Reading Nephi – 11:8-12

068-068-the-liahona-fullThe first conspicuous element here is the replacement of Lehi’s test or opening—all that time walking in darkness—with Nephi’s being questioned by the angel. Nephi does not walk in darkness—his vision begins, after the opening angelic interchange, with looking directly on the vision of the tree.

And this too is different. Lehi’s dream was experiential; Nephi’s vision is observational and propositional. This is huge.

Nephi requested to see the things that his father had seen. In response, the angel shows him the tree. It doesn’t start with the field, and the other elements of the vision all come later. There’s no gradual unfolding as Nephi chooses what to scan and perceptually seek after. Nor is it presented as a mystery—Nephi begins with an understanding of what he’s going to see and at least a rough outline of what it means (though his purpose is to see and know more fully). Beginning at the tree, it’s as though the angel is declaring that the whole purpose of Lehi’s vision is to help the viewer understand what the existential point is—what it is that all of our pain and our slogging through mortality is really about. There it is. The tree of life.

Having been shown this fact, the angel once again tests Nephi. Now that you’ve seen the tree, Nephi, what do you desire? But unlike Lehi, Nephi’s goal here is mere understanding. He doesn’t ask to taste the fruit because he can already perceive what the fruit is. He has his father’s testimony. He’s not looking for experience. He’s after understanding. Give me the interpretation. And thus, Nephi doesn’t partake. Instead the angel gives him what he asks for by showing him more, allowing him to fit the pieces together in order to come to an understanding.

I’m also struck by the fact that Nephi’s first response to the tree is aesthetic, which is different than Lehi’s response. Lehi never mentions the beauty of the tree, but that’s the first thing that Nephi sees. I’m moved by this detail in ways that are hard to express.

I’ve always heard and thought myself that Nephi’s parenthetical in vs. 11 means that Nephi saw the Holy Ghost in vision, but this time through that strikes me as completely wrong. We today call the Holy Ghost the Spirit of the Lord, but why should we think that Nephi would? Why should we take it as anything different than what Nephi says—namely, that it’s the Lord’s (Jehovah’s) spirit? This parallels the Brother of Jared later in the Book of Mormon—Nephi sees a vision of the spirit and form that the Lord will one day take.

This strikes me as both appropriate and meaningful, given what Nephi gets shown next. First, however, the Spirit of the Lord disappears. “Look!” and then he’s gone. But he’s of course not gone. He’s still there, in the vision, but now no longer as the man or as the Spirit of the Lord, but instead as the infant babe, born of the Mother of God after the manner of the flesh. Incredibly rich.

23 comments for “Reading Nephi – 11:8-12

  1. Terry H
    January 6, 2016 at 7:58 am

    This is the phenomenon that Clark Goble and I have discussed earlier, but we’re finally here. David Melvin wrote a Ph.D thesis that provides a lot of food for thought. Google “David Melvin interpreting angel”. The published version is from Fortress (2013) and the thesis itself is a free pdf (Clark will appreciate that). The theme is that post-exilic visions have interpreters (heavenly beings) which impacts the visions differently. Nephi clearly has one here. A major difference as you point out in the post is Nephi asks to see what his father has seen and its shown to him and then explained. I believe that King Benjamin refers to an angel who explains one of his visions and there are other references in the Book of Mormon. Exactly how Melvin’s thesis might apply here in more detail is something that could be looked at. Clark has a good explanation I’m still thinking about and am just getting this out there to kick off some more discussion. I’d also like to see some discussion on who Nephi might have seen.

  2. JKC
    January 6, 2016 at 11:59 am

    I’ve always been fascinated/puzzled by Nephi’s statement : “I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord.”

    The “nevertheless” suggests that Nephi’s understanding, at least before seeing the rest of the vision, was that the “Spirit of the Lord,” whether that is the Holy Ghost or the pre-mortal Christ, does not normally take the “form of a man,” but that it did in this case. Maybe that’s related to the way that the vision forcefully teaches Nephi the importance of the incarnation. It may have been shocking to Nephi to have it revealed that “God himself” as Abiniadi and Alma would put it later, would appear in the form of a man to him, because he would actually be born as a man many years later.

  3. Clark Goble
    January 6, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    I think we should distinguish between Lehi’s vision as Nephi presents it from Lehi’s vision as he experienced it (and which just wasn’t open to Nephi) I’m far from convinced they are as different as the presentations suggest. (For instance right off the bat in Lehi’s vision in the opening of the Book of Mormon is a pretty strong Christology even if it isn’t presented as such – and one wonders how much of that is due to the theoretic scaffolding Nephi brings from his own presentations)

    That said clearly Nephi’s vision as presented is done in a far more engaged fashion with a guide. There’s no evidence of a significant guide with Lehi. Although even there we have to be careful 1 Ne 1:11 has Christ come to Lehi and “gave unto him a book and bade him that he should read.” But then the rest is kind of cut off in Lehi’s account. (Although there appears a strong echo of John’s vision in Revelation) We get instead Nephi saying he’s not giving a full account of Lehi’s visions (and says he has many of them). I tend to think that means we should have a bit of caution in how we compare the two.

    James, your point about mystery is an apt one. It makes me want to note that the ancient sense of mystery isn’t necessarily the same as the current use. That is a mystery was to be initiated typically by some kind of ritual into a certain class of knowledge. Often (but not always) the initiate had a clue of what was coming even if elements were secret. (Our endowment ceremony would be an example of such a mystery and one could argue that the common heavenly ascent visions like Nephi’s is the realization of such an endowment)

    To the contrast you make between Lehi and Nephi on the tree of life again I think we should be careful. I think you’re right that Nephi’s account is portrayed as more intellectual and representational rather than the experiential and passionate version of Lehi. Perhaps that’s a real distinction between the two experiences, perhaps a difference in their personalities, and perhaps just a difference with how Nephi presents it (since he’s already given Lehi’s account) Although as you note, that first description by Nephi is wrapped up in a strong aesthetic experience.

    Regarding the spirit, I suspect it’s Christ for various reasons not the least of which is who talks to Lehi in 1 Ne 1. However in practice it could be a different figure representing the Lord. (Compare to John in Rev 19:10 but also to how often Enoch is Metatron but also the lesser YHWH in Merkabah texts)

  4. Clark Goble
    January 6, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    JKC, I think we get confused over the senses of spirit. I’d need to check how the various Merkabah texts do this when they describe it. But it’s most likely that spirit here could be several Hebrew terms. So you have neshama or spirit as soul in Gen 2 and then spirit as ruach which God breaths into man. However when the term is used in say Isaiah 11 where the “spirit of the Lord will rest on him” (the messiah) it’s ruach YHWH. So one is the breath of life but not necessarily an ontological soul we find in the post-Christian view. (Especially with a kind of appropriation of Aristotle’s similar notion into form as ontological substance)

    What I suspect amazes Nephi is that this spirit in a more nebulous activity sense appears as a man. Yet this is really keeping with the whole apocalyptic and merkamah tradition. Again there are examples of this in Revelation. But a good example might be how say a prophet like Joseph Smith speaks as God in first person in various places. It’s that spirit.

    The key concept in both Nephi’s and Lehi’s vision (especially the one in chapter 1) is this condescension of god as a man. Mosiah 15 in particular gets at this and I think the tradition Abinadi is speaking of goes back to these early visions (and potentially merkabah and apocalyptic texts that were in the brass plates).

    Anyway the different uses of spirit which in Hebrew often have very different words (nephesh or living being, ruach or wind, neshama or breath, chaya or life, and yechidah or singular are important to keep in mind. Even these terms have different senses depending upon how they are used. In later traditions nephesh is our instincts, ruach is emotions and morals, neshamah is intellect and awareness, chayah is a kind of divine spark technically part of god and yechidah is essence which in post-ancient traditions is conceived very platonically as one with god. A lot of these become understood in terms of Aristotle as well in the early medieval era. (And transformed I’d think)

    Today we kind of miss a lot of that and think of spirit in terms of attitude (the spirit of the times, caught up in the spirit of the event) or substance (largely due to Descartes). We should be careful when we read scripture since almost certainly Nephi means something different. (Although it’s not entirely clear exactly how he means it)

  5. JKC
    January 6, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Good point, Clark. That’s essentially what I was trying to get at: when Nephi says “the spirit of the Lord,” he is almost certainly not thinking of the spirit in the same terms that we as 21st century Mormons might default to. If he were, then it would not be unusual for the spirit to appear in the form of a man.

    Regardless of whether the Spirit of the Lord is the Holy Ghost or the pre-mortal Jesus, I think you’re absolutely right that the key point of Nephi’s vision is that God will become man, and that this idea is picked up by Alma and Abinadi as well. And that’s also the thing that shocks the brother of Jared as well. “I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood.”

  6. James Olsen
    January 6, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    I feel compelled — probably unnecessarily — to repeat my own purpose here. We approach the scripture from numerous different analytical frameworks:
    1. Naive readings: simply read it according to how it unreflectively strikes us.
    2. Personal readings: seeking for particular revelation or reading as a personal kind of ritual — reading to hear the voice of the Lord in one’s life.
    3. Theological readings: either discerning the theological import for a certain community or set of assumptions, or else attempting to discern the theological assumptions/principles of the text itself (relatedly, we can read the text attempting to discern what the meaning is for a given community, or even for God — which is most similar to the theological reading, but maybe distinct)
    4. Philosophical readings: mining the text for its philosophical assumptions/principles/implications
    5. Historical readings: bringing the tools of history, archaeology, anthropology, etc. to understand the context in which the scripture was given and what the meaning of the text would have been to a contemporary audience. Relatedly, we can mine the text to try and discover authorial intent.
    6. Literary readings: carefully analyzing the text itself to reveal literary conventions and techniques and determine what their import might be; attempting to discern what the most coherent reading might be irrespective of either authorial intent or the meanings relevant to a particular hermeneutic community

    I don’t claim this to be an exhaustive list — just a list of common readings that come to mind at the moment. Different folks feel partial to different readings, and it’s often the case that those who feel particularly invested in a given analytic framework see it as the “T”rue lens for reading the scriptures — even if they acknowledge the legitimacy of other readings.

    This project is something of a smorgasbord. It’s whatever struck me as significant during my last read through I Nephi. That said, I’m particularly concerned with going as slowly and carefully as I can in order to think about how we (i.e., whoever reads these things) ought to take these passages today — a normative/ethical reading, a kind of combination of 4 & 6. I assume historicity but it’s not necessary to the project (even if it feels necessary for me personally). I try to think about theology, but don’t feel committed to a particular set of assumptions. It’s definitely a kind of naive reading — though one that’s informed by my philosophical background and all the other stuff I read. I find historical analyses incredibly rich, though mostly as a kind of heuristic (as opposed to capable of revealing what the scriptures really say).

  7. James Olsen
    January 6, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    Terry H: I think — as I mentioned earlier in our conversation — that this is an interesting way of analyzing the text (i.e., comparing different types of vision/angelic visits to typologies in other texts/times). I’m sure I’d enjoy Melvin’s work. Insights like these force me to relook at passages and see them in new and fruitful ways. I’m very glad to have you involved in this discussion. I’m sorry that these later sections don’t incorporate the insights from our earlier discussions. Occasionally they do, but that’s just coincidence. I’d written all of this prior to those earlier discussions.

    JKC & Clark: I don’t think these passages reveal a Nephi focus or emphasis or revelation of incarnation. Maybe. But that strikes me as far too Christian (i.e., NT/post-NT) an approach, and I don’t particularly find it a cogent interpretation of the text itself. Personally, I think the shock went the other way: that Nephi, Mahonri, et al., were shocked to find that they were as God, not that God would become man. But I’m not sure the text supports that any better than the opposite; it’s probably my own prejudices speaking. But the anachronism of an incarnationist reading ought to give us pause.

    Clark: I think you’re right to be cautious about assuming too much of a difference between Lehi’s & Nephi’s visions. But we can talk about the different portrayals Nephi gives them and what these might reveal. I also agree that it’s often fruitful to read ‘mystery’ in the sense we get from the Mediterranean antiquity — certain BofM passages seem to manifest this sense quite clearly. Similarly certain passages from D&C. That said, I also think that other passages resist this reading. ‘Mystery’ is multiply ambiguous.

  8. Clark Goble
    January 6, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    James, I think reading a traditional notion of incarnation isn’t there. There are elements, especially in Nephi’s vision. But I think it’s better read in terms of Merkabah texts of how someone has the spirit of God with that being a bit more profound than how we think of it.

    I’m loath to read too much Ether into the text since it was unknown by Nephi and Moroni’s editing of it is undoubtedly informed by what he does have before him (which includes 3 Nephi) I have no idea how to take the early parts of Ether.

    I think the keys to Nephi’s text in 11 are these: “I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord” Then we have “and the Spirit said unto me.” But this doesn’t yet appear to be an anthropomorphic spirit. Rather it’s the voice (as in his encounter with Laban). Then there’s this phrase “because thou believes in the Son of the most high God…” (I don’t have the critical text handy to know if “son” is a later emendation by Joseph)

    Then we get the repeat of Lehi’s vision in chapter 1. “thou shalt also behind a man descending out of heaven…it is the Son of God.” So part of the vision is this equating of a man with the Son of God. That’s pretty significant.

    Now in verse 11 we learn Nephi’s spirit is “in the form of a man; yet nevertheless I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord.” Now was this from the beginning or does he just understand this now? It’s not clear.

    Then in 21 we have Nephi seeing the birth of Jesus. So while it’s a little misleading to read in traditional Christology, clearly Nephi starts with something very Merkabah and then that shifts to something more traditionally Christian.

    It’s also interesting that the point of the condescension of God happens is at Jesus’ baptism and the Holy Ghost comes down.

    So I think while we don’t have the incarnation as later creedal Christian theology has it, we’re pretty darn close.

  9. JKC
    January 7, 2016 at 8:59 am

    James, the reason I see the incarnation as the focus of Nephi’s vision is that the vision of the virgin is the immediate answer to his question: what is the interpretation of the tree. (Actually, I would probably use the Book of Mormon phrase “condescension of God” rather than “incarnation,” but I think in this context they are very close.) In broad strokes, this is how I see it: Nephi ponders and is asked what he wants, he says he wants to see his father’s dream, the spirit shows him the tree (not the rest of the vision, just the tree, at least initially) and asks what he wants. He says he wants to know the interpretation. So in answer to that request, he is shown a vision of the virgin, which Nephi describes in almost the exact same terms that he describes the tree: surpassing whiteness and beauty. The angel interrupts and asks whether Nephi knows “the condescension of God.” He answers that he knows it has something to do with God’s love, but that he doesn’t really know. So the spirit explains the condescension of God as the incarnation: “Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” (Like Clark, I don’t have the critical text in front of me, but if I’m not mistaken, this “son of” was a later addition.)

    Clark, I’m not sure that we can say that the vision of the baptism is the sole point where the condescension of God occurs. The angel’s exclamation “look and behold the condescension of God!” suggests that the baptism (and subsequent ministry) qualifies as the condescension of God, but the angel’s previous question “knowest thou the condescension of God” in the middle of the vision of the virgin birth suggests, I think, that the virgin birth is also the condescension of God.

    And I’m not necessarily using “incarnation” in the technical sense that it takes on in the creeds, I’m using it simply to mean the idea that God was born of a virgin and thus took on himself mortal flesh and blood.

    In any case, I agree, James, that such a focus on the divinity of Christ/the incarnation of God does seem anachronistic in the sense that it is much more a New Testament Christian idea than an Old Testament idea. But I also think Clark is right that text supports something very close to the incarnation. Maybe that’s due to Mormon’s editing (I think we usually assume, not unreasonably, that the small plates that Joseph had were physically the plates made by Nephi, but that’s not necessarily true, they could have been a copy that was redacted and perhaps expanded by Mormon. Though the lack of Mormon speaking in the first person in the small plates is an obstacle to that reading.). Maybe it’s due to Joseph’s translation. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the vision itself revealed the incarnation (in the non-technical sense) to Nephi, which profoundly changed his understanding of God. Maybe some combination of all three. I tend toward the third, simply because I think the emphasis that Abinadi and Alma give to the idea that God would become man trace back to Nephi’s vision. Though given that Mormon explicitly says on the title page that one of his purposes is to prove that Jesus is God, I could see a case that could be made for Mormon giving these teachings by Nephi, Abinadi, and Alma an anachronistic emphasis, similar to the way that Matthew gives an anachronistic reading to the prophecies of Isaiah and others.

    Put simply: I agree that it is anachronistic, but I think the text supports it; the text itself is anachronistic in that sense, and just as the theological turning point in the Bible from old testament to new testament is the virgin birth, the theological turning point in the Book of Mormon from old testament to new testament-type theology is the revelation to Nephi of the condescension of God, of which the virgin birth is a major part.

  10. Clark Goble
    January 7, 2016 at 10:50 am

    JKC, I’m more thinking of the differences between various NT texts about when Christ was divine. Each has a key moment. So for Luke it’s the birth while for Matthew it’s baptism and for Paul it’s the crucifixion. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the text here, but Nephi’s vision appears to make that baptism the key point.

    How anachronistic this is, is debatable. I don’t think having an idea of God being man is necessarily a problem. While dating the various merkabah texts and their particular theologies is problematic – and I think all date to after the exile – there is that sense of Metatron that is significant.

    I tend to think that the views of God in the Book of Mormon are more complex than they appear at first glance. Trying to understand them in terms of the NT or 19th century Protestant theology tends to distort them. So in that I agree completely with James. But I think we can go too far the other direction too.

  11. JKC
    January 7, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Good points, Clark. Given the focus the vision puts on the virgin as the answer to the question about what the tree means, I do think you are reading too much into it to say that the baptism is the sole point of the condescension of God, but it is obviously at least a key point in that. Something of a hybrid between Matthew and Luke, perhaps. (And, also, Paul, maybe, given that the vision of the crucifixion comes only a few verses later).

    “I tend to think that the views of God in the Book of Mormon are more complex than they appear at first glance. Trying to understand them in terms of the NT or 19th century Protestant theology tends to distort them.”

    Completely agree. For that matter, I think trying to understand them in terms of our current godhead doctrine distorts them also. I for one have never found our standard apologetic on Abinadi’s discourse on the Father and the Son to be very convincing. (Not that I necessarily have a better answer myself!) I have found that for me, personally, the most fruitful and interesting way to read the Book of Mormon on the nature of God is to read it as a counterpart to the trinity theology of early christianity, almost a look at what that theology may have looked like without so much platonist influence. But I find it so interesting that though Christian theology apparently develops in slightly different ways in both hemispheres, they emphasize many of the same key points, (but they are not always the points that we often emphasize in church teachings–the Book of Mormon emphasizes the unity of the Godhead a lot more than we do). And though it is certainly anachronistic, I also find it productive to read the Book of Mormon as if in dialogue with the theology of the reformation, and often reach similar conclusions (not the same, but hitting some of the same key points)

    I sometimes wonder if this these kinds of readings might reveal a sort of mormon version of a “mere christianity” that is actually closer, at least in emphasis, if not in substance, to orthodox Christianity than our current presentation of the gospel in the missionary lessons. And if that might be the way that the Book of Mormon might fulfill it’s purpose to “establish my gospel, that there may not be so much contention . . . concerning the points of my doctrine” (Section 10, verse 63.)

    But that’s almost definitely reading too much into it.

    I would probably find reading the Book of Mormon in terms of merkabah texts, as you have metioned here, to be fruitful also, but I just don’t have the background knowledge.

  12. Clark Goble
    January 7, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Is there a standard apologetic on Mosiah 15? I know both Blake Ostler and myself view them in terms of Merkabah texts but that’s still fairly broad. I do think that Nephi’s vision and Mosiah 15 share a lot of similarities.

    The way I usually hear Mosiah 15 describe is that in terms of the being of the Father (not being in a static sense but literally the way of behaving – more the form in a Aristotilean sense) the Son subsumes his way of being to that of the Father. It’s more than divine investiture of authority but a shared way of life. This is then our goal. This is also different from modalism as well as Trinitarianism since both of those adopt a certain metaphysical stance I think alien to the text.

    While I raise the merkabah parallels I simultaneously think that only gets us so far as it avoids fundamental questions about ontology. (And ultimately I don’t think we can read those into the text) But the relationship between YHWH and Metatron in places like 3 Enoch seems to me very, very similar to the relationship between Christ and the Father or the Spirit of God.

    I’d be careful about seeing too much of Plato as the problem btw. That’s both because Platonism itself can be seen in a variety of ways but also because the key views of creedal Christianity really transforms Platonism in extremely significant ways. (Creation ex nihilo being one example, the nature of a soul being an other)

    I do think we have a lot of similarities to eastern Christianity in all this. While critics justly note that Mormons de-contextualize the meaning of say eastern deification, there is a real sense in which the eastern tradition here is very similar to the Mormon view. Especially in the Book of Mormon. That doesn’t mean the big divide of creation ex nihilo isn’t a big gap though. That gap just doesn’t appear present in the Book of Mormon. If anything the text blurs the distinction between God and Man in ways that I think a lot of historians simply neglect seeing that primarily as a later Nauvoo innovation. But really it’s pretty key in the Book of Mormon in numerous places.

    For some good sources on this aspect of Merkabah I think Blake Ostler’s first volume of theology, The Attributes of God is the place to go. While I fundamentally disagree with Blake on some key issues it remains the best work of theology in Mormon studies and is a must read IMO.

    Some other good (short) places I found are the following: First Charlesworth’s explanation in his pseudepigrapha collection. Segal’s two powers discussion. Note that most of this is after Christ and there are various issues of the Jewish rabbis trying to distance themselves from very Christian elements in their traditions. The dating of the texts is still controversial. For instance are the very obvious platonic elements coming from the hellenistic tradition (as with say Philo) or do they pre-date gnosticism? Scholem, while very dated (he wrote in the 40’s and 50’s) argues the ideas originate in gnosticism and the platonism of late antiquity. Others, primarily arguing for a much earlier Jewish mystic tradition see it as in middle antiquity and before gnosticism. (Tishby is a good example there) As I said all the texts are typically post-exilic and typically from around 200 BC – 600 AD.

  13. JKC
    January 7, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Clark, what you describe here is a lot more sophisticated than the explanation I usually hear of Mosiah 15, and close to the way I read it. (Though I am much more sure of saying what it isn’t–not modalism, not Trinitarianism, but also not divine investiture–than being able to describe what it actually is.) :) I may have thrown you off by using the word apologetic; I was really talking about the usual missionary and sunday school explanations, which are usually just divine investiture in some form or another. No doubt there is a place for divine investiture, but to my mind it usually seems to be employed as a cheat code, and that is especially true with Mosiah 15.

    You’re absolutely right on platonism. My offhand, oversimplified comment may have suggested too strongly otherwise. What I really mean to suggest is that B of M theology about the nature of the godhead gives a speculative hyopthetical idea of what roman christianity may have developed without the influence of the whole cultural milieu that surrounded it, including, but not limited to platonism. But even then, B of M christianity likely had other philosophical influences that we just don’t know about. Your point about christianity influencing platonism is a good one, which I think might explain in part why we see some things in the Book of Mormon that look like orthodox trinitarianism, but really aren’t. (Like such an emphasis on the one-ness of the godhead).

    You’re not wrong about the similarities to Orthodox Christianity, but in my comment, I meant orthodox (lowercase), referring primarily to the early creeds and pre-creedal theologies. My comment is simply this: I think the theology of the Book of Mormon is closer to the very early creeds than we sometimes read it to be, and even to the post-Nicene creeds, though there are still very important differences. I totally disagree with those who say that the Book of Mormon is modalistic, but I do think it is something approaching trinitarian in important ways, even though it is not totally there.

    Thanks for the tips on sources. I’ll have to check those out.

  14. Clark Goble
    January 7, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    I think we should theologically distinguish between divine investiture and divine investiture of authority. The latter is a very nominalistic way of viewing the issue. However typically both Sunday School texts and apologists seen the connection as more than mere authority. (Again Helaman 10 is useful here) Blake has a short paper on this.

    Now one can push the unity even stronger such that we’re getting pretty darn close to the more Augustinian conception of the distinction between the person (hypostasis) and essence (ousia). Certainly Orson Pratt does that (although with the revelation on matter he transforms a basically neoplatonic conception into this very weird combination of Priestly atoms and a more Stoic view of fire).

    One thing about the creeds, ignoring the place politics played into them (which was a lot) is that they are pretty vague. That is they don’t really clarify what they mean by the terms. That said I confess I just don’t see the Book of Mormon as really terribly similar to the Athanasian Creed. The emphasis if nothing else is completely different. I do think Mormon theology is more compatible with the Athanasian Creed than most people suppose. But that’s really a different issue. A key issue is the distinction between the Father and Son which the Book of Mormon really doesn’t address well. (Beyond perhaps the voice issue introducing Jesus in 3 Nephi)

    An other thing to keep in mind is that all these creeds are trying to reconcile verses of scripture. Given that the translation of the Book of Mormon often quotes or paraphrases NT passages it’s unsurprising this allows people to see elements of the Trinity. However where the Trinity is significant is where it goes beyond the scriptural text. It’s true the Book of Mormon recognizes three figures (father, son, holy ghost) but that’s really not the Trinity.

  15. JKC
    January 7, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Good points, Clark.

    I think, in addition to the voice in 3 Nephi, you might also add the statements in 3 Nephi where Jesus speaks of commandments given to him by the Father, and of returning to the Father. Not conclusive, but I think it does support the distinction.

    I think you are right that the creeds are significant, at least historically significant, where they go beyond scripture, and I’m not saying that the Book of Mormon follows them where they go. But I also don’t think that the creeds are insignificant where they are following scripture, because they are not just repeating scripture, but distilling which parts of scripture are the ones that are the church was deciding were the ones that mattered most in a particular context, and either ignoring or reinterpreting seemingly contrary passages. So where the Book of Mormon seems to take similar views, I think it is fair to say that it is compatible with parts of the creeds–more parts that most saints usually assume anyway. Of course, I don’t want to overstate the point, because the points of difference often happen to be the points of most contention to the creedal churches. (But of course, they are also the least scripturally supported points as well.) Maybe what I’m really saying is that our over-emphasis on differences between Book of Mormon theology and creedal theology has more to do with widespread ignorance of what creedal theology really says than with our misinterpreting the Book of Mormon. But that’s a totally different issue. And again, I don’t want to overstate the similarity, because the differences are not only real but significant.

    Thanks, James, by the way for indulging this somewhat off topic discussion and not shutting us down. :)

  16. January 7, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    I think it’s interesting that not only is the Tree of Life the first thing Nephi sees, but according to what Nephi wrote in his account, it is also the only symbol from Lehi’s dream that he directly views. He has most of the other parts explained to him, and sees the historical events they symbolize, but according to the text, he is never actually shown any of them in their symbolic form.

    I also wondered, after reading 1 Nephi 8-14, whether Lehi had his dream explained to him in the same way Nephi did, since 1 Nephi 10 has Lehi relating much of the same future history that Nephi sees as part of his vision. I tend to believe that he did, but the way Chapters 8-10 are structured, an indeterminate length of time passes between Chapter 8 and Chapter 10. To me, it seems likely that Lehi received just the initial dream at first, then later, before Chapter 10, received further prophecies to help him understand it. He did not, however, understand all the things Nephi did about his own dream—the Spirit of the Lord is explicit about the fact that Lehi missed the dirty nature of the water. I have the feeling that Nephi’s vision was not only a comprehensive explanation of things that Lehi received piecemeal, but also that it went far beyond what Lehi received at that time. After their respective visions, Nephi seems a lot more sure about the future than Lehi is.

  17. James Olsen
    January 7, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    Clark (#8/10): This is a really helpful analysis—and as I mentioned back in chapter 1, I think there’s a significant affinity with the merkabah literature. I like the idea of reinterpreting one’s being confronted with the “spirit of the Lord” as being confronted with a being who more than speaking authoritatively stands in a “becoming” sort of relationship to the Lord, possessing something metaphysically significant in a way that goes well beyond our typical thoughts on the spirit. There’s an important relation between these things.

    That said, as I mentioned at the beginning, I doubt Lehi’s vision in 1 is quite like our NT readings. I don’t think the text of 1 makes clear that it was Jesus—it certainly could’ve been, but there are other possibilities as well. And if it was Jesus, I think it’s clear that Lehi’s understanding would’ve been far removed from a NT or a contemporary reading.

    Ultimately, we need a connection or a way of bridging these visions with the NT; and so yes, we can go too far in either direction, and perhaps I go too far in the anti-incarnation direction. But I want to resist our equating these things. Needing an ultimately coherent relationship between these visions and the NT doesn’t mean that we have something “pretty darn close” to creedal Christian theology.

    JKC (#9): I struggle to see it as you do. His vision wasn’t of a NT Mary, but of a woman who was the earthly manifestation of Heavenly Mother. Having a theology of a Heavenly Mother who is the mother of God (you and Clark are right, the original text of vs. 18 says “God” not “Son of God”) and an earthly woman who is earthly parallel ? incarnation theology. What’s more, taking condescension of God to = Jesus descending from Godhood “down” to mortality—that is, seeing Jesus’s jaunt into mortality as a condescension—flies in the face of D&C and Joseph’s theology (even though folks like Elder McConkie liked to talk that way). Jesus’s mortal birth—just as all of our mortal births—is progress, and ultimately a means to exultation. As Christ himself testifies, he came to suffer and fulfill God’s plan and in doing so was exalted and received all that God had. Later incarnation theories skew the picture.

    But here we’ve gone and gotten ahead of ourselves…but since we have I’ll say one more thing: I confess I’m baffled by what the condescension of God is, and all of this and all of Nephi’s vision don’t help me better understand. My best guess is that condescension’s an awkward word and that what’s really being expressed is that there is a grand parallel between the Gods and what is wrought in the heavens, and we mortals (including Mary and Jesus) and what is wrought here.

    I think the biggest reason why I Nephi 11 reads to us today as something “very close” to a NT/post-NT understanding of Christology has much more to do with us today and how our eyes see the text than it does with the text itself (though maybe you’re right that it also has to do with Joseph, and Clark is certainly right that all of the NT quotations are an important influence).

    Your parallel of Matthew-Isaiah and Mormon-Nephi/Abinadi/Alma is fascinating.

    JKC #11: Completely agree with our distorting Abinadi with our current doctrine of the Godhead. I think Lehi had a different messianic understanding than Nephi who had a different one than Abinadi (even if Abinadi received his understanding by reading Nephi; which seems plausible), who had a different understanding than Alma. Rather than helping us have less contention over doctrine by bringing us closer to o/Orthodoxy, however, I think the BofM can help us overcome our contention by showing us that prophets who are prophets in every sense of the word and who have divine visions nonetheless have different understandings of God. If we were more comfortable with that fact, we’d have a lot less contention stemming from disagreement.

    Clark #12: “the text blurs the distinction between God and Man in ways that I think a lot of historians simply neglect seeing that primarily as a later Nauvoo innovation. But really it’s pretty key in the Book of Mormon in numerous places.” Amen.

    mirrorrorrim: I hadn’t noticed that the tree is the only thing Nephi actually describes seeing. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I’m not sure that Nephi is more sure about the future than Lehi. I suspect that Nephi (particularly at the point of writing this stuff) was far less shaken/upset by Laman’s & Lemuel’s apostasy than Nephi was. At least in the text, Nephi’s never terribly broken up by the family split, while Lehi clearly is.

  18. January 7, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    James, the reason I feel Nephi is more sure of the future is because after Lehi’s first Tree of Life vision, Lehi is worried about Laman and Lemuel because they did not eat of the fruit, but he seems uncertain of just what the implications of that are. Meanwhile, after Nephi’s vision, Nephi is overcome with sorrow, having seen the destruction of his descendants at the hands of his brothers’ descendants. It is possible Lehi also knew about these future events and kept them to himself, but it seems unlikely to me, at least at this point in time. Lehi still seems to hold out great hope for Laman and Lemuel for at least several more years.

    I think another important component of this vision, that needs to be kept in mind for all of it, is that it is one of several distinctly Latter-day Saint all-encompassing visions, where Nephi essentially sees everything that will ever happen in the history of the world. Moses and the Brother of Jared have similar experiences. I think that needs to be kept in mind. At the end of what he records of his vision, Nephi even specifically name-drops John’s New Testament Revelation, saying he saw the same thing. So I think we have to assume Nephi had at least a New Testament-level Christology, since he specifically saw John’s Revelation, which has a fully-developed Christology. At this point, according to the text, Nephi’s knowledge is at what I would term an anachronistic level—he knows things that do not fit into his historical period at all. Unless you want to dispute the literalness of the text, I feel that needs to be taken into account.

  19. Clark Goble
    January 7, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    Mirror, I think that’s a good point about certainty. Nephi is simply more confident and certain in certain ways than Lehi. That said, as I said I’m loath to read too much into Lehi’s visions given that we’re getting them third hand and even then confessedly in a very summarized fashion. Further I think in some ways Lehi has multiple visions that are one vision for Nephi. So the warning of the destruction of Jerusalem in chapter 1 has echoes of Nephi’s visions of the condescension of God.

    James, I suspect Nephi’s presentation of Lehi’s vision in 1 is highly colored by his own visions and the development of a proto-Christology. Likewise I think that at least in a few places the translation is loose and possible with midrash-like expansions. So that could color those texts as well. To me it seems undeniably Christ, if only because of the parallel between 1 Ne 1:10 and 1 Ne 11:29. That said it does seem, as others pointed out, that Nephi’s vision is a little less symbolic than Lehi’s. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this. Did he have the symbolic vision with explanation but left out the symbolism since he’d already covered it? I don’t know but 11:6 strongly suggests he did see them. “…thous shalt behold the things which though has desired…after thou hast beheld the tree…thous shalt also behold a man descending out of heaven…” Now this could be read two ways. The also might just mean in addition to the tree modifying what Nephi sees or it might mean like his father modifying father and son. I favor the latter reading but acknowledge it’s ambiguous.

    Regarding the woman, the parallels to the woman in the wilderness in Revelation is always the parallel I see. Parallel 1 Ne 11:19 and Revelation 12:6 with the woman being carried away. That said I also think it Mary, Jesus’ mother. It seems like some images are the same but are being repurposed. (Not surprising given how Nephi reads say Isaiah on multiple layers) But there’s also a certain tradition that the ordering of verses in Revelation may be mixed up a bit. (I’ll see if I can’t find some notes on that later)

    Seeing this as Heavenly Mother is interesting and I think in some ways that might work. Especially when you consider the Wisdom tradition which often was an anthropomorphized woman as Wisdom. I don’t know off the top of my head the dating of Proverbs, especially the heavenly mother like motif. I should look that up as I’m sure that’s part and parcel of that whole Deuteronomistic controversy. There’s also interestingly a connection with Egyptian wisdom literature as well (Ma’at as I recall). Certainly there was the idea that YHWH had an Asherah.

    The problem is of course that the reconstruction of the pre-exilic context perhaps relies too much on surrounding nations (Canaanites and Egyptians) and then the later uses especially in the mystical tradition are too platonic. (This quasi-anthropomorphizing divine attributes becomes a big deal in Kabbalism in the medieval era for instance but is also a big deal with the gnostics)

    Reading this as heavenly mother though seems to go against verse 18. “the mother of the [Son of] God after the manner of the flesh.” The question of whether that reference to flesh is to a fleshly heavenly realm or to a kind of mortality. I think it’s mortality given that the rest of the description clearly is of Jesus’ mortality and possibly is even expanded by God/Joseph to incorporate the NT texts and knowledge.

    Don’t get me wrong. There is a definite Jewish tradition of making parallel readings such that what is on earth is paralleled in heaven and vice versa. This is big in the later Kabbalistic tradition for instance and is one way events on earth can affect events in heaven. (And quite opposite to the more philosophical absolutist conception of God as an unmoved mover) Whether Nephi is doing that kind of layering isn’t clear to me.

    Regarding the theology of condescension I confess I don’t see the problem. Perhaps you could unpack what you mean by it? I think you’re bringing in some assumptions I might not share.

    Regarding what Nephi saw, it’s not just the tree. Look at verse 25. He sees the rod of iron, the fountain of living waters, He also sees in verse 35 the tall and spacious building. In 12:16 he sees the fountain of filthy water and in 18 the depths and gulf.

    I should note that the geography Nephi describes actually has quite a few parallels in the pseudepigrapha. I used to have some extensive notes on that but unfortunately lost them in a basement flood. (I know scan everything in)

  20. Clark Goble
    January 7, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    BTW – if interested in the geography Google Books has up a lot of the Brill monograph on geography in 1 Enoch. Unfortunately it doesn’t from what I can tell get into broader geography or a comparison to other pseudepigrapha. Clearly Nephi’s vision doesn’t get into all these elements and his focus isn’t on cosmology as the ordering of the universe but Christology and prophecy of the future of humans. But it’s worth noting the parallels with Nephi and Lehi.

  21. JKC
    January 8, 2016 at 7:24 am

    James, maybe it will make sense for you to respond to this in the comments on your next post, since it is getting ahead of ourselves a little bit.

    I’m not sure I follow you on why incarnation/condescension flies in the face of Joseph’s theology or the D&C. Condescension does not, to me, necessarily mean regression, so I don’t see it as inconsistent with your point that Jesus birth was progress toward exaltation. But even assuming that it is inconsistent, I guess my more fundamental question is why that needs to dictate how we read Nephi. Reading Nephi in terms of Joseph’s theology or his revelations in the 1830s and 40s doesn’t seem any less anachronistic than reading it in terms of New testament and post new testament theology.

  22. Clark Goble
    January 8, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    I think condescension is more the idea of God as king as separate versus coming among the people. That is it goes back to the basic stance kings had in the middle east. It could also be read as the idea of God as Other or transcendent versus an immanent manifestation of God.

    The other way to read it (and this would fit with Mosiah 15 and D&C 93) is in terms of constriction. This is a big deal in later Jewish thought as well, especially mystical traditions. It’s the idea of God constricting his glory such that there is a space where it isn’t fully manifest. There’s then a kind of process of filling this created space. One should be careful here though since the Jewish idea of tzimtzum or this constriction is fairly late and almost certainly arises out of a platonic conception. Still within the scriptures (D&C in particular but also the Book of Mormon) there are metaphors similar to tzimtzum in various places.

  23. James Olsen
    January 11, 2016 at 10:33 am

    I promise to return soon!

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