day Saints can be as thoughtful and generous as we begin to be more engaged with the scriptures and traditions of other religions—not only of Catholicism and Judaism, but perhaps even of Hinduism and Islam. Grant Hardy



Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Collier
6 years 1 month ago
Compliments to both Fr. Clooney and Grant Hardy for the very interesting exchange. IMO we can never have enough discussion of this sort among all people of good will. I'm married to a non-Catholic, and my knowledge of, and respect for, my wife's religious beliefs, which are as much at the core of her being as my Catholic faith is for me, has made me a better person and, indeed, a better Catholic.
Alfred Chavez
6 years 1 month ago
Good-will dialogue remains a necessity in a pluralistic culture.  Kudos to Mr. Hardy and Fr. Clooney for that.

I did think it was intersting that Mr. Hardy opened the door to the idea that the Books of Nephi might be ''imaginative religious literature,'' and that ''the books of Nephite history are more didactic than those of the Deuteronomistic History.''  That would be a giant leap forward in coming to an understanding of the Book of Mormon.  If the Books can be understood as parables, there could be a lot to talk about.
David Smith
6 years 1 month ago
Yes, presumably it's the same ultimate, incomprehensible, transcendent reality we're all groping for.  Man can never know but is condemned to be unable not to long to know. Thanks, both, for trying, and for talking out loud about what you've found.


The latest from america

I like to think of Elizabeth’s unborn baby, the future prophet John the Baptist, dancing with delight in today’s Gospel of the Visitation.
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 12, 2018
The ruins of São Miguel das Missões, a 17th-century Jesuit mission in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, now preserved as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. (iStock/Thiago Santos)
A new study finds higher literacy rates and income levels in the areas around former Jesuit missions in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Jim McDermottDecember 11, 2018
Police tell The Associated Press that the incident happened Tuesday afternoon at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Campinas, a city about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of from Sao Paulo.
Associated PressDecember 11, 2018
How can we spare the time to let others know of our care and concern?
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 11, 2018