Reading Mormon (III): The Sermon on the Mount Reimagined

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)

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Scott Miller
6 years 5 months ago
This article says more about the shallowness of much modern Catholic discourse rather than the depth of any Mormon thought.  What's next?  The virtues espoused in the Satanic Bible?  Why Arius was a jolly good fellow?
David Smith
6 years 5 months ago
William, the Judeo-Christian god is multiple, no?  Otherwise, how does one reconcile the wrathful god of Noah with the man Christ, or the Jesus that threatens hell fire with the gentle Jesus so beloved of so many modern Christians?  If the Mormon god first destroys brutally and then consoles the survivors, so does the Judeo-Christian god.
Mike Schroth
6 years 5 months ago
Father, thank you for this little series. I really enjoyed it and appreciate your desire to understand the faith of another people. I was a Mormon missionary in Brazil 15 years ago. The greatest experience from my mission came in meeting a Benedictan monk who befriended us and who regularly met with us to discuss faith. He became a lifelong friend to me.  I still recall the evening when we read 3 Nephi together and he then professed his love for the Savior. There we were in a jungle setting, in a village, and all was quiet about us except for the trees moving in the breeze. We shared our love for Christ and committed to be better peolpe that night. There was a spirit of brothhood between us and i was deeply moved by my friend's powerful faith. i learned what great strength there is in listening to others speak of their beliefs, and even discovering that I could deepen and expand my own faith by listening to this great man. I applaud attempts, as with this series, to seek understanding of and find appreciation in the aspects of a faith held by other people.
Meg Stout
6 years 5 months ago
Father Clooney,

Thank you for your care in reading the Book of Mormon account of Jesus' appearance in 3rd Nephi, and then describing your insights.

William Taylor makes some interesting points. It is instructive to consider that the primary people described in the Book of Mormon (the Nephites) were known to be a doomed people. The destructions that visited their people reminded them of the prophesied destructions in the wider world that were to accompany the Messiah's triumphal return.

Nephi believed he’d been told his seed would eventually be destroyed. That secret was passed down through the centuries along with the sacred records. The penultimate patriarch was Mormon, who summarized the sacred record (hence why it is called the Book of Mormon). Mormon saw the struggles and demise of his own people despite a miraculous visitation from their God as a foreshadowing of the final eschatological fate of mankind after the miracle of a Second Coming.

Mormon includes an eschatological allegory in Jacob 5, a tale of the Master and His olive grove. (c.f. Romans 11:16-24, some form of this allegory appears to have been part of the standard religious repertoire available to Paul). The allegory in Jacob appears to indicate that Jesus forestalls the Father's justice one last time, that a harvest of good olives may be gathered in.

Most of us Mormons don't think about all this end of the world stuff very deeply, despite our propensity for storing up a year's supply of food. We're often too busy to ponder a chapter with so many verses (Jacob 5 has 77 verses). Easier to simply do good works and love Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Whatever the final fate of mankind, we will each face our Father and God at the end of our individual lives. Most Mormons think that is sufficient eschatology to worry about on a daily basis.
John Welch
6 years 5 months ago
Dear Fr. Clooney,
I appreciate very much your respectful engagement with 3 Nephi, and I also appreciate the comments of other readers who raise useful and clarifying points in the conversation you have launched. As a life-long student of the Bible and Book of Mormon, and as a long-time member of the Society of Biblical Literature, I personally have found great spiritual strength and academic stimulation in the study of 3 Nephi, which has yielded rich rewards for me when I have read it through multiple lenses, including temple studies, ritual studies, comparative, textual, and literary studies. If I might be so bold, let me draw your attention to a new book entitled 3 Nephi:An Incomparable Scripture, edited by Andrew C. Skinner and Gaye Strathearnh and recently published by the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book in Salt Lake City. I think that you and many other readers will find the entire book and the sources cited in its footnotes very worthwhile. The lead chapter in this book is entitled ''Seeing 3 Nephi as the Holy of Holies of the Book of Mormon,'' which is available free on line. Here's the url:
There's more here than meets the eye. As Heraclitus said, ''The truth loves to hide,'' which makes searching for it ultimately all the more enlightening and gratifying.
Luisa Navarro
6 years 5 months ago

"This article says more about the shallowness of much modern Catholic discourse rather than the depth of any Mormon thought.  What's next?  The virtues espoused in the Satanic Bible?  Why Arius was a jolly good fellow?"

Indeed. Let Catholic culture die out in the US (not far to go). Forget apologetics, forget any intellectual grounding, let's bend over to please any and all silly sects.
What next? I suggest Mme. Blavatsky (great fun!), Mr. Hubbard... unless you're brave enough to tackle the Qran and try to prove it's soooooooooo kind to 'prophet' Jesus... and how we should all be most grateful for the mohammedans' tolerance.

Reply: Ms Navarro, you are correct that we could also explore other traditions as well. I won't myself follow up on the examples you suggest, but to take one of your suggestions, you may want to look into L Ron Hubbard's work yourself. When i visited the Scientology Center in Melbourne this summer (see my blog in August), I came across a book you may want to read yourself: Scientology: Theology and Pratice of a Contemporary Religion. Good luck in your reading, FXC
Stephen Murray
6 years 5 months ago
Father, your comments are further evidence of the silliness you are engaged in, namely, a false irenicism and a false piety.  The reference to Christ allowing others to speak in his name is far different from what Mormonism is.  What they understand Christ to be and what Christians know him to be are very, very different and you know it.  Mormonism is a new religion, not a new Christian denomination, and a gross distortion of the New Testament.    
Mike Bennion
6 years 5 months ago
Fr. Clooney,

Once again, my admiration for your ability to keep an open mind.

I might venture an opinion as to the destructions suffered by the Nephites and Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, and by extension to those visited upon Sodom, Gommorah, and the land of Canaan when Joshua and the Israelites entered the land.

In Mormon theology, judgement is not complete at death.  As Catholics believe in a purgatory where the dead may receive benefit from the prayers of the living, so Mormons believe that after death the spirits of all men enter a place of waiting where the righteous may rest, called "paradise" and where the wicked or ignorant may be taught and prepared for the ordinances (sacraments) of the gospel.  1st Peter 4:6 refers to the teaching Christ performed here. Mormons believe that these ordinance s may be performed by earthly proxy (in a similar way to Chirst's proxy redemption on our behalf.  If a society reaches a point of no return as to wickedness, where the children born into that society have no chance to live a righteous life, God removes that society from the earth so they may be taught and receive such salvation as they are willing to accept. 

Viewed from this perspective, the destructions visited on the people of the flood and those others mentioned, are not only just, but merciful.  The Jeremiads of the scriptures represent God's attempt to warn people so that they may repent and receive promised blessings sooner rather than later.

Mike Bennion
PJ Johnston
6 years 5 months ago
Someone should coin a new logical fallacy and call it the argumentum ad Mormonum (defined as an argument wherein Mormonism is a magical exception to the normal rules of human courtesy instilled by their parents in children of good upbringing which otherwise apply without exception).
Michael Richards
6 years 5 months ago
William, your comments suggest that you have either not read 3rd Nephi yourself, or that your reading was lacking in depth.  The "context" you lay out that Fr. Clooney has "missed" is, in fact, the wrong context. 
 Your number of 2500 survivors only included those who were gathered at the temple at the time of his coming and does not account for the many other people whom these 2500 spent all that night gathering so they could hear from Christ the following day.  See 3 Nephi 19:1-3.
 Your description of Christ as "boasting" over the destruction of the cities doesn't match with my reading wherein he says, "the devil laugheth, and his angels rejoice, because of the slain of the fair sons and daughters of my people; and it is because of their iniquity and abominations that they are fallen," and " O ye people of these great oft have I gathered you...and again, how oft would I have gathered you...and ye would not."  To me this sounds more like a parent who says to the child, "I would have prefered to have given you what you wanted, but because of your choices, I now have to punish you," than like a boastful, abusive parent saying, "I'll show you who's boss."
Calling this "the first glimpse" of Jesus in the Book of Mormon is just plain mistaken.  The name “Jesus Christ” shows up 24 prior to 3rd Nephi.  Frequently “Christ”, “Messiah”, and “Lord” are both used and heard from.  The true first introduction to Christ is found on page 20 when Nephi sees a vision of Mary, “A virgin, most beautiful and fair…” holding, “…the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father.”
Take a closer look at 3 Nepih 8:5 and then at 3 Nephi 10:18.  You will find that close to a year has passed between the time of the destruction and the arrival of Christ at the temple.  Your description of Christ failing to first approach the terrified, traumatized children plays on these events being right next to each other, when the text makes it clear that they are not.
It is not Fr. Clooney who is failing to provide the proper context, rather it is you who is distorting the truth in order to cast the Book of Mormon in a bad light—something completely unnecessary when so many things within it contradict what you believe the Bible teaches without the need for distortion.
Bill Taylor
6 years 5 months ago
The Mormon verson of the Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful reflection on the Gospel that Joseph Smith surely learned in his experiment with the Methodists, in conversation with his own Presbyterian mother, and in his own study of the Bible.

Father says he was touched by the beautiful words of Jesus to the children. But we have to remember the context of III Nephi itself. These children have just watched someone destroy their world. They have witnessed hurricane, earthquake, and landslide. They are among 2,500 survivors among a population that used to number in the millions. They have lived through three days of horrifying darkness, where a person could not see his hand in front of his face. In the midst of that darkness, they hear a voice of someone boasting of what he has just done, naming off the annihilateldl cities one by one. Then the owner of that voice finally identifies himself as Jesus Christ.

This is their first glimpse of Jesus in the Book of Mormon: A hard-nosed killer on an unimagineable scale. Our first glimpse of Jesus is a child in a manger, in the Gospel of St. Luke.

It is this Jesus the mass-murderer who descends from heaven all dressed in white. Sure enough, this Jesus does not rush immediately to the terrified, traumatized children. Instead, he forces them to remain in their fear while he organizes his church and preaches a long, long speech beyond their understanding. Only then does he come with comfort.

Again, Fr. ignores this context. He has taken pains to avoid mentioning it. But it is there. This is not the gentle Jesus who reflected the love of the Father. This is a Jesus who began by reflecting the Father's brutal condemnation and destruction of an entire population, leaving only a trembling handful behind.


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