A challenge to Book of Mormon historicity is the anachronistic nature of content in the Book of Mormon from the New Testament, teachings about Jesus Christ, and especially specific Christian topics of debate in the modern era.
This post is part 1 of 2 covering the seemingly “too 19th century sounding” 2 Nephi 9. Part 1 will cover the language and content of the chapter. Part 2 will discuss whether this is proof Joseph Smith “made it all up” or whether this is “OK”. We look at what Joseph meant by the word “translation”. And various models of scripture authoring such as midrash, exegesis, expansions, and pseudopigrapha will be looked at to see if we can figure out what Joseph was doing.
2 Nephi 9 is a portion of Jacob’s sermon contained in 2 Nephi 6-10, where he starts with material from Isaiah on the falling away and restoration of Israel and Israel’s covenant relationship with Jehovah, and then uses that as segue into exposition on the atonement of Jesus Christ. A question might be is this Jacob an ancient Nephi expounding on Isaiah. Or is this Joseph Smith revealing what an ancient prophet, who understood the gospel of Jesus Christ, might have said when expounding on Isaiah.
In my opinion, 2 Nephi 2 and 9 together stand possibly as the best sermons on the doctrines of Fall and Atonement in the history of mankind. These doctrines that are at the heart of Christianity are clearly and eloquently explained in these two chapters. The Book of Mormon brilliantly weaves together these two pieces, the first with Jacob as the recipient of the teaching (Lehi’s blessing to Jacob) and the second Jacob’s own teaching.
2 Nephi 2 on the Fall
22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having nojoy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
2 Nephi 9 on the Atonement
21 And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.
22 And he suffereth this that the resurrection might pass upon all men, that all might stand before him at the great and judgment day.
23 And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God.
Critics of the Book of Mormon from the very beginning accused the book of having 19th century ideas.
This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in N. York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies – infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, republican government, and the rights of man.
Reading 2 Nephi 9 and preparing for Gospel Doctrine Lesson 8 O How Great the Goodness of our God, I was interested in what seemed like so many unique sounding phrases. I decided to do a little research project. I took various unique phrases and searched for them first in the King James Version of the Bible Old Testament then New Testament, then next in google advanced book search for hits written before 1830, the publication date of the Book of Mormon. I was especially looking for popular works that might have been known to Joseph Smith or would have shaped the religious sermons and language of Joseph’s day.
Disclaimer: the following is done with a very rudimentary research process. I’m a hobbyist not a scholar. I’d like to see more of this kind of work done by actual scholars and researchers. My opinion is that there are clues inside the text that will eventually lead us to a clear understanding of how the Book of Mormon came together.
As expected, many of the phrases or close variations were found in the Old Testament. Examples:
Holy One of Israel
robe of righteousness
as the Lord liveth
lift up your heads
rise no more
flesh waste away
fire and brimstone
nakedness (as guilt)
every living creature
Wo unto the…
shake my garments
rock of your salvation
(additionally verse 51,52 quote Isaiah 55:1,2)
The next list are phrases found in the New Testament but not in the Old Testament. Examples:
filthy shall be filthy still, righteous shall be righteous still
no law given there is no punishment (no transgression)
foundation of the world
first death, second death
corruption could not put on incorruption
clothed with purity
Lord God almighty
Beyond the phrases, there seems to be a strong reliance on verses from the New Testament to formulate the logic in the 2 Nephi 9 for the atonement.
|2 Nephi 9||1 Corinthians 15|
|5 Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.||28 And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.|
|6 For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord.||21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
|7 Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.||53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
|2 Nephi 9:25||Romans 4:15|
|25 Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.||15 Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.|
This last group are the phrases not found in the Bible but found in writings and sermons of the 1700’s and early 1800’s.
demands of justice
crosses of the world
it behooveth God
family of Adam
claim upon them
rot and crumble
shut out from presence of God
our first parents
God who gave them breath
To be fair to the traditional BOM translation view, the following are reasons that could explain this:
- OT phrases could have been written on the Brass plates which BOM prophets would naturally quote
- For NT phrases, both BOM prophets and NT authors could have had access to common ancient texts with the same phraseology and logic
- For NT, these verses could have been revealed to BOM prophets
- For all, the words might have been written on the gold plates, but Joseph used familiar language from OT, NT, and his modern surroundings to translate the ancient writing
- For all, these phrases might not be that unique and randomly included in BOM not influenced by particular source
I’m including some of the texts I came across while searching Book of Mormon phrases in the writings of Joseph Smith’s day. What I find interesting is that we sometimes see Christian theologians engaged in the arguments in the same way the Book of Mormon does. The Book of Mormon seems to be stringing together the same New Testament verses, and discussing these extremely specific and esoteric Christian doctrines essentially using the same voice as the theologians of modern times. I’m including a few excerpts of the discussion of the idea of an infinite atonement, both those for it and those against it, to get a flavor of this “voice”.
We sin against no greater law than we can understand therefore as our understandings are finite so is sin. It is limited to our finite understandings. That in the law which is above or beyond our comprehension or conception would be to us as no law and where there is no law there is no transgression. Thus the argument consider it as we please will limit sin to our limited understandings Sin then is finite not infinite.
If man possessed not free agency what would signify calls, invitations, promises or threatenings? Would God stake his veracity upon man’s incomprehensibility? If man is not free to choose what signifies commanding him or threatening him? The language to him is, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well sin lieth at the door.” Where there is no law there is no transgression; and where God has given no ability, he certainly will not require performances… The decrees of God are that a Saviour crucified should redeem man. That if man would bow his proud and stubborn will, and accept of salvation through the atonement, he should receive it: that he continued to practise rebellion against God he should be sent to hell
Sin is the transgression of the law and in another place unrighteousness is sin. Sin therefore presupposes law for where there is no law there is no transgression. A law must always include the idea of subjects possessing certain powers of agency to whose capacities it is calculated to be adapted. In those subjects then sin is found when they exercise their moral powers in opposition to the instructions of the law…The doctrine of endless misery which we believe is unsupported by revelation has led to a variety of conclusions that appear equally unsupportable. Among these we account the doctrine of the infinite nature of sin. But it requires no very powerful intellect to discern that the latter idea is absolutely necessary to maintain the former. As we believe neither is true we will offer a few arguments against the infinity of sin.
We maintain, that man is not created in a condition which makes an infinite atonement necessary; nor do we believe that any creature can fail into a condition, from which God may not deliver him, without this rigid expedient.
Moreover if Christ have made an infinite atonement for the satisfaction of divine justice, why will not all be saved? Will God be unjust to himself? Can he punish himself for no purpose?
This punishment is either temporary or endless. If it be endless, it is just and deserved, because threatened by a just God, and we become liable to it by his threatening. But if we deserve an endless punishment, sin is an infinite evil, and so requires an infinite atonement.
In stating my sense of the limited extent of Christ’s death I admitted that the sufferings of Christ were sufficient for the salvation of the whole world had the race of mankind or the multitude of their offences been a thousand times more than they are if it had pleased God to render them effectual to that end I do not consider the necessity of an atonement as arising from the number of sins but from the nature of them. As the same sun which is necessary to enlighten the present inhabitants of the earth is sufficient to enlighten many millions more and as the same perfect obedience of Christ which was necessary for the justification of one sinner is sufficient to justify the millions that are saved so I apprehend the same infinite atonement would have been necessary for the salvation of one soul consistently with justice as for the salvation of a world.
A correspondence by letters: between Samuel C. Loveland, Preacher of the doctrine of universal salvation, and Rev. Joseph Laberee, Pastor of the Congregational Church and Society in Jerico, Vermont, January 1, 1818
You tell me that you do not believe an infinite atonement necessary in order for God to be just in the pardon of sin. But if an infinite atonement be not necessary such an atonement has not been made unless you suppose God has performed an unnecessary labor. And if an infinite atonement has not been made Jesus Christ is not a divine person. For if he be a divine person his sufferings and obedience must have been of infinite value of course he made an infinite atonement.
A Letter to the Presbytery of Wilmington James Miller, 1838 (from after BOM was published, but shows good example of the dialogue of the day)
It represents the deity as unable to pardon and save the offender against his law, without an atonement. “God the Father” is exhibited to us as demanding satisfaction, and “God the Son” as rendering it. Yet the Father and Son are believed to be essentially one and the same God. The Deity, then, is represented as making an atonement to himself; which is an absurdity.
He came not to make God placable nor to remove any disability from His way. Nothing of this kind was needed. His object was to soften man’s heart, to change his disposition, to remove the moral disabilities under which he labored, to bring him to repentance, and to reconcile him to God. This, it appears to me, is the correct view of Christ’s meditation and this the grand object of his mission.
I want to make it clear I’m not making any plagiarism accusations. I think most plagiarism accusations when it comes to the Book of Mormon are absurd.
In Joseph Smith’s day, we see a very mature dialogue on Christian subjects. We have centuries of prior debate on topics such as original sin, free agency, infinite or finite nature of sin, infinite or finite nature of sacrifice of Jesus Christ, depravity of man, predestination, irresistible grace. This discussion came naturally, with arguments being founded in the New Testament, and then added on. Then someone adds on that. Then someone combines a few different theories and adds something unique to it. This is how ideas evolve. We can trace ideas back through time to see the progression. The Book of Mormon is beautiful in the sense that it distills these arguments in a masterful and logical way, taking the best of what was available and adding a few original concepts. But it’s very difficult to assert that these Book of Mormon phrases and ideas could have come anciently and independently, without the body of work of centuries of Christian theologians to build upon.
I applaud “traditional view” LDS apologists who do work to attempt to show that Christian doctrine was known anciently, to show precedent for the Book of Mormon. They try to make connections between the Book of Mormon and ancient writings, be it Biblical or other ancient non-biblical writings such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or Apochrypha. But in the information age, and with history and science advancements making “traditional view” Mormon apologetics more and more difficult, it’s time we embrace new perspectives.
If we believe God is in this religion, which I believe he is, then we need to make sense of these issues. As Elder Ballard recently declared, we must not rely on “outdated understandings and explanations of our doctrines or practices from the past”.
The critic might say, “there’s the proof, Joseph made it up.” But as LDS scholar Grant Hardy says, “we probably know less about what constitutes an ‘inspired translation’ than we do about ancient Israel.” We need to consider the possibility that the 19th century language and ideas found in the Book of Mormon could be perfectly legitimate in terms of comparing how scripture has come to man throughout history of mankind. My next post will go into these possibilities.
I love the Book of Mormon and am grateful for this great chapter on the atonement that helps us grow closer to God through reading it and striving to live by its principles.