The Hermeneutic of Revelation: There is Always More – Reading Nephi – 14:18-30

This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.

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The end of the narrative of Nephi’s grand vision is to point beyond the vision and beyond Nephi. God has revealed more elsewhere. It’s a kind of implicit demand: if there was value here, go elsewhere and seek for greater. This strikes me as a slogan for scriptural sacrament in the tent of revealed religion.

The clues and identity are pretty straightforward concerning where this “more” is: it’s written by an apostle of the Lamb, named John, and is kept in that book that originally proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew. Of course, I’ve always taken this to mean Revelation, and can’t recall anyone ever suggesting anything else. Revelation, the apocalyptic book par excellence. As the angel says, “he shall also write concerning the end of the world.” Could there be a better candidate? One other clue that seems to point more substantively to Revelation is the angel’s statement that “at the time they proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew . . . the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men.” Our folk imagination continues to prize notions of corrupt priests intentionally altering and misleading the masses (note: this phenomenon is much broader than Mormonism as any popular treatment of Revelation reveals; for further evidence, see The DaVinci Code). But of course scholarship, particularly with regard to Revelation, doesn’t back up that notion. Rather, reading Revelation today is a bit like reading poetry from the Romantic era. We no longer have the commonly understood symbols and allusions that were had by those writing and reading such stuff in the 19th century. Consequently, while the book remains unchanged, our cultural understanding has shifted dramatically. It is in this sense that Revelation is no longer a book easy to understand, though it was when first produced.

There’s a lot to say for that interpretation of which John is being referenced here. This time through, however, I wondered if maybe Nephi’s angel could be referring simply to the Gospel of John. This Gospel certainly contains writings “concerning the end of the world,” and it strikes me as a better candidate for a book containing “the remainder of these things,” which is the angel’s main clue. What things have we just been reading? We’ve been reading a visionary testament of Christ—a Messiah sent to fulfill Gods covenants and redeem the House of Israel, including all of its broken off branches. Chapters 11-14 contain much more than quasi-apocalyptic references to a future day wherein God vanquishes the wicked and exalts the righteous; the primary focus seems much more in line with the “revelation of Christ” given in the Gospel than that given in Revelation.

I don’t think one of these—the Gospel or Revelation—needs to be the exclusive text referred to by the angel. That is, I see no reason to limit the words of the angel to a specific book rather than the writings of John generally (of course, if John didn’t actually write Revelation, that would strengthen the case for the Gospel). What I like about thinking of the angel as referring to the Gospel of John, however, is that with which I started. The angel commends us to look not just to the value of what Nephi has written, but also to the added value on these things that we can find elsewhere.

Which is exactly how John ends: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” Go and seek the more that these books would contain.

7 comments for “The Hermeneutic of Revelation: There is Always More – Reading Nephi – 14:18-30

  1. Clark Goble
    August 28, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    The two Johns in the NT are pretty confusing. While there’s obvious reasons to think Nephi means John’s Apocalypse I sometimes wonder. Part of the reason for that is D&C 93. That’s an odd section and is partially an expansion on Mosiah 15 but also wrapped up with John. It seems to relate to the Gospel of John and there’s some expansions to famous parts of John. Yet verse 15 suggests it’s not the apostle John but John the baptist. It’s very confusing. Throw in that the Gospel of John appears quite late and written by someone different from the Book of Revelation and it gets even more confusing. (It’s of course possible that our Gospel of John is an expansion of some earlier book – although the writing styles might be due to being partially ghost written by a scribe much as happened with Joseph Smith)

  2. James Olsen
    August 28, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    Clark, another thought: It’s also possible that the angel was intentionally communicating to us today, in which case saying “written by [insert the actual but historically meaningless name]” wouldn’t help. So the angel just said John. As to all the other John confusion, maybe we could’ve just said Elias and called it good :)

  3. August 29, 2017 at 9:53 am

    If you want a test case, the reading that seems obvious to someone who has never read these chapters before is that the angel believes that Revelation and the Gospel of John had the same author. Any other reading of 1 Nephi 14 would look far-fetched to me.

    The identity of the two Johns seems to have been the default assumption for most of Christian history. Lots of conservative evangelicals even today consider that John the Apostle also wrote Revelation. There are some decent arguments on this side.The author of Revelation repeatedly names himself John without qualification, as if he knew he didn’t have to say “THE John”. Revelation was also accepted as authoritative awfully quickly by the early church, especially considering how strange it is. Being known to have been written by an Apostle would account for that rapid acceptance.

    Against this, though, the other arguments seem even stronger. Apparently the Greek of Revelation is colorful but full of childish grammatical errors, while that of John’s Gospel is simple but faultless. Perhaps this is down to two different scribes or ghostwriters, one of who didn’t know Greek well but still tried to write in it; but if the two books were affected so greatly and thoroughly by their different scribes, then it becomes a bit odd that the angel would name John alone as the author of either one of them, as if he were the sole source of texts that would have to be considered collaborations. The fact that Revelation names its author as John is also a two-edged argument. If the Revelation author were trying to assert authority by naming himself as John the Apostle, why didn’t he go full out and declare himself an Apostle?

    It’s not as though the Book of Revelation is reluctant to mention the office of Apostle. On the contrary, Revelation 21:14 includes a vision of twelve foundations of the wall of the city, on which are the names of the “twelve Apostles of the Lamb”. It would be weird for one of those very Apostles to write about these names on foundations in this impersonal way. The author of John’s Gospel, in contrast, studiously avoids naming himself. The themes of the two books are also startlingly different, and John was not a rare name.

    There is probably still a conceivable scenario in which the same John was the source of both books. Maybe his Gospel was derived from his early teachings and written up under his name by someone who wrote good Greek. Perhaps he wrote Revelation later, in his own lousy Greek, after he’d gotten haughty enough with age to glorify himself and his fellow Apostles without blushing, and to take for granted that other Johns would be This John or That John because just plain John could only mean him.

    The issue is not all that pressing for non-Mormon Christians, but it seems as though Mormons have to plump for the Apostle-Evangelist as the author of Revelation, or else admit that the angelic foreknowledge of 1 Nephi perpetuated a popular misattribution.

  4. Anonymous
    August 29, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    James, there’s also the possibility of expansions to the underlying text to fill in information during the translation.

  5. August 30, 2017 at 3:25 am

    I suppose you mean expansions in 1 Nephi, rather than in Revelation or John? If so I think the final accuracy of the Book of Mormon as an inspired text is still at stake, even if we shift the blame for being wrong about John (if 1 Nephi is wrong) away from the angel and onto someone else in the chain from Nephi to Joseph Smith. A lot of assertions in the Book of Mormon are restatements of things that later people already believed before 1830. How many of them do we discard as uninspired “expansions … to fill in information” that were added in translation?

  6. Clark
    August 30, 2017 at 11:00 am

    There are two separate issues that are mostly orthogonal to each other. The first is who is John in either D&C 93 or 1 Nephi 11-14. The second is how much of the description of the vision comes from Nephi and how much from the translation process expanding things that were ambiguous in Nephi’s context. A third point that no one raised but is probably relevant is the textual accuracy of the Revelation in the New Testament. There are of course hints in Nephi’s vision that the textual correctness of the Bible is questionable – and that the main difference isn’t the text but how the text represents the original experience of prophetic utterance. This is obvious in some cases where our texts are written decades after the fact presumably from oral traditions. It’s hard to believe they represent the original sayings well given say how well late memories of Joseph’s experiences do.

    So I’m not saying expansions are uninspired. Quite the contrary. Although I also think our contemporary view that what is most important is textual fidelity is probably misplaced. My sense is that the Book of Mormon makes use of extensive quotations or paraphrases of KJV texts unrelated to the source text being translated because it’s a good enough translation. i.e. the nature of the translation is to convey the ideas but it may do a poor job at textual accuracy even if it does a good job conveying the ideas. As such I tend to question those who pin too much on particular words in the Book of Mormon. (In the same way most people speak loosely enough that treating what they say as a carefully crafter legal document tends to be wrong – most people just don’t worry about the details that much in regular speech.)

    Getting back to the original point though, my impression is that Nephi’s vision is repeated to many people. We are given the clear implication that Nephi’s vision is mostly the same as his Father’s even if Nephi seems to understand more. We know John has the same vision in some way. It is likely that other prophets have the same or at least similar visions. So in a certain sense it doesn’t matter who the John is as there may well not have been only one.

    More to the point though I think 1 Nephi 14:27 is pretty explicit that it’s talking about John the Apostle who writes the revelation. Whether that’s just identifying the name attributed to Revelation isn’t clear although I personally take it as identifying the author. More interesting is the claim in that verse that our version is corrupt. “they are sealed up to come forth in their purity, according to the truth which is in the Lamb, in the own due time of the Lord.” The implication is that we have the unsealed text that is impure or corrupted. Whether this is a reference to the prophecies of the Jaredites in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon or some future discovery of an early texts of Revelation isn’t clear. We know there were fairly significant changes made to Revelation in the JST, although with the JST we should probably assume many were midrashic expansions or reworkings rather than restoring original texts. And of course Joseph talked a lot about Revelation in an important set of remarks April 2, 1843 , some of which became D&C 130 and then an other set a few days later. There’s also D&C 77. Most of those don’t attribute major issues, but the implication of Nephi’s comments is that a future text will likely do so.

  7. August 30, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    I’m happy to think of the inspiration of Scripture as something that builds up in layers, even to the point of Talmud. I’m also fine with the view that the Word of God is about the spirit as opposed to the letter. A God who was keen on dictating doctrines word-for-word by miraculous means doesn’t seem like the kind of God who could have made the world we have. So revelation through a naturalistic process seems natural to me. God made all the naturalistic processes, after all—and went on record as finding them good.

    I’m not sure how that picture can work for this particular Scripture of Nephi, however. Its supposed chain of transmission has angels at both ends. That’s not revelation through naturalistic process. So I find myself agreeing with you, Clark, except about the Book of Mormon.

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