Reading Mormon II: When Jesus Came to America
Cambridge, MA. I tell my students that one way to figure out what one thinks is to start writing, and to a large extent that is my experience with my short and sporadic study of the 3rd Book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon these past weeks. My hope is to convince some readers of this blog at least that one can begin with no knowledge of another religion, clear one’s mind and heart for a moment of all you’ve heard, and by quiet reading get quite far in beginning to understand it and learn from it. Yes, it is correct, as pointed out by those who commented on my first blog, that there are many other ways to study the Latter Day Saints. But those are harder ways, and often superficial ways. I have never found it all that easy to sort through historical documents, oral traditions, and various popular accretions to a tradition; googling rumors is hardly the way to trace the life of a lived religion. And so I stay with the text — to each his own — and return here to 3 Nephi.
I must first express my gratitude to Grant Hardy, the distinguished scholar of the Book of Mormon, for emailing me, and making several good suggestions. Key is his work in editing The Book of Mormon: a Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2003), an edition that makes the (unchanged basic) text of Mormon so much easier to read. You can still consult the online edition and the Reader’s Book of Mormon which I mentioned last time, but if you want just one book, buy Dr. Hardy’s edition. He also pointed out to me that Krister Stendahl, a distinguished New Testament professor at Harvard, Dean, and later Bishop of Stockholm, wrote a very interesting and learned essay on 3 Nephi, particular regarding its use of the Sermon on the Mount (see below). So there it is: I am the second Harvard professor, also not a Mormon, to zero in on 3 Nephi as the place for a Christian reader to start.
Last blog I ended with the Nephites, settled in the new world (America, though of course it is never named as such), hearing the voice of Jesus: “Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God. I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are. I was with the Father from the beginning. I am in the Father, and the Father in me; and in me hath the Father glorified his name. I came unto my own, and my own received me not. And the scriptures concerning my coming are fulfilled.” (3 Nephi 9.15-16) This voice of Jesus scolds the people for their incessant violence, and commands them to come to him. This appeal is followed by a great silence across the land, after which the people, further rebuked, repent. Mormon offers an aside to the reader, as it were, to point out that all of this fulfills the old prophecies: it is all true, it is all happening right here. (3 Nephi 10)
Chapter 11 is rather beautiful. The people “were marveling and wondering one with another, and were showing one to another the great and marvelous change which had taken place.” (11.1) There follows another heavenly voice, but this time, though the voice as it were pierces them, at first they do not understand it at all. Only on the third time do they understand the words, “Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name – hear ye him.” But then Jesus himself comes down into their midst and stands right there before them. He invites them to see the nail holes in his hands and his feet, and the cut in his side. Bolder than Thomas, they put their fingers in the holes, and know that it is indeed Jesus. And then the mission begins.
Jesus calls Nephi to him, who bows down and kisses the feet of Jesus. After this, Jesus calls a group of twelve, to whom he gives the mission to preach and to baptize and to teach, though without any rancor: “And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been. For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.” (11.28-30) In her introduction to this volume of the Reader’s Book of Mormon, Linda Hoffman Campbell comments that here “the text spoke to me more directly than any other passage ever had in the volume. I thrilled at the personal, intimate invitation for each person to come, one by one, to touch the Savior’s wounds.” (xxii)
What to make of all this? Remember, all this occurs in the new world, after the Ascension. The risen, ascended Jesus has come here to speak even to this scattered tribe, in this far-off place. Unusual. But it is clear that the author wants to stress continuity: this is the same Jesus who is the Son of the Father, who died on the cross, and whose mission has not changed at all. The point seems not to privilege this group of Nephites in America as possessed of a special revelation that goes beyond the Bible, but to say that they too received “the same revelation” that is described in the canonical Gospels.
Now it is true that few of us reading a blog for America, the magazine, will be able to imagine that Jesus appeared in America, the land, in 34 CE or so. But many of us have believed that the same Jesus who lived and died and rose and taught in Palestine in those days does, as it were, truly visit us here and now. Like these Nephites, we believe ourselves to encounter the risen Christ and to hear, not a new revelation, our own secret teaching, but the same message that reverberates through the ages, for those who will come to Christ when his voice finally makes sense to them. This is, in a way, what the Spiritual Exercises are all about too. It may seem very odd to think that Jesus came to America several millennia ago; but I know people, as do you, who believe it very odd to think that Jesus visits us in our times of prayer, or that we can converse with Jesus in our heart of hearts. In its own way, the Book of Mormon creates the space, albeit as somewhat literal space, for this. Even if 3 Nephi takes a step too far for most of us, we should be able to be sympathetic with its conviction that Jesus is here, now.
That 3 Nephi is all about “the same experience” and “same teaching” occurring all over again is confirmed in Chapters 12-18 – and for this I rely on Grant Hardy’s clear subheadings – where, in Jesus’s long teaching to the gathered crowd, he first (in chapters 12-14) repeats large portions of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). See Stendahl on this very point. In my next blog, I will say a bit more on this teaching and the added chapters of teaching, blessings, and the instruction on the Eucharist, that fill out chapters 12-18 — after which, “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.” (18.38-39)