The Way and the Ancient Gospel

Along with “baby Yoda” memes, Disney’s Mandalorian made two phrases trendy: “This is the way,” and “I have spoken.”  Being a Star Wars fan, the phrases quickly made their way into the lexicon of my household.  So, it was humorous to me to find an entire lesson in “Come, Follow Me” this year entitled “This is the Way,” even though it makes sense in context.  Towards the end of his record, Nephi lays out the Doctrine of Christ in detail and concludes that: “This is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 31:21), which was the focus of the lesson.

All Star Wars humor aside, I find it interesting that Nephi concludes his discussion of the Doctrine of Christ with the statement “this is the way.”  The reason why I find that interesting is that early disciples of the Lord in the eastern hemisphere didn’t think of their religion as “Christianity” or call themselves “Christians” at first.  If we believe the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians,’” and the term may have initially been a term of reproach (something like calling a Latter-day Saint a “Mormon” or “Mormonite”).[1]  Before then, their religion seems to have simply been called “the Way,” which is how it is referred to throughout Acts.[2]  It is probably purely coincidental, since the term is a common one that means a path or method for doing something (i.e., being saved in the kingdom of God) but it is a nice tie-in between Nephi’s summary of his religious beliefs and the one-word summary that early followers of Jesus from his mortal ministry used centuries later.

In any case, the Doctrine of Christ that Nephi promulgates, along with his father Lehi and brother Jacob, represents a collapse of the worldviews of the Old and New Testament together at the very start of the Book of Mormon.  Nephi wrote that he believed that the Holy One of Israel was a Messiah or Christ who would visit Jerusalem hundreds of years later, but that the Christ’s example needed to be followed, that repentance was necessary, that baptism was a means to take the Christ’s name upon one’s self, and that following baptism one would be empowered and led by the Holy Ghost.[3]  While this resembles the beliefs of many modern Christian groups, Nephite Christianity was complicated by its ongoing ties to the Law of Moses.  As Nephi wrote: “And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled” (2 Nephi 25:24).  From a modern perspective, Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob were individuals living in an Old Testament world and practicing an Old Testament religion, but embraced a New Testament understanding that their religion “was our disciplinarian until Christ came.”[4]

Such beliefs are presented in the Book of Mormon as being controversial, both among the Jews and within Lehi’s family.  At the very outset of the Book of Mormon, Lehi has visions and is filled with the Holy Spirit, then begins to preach to the Jews at Jerusalem about “the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (1 Nephi 1:19).  This preaching resulted in mockery and death threats, which contributed to the family’s departure from the soon-to-be-destroyed Jerusalem to seek their own land of promise.  Even afterwards, however, Laman and Lemuel are portrayed as being “like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem,” complaining about Lehi “because he was a visionary man” and later stating that they believed that “the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statues and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses.”[5]  In some ways, it seems like the rupture in the family came about not only because of the contest for authority between Nephi and Laman, but also because of religious beliefs.

Within the first major division of the Book of Mormon, the controversy over how Nephites are to understand their religion comes to a head in the first of three type-scene of anti-Christs—the contest between Sherem and Jacob.  Sherem’s big problem with the Doctrine of Christ was that he felt it perverted “the right way of God” by converting “the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundreds years hence,” even though “no man knoweth of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come.”[6]  Jacob, who claimed to know himself through “many revelations and the many things which I had seen concerning these things,” believed that the Jewish scriptures did “truly testify of Christ” and “none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.”[7]  Sherem believed that no one could tell the future as Jacob believed he could, and therefore worship of a being who wouldn’t come for hundreds of years was unjustified.

What this story lays bare for modern readers is three controversial core claims of the Book of Mormon.  The first is the claim that a group of ancient people who came from Jerusalem and settled in a new land knew about life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth (in detail) hundreds of years before it happened, something which Terryl Givens called “The most striking claim within the Book of Mormon.”[8]  The second claim is that Israelites before even their time also both knew about and wrote about the Messiah or Christ.  The third claim is that the way Jesus was worshiped involved both the Law of Moses and a doctrinal system that would be recognizable to many Protestant Christians and Latter Day Saints in the early 19th century (compare Articles of Faith 3 and 4).  All of this lays out claims to an unprecedented amount of foreknowledge among an ancient people.

While at first blush, these claims seem to be examples of anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, they do represent a logical conclusion of Christian beliefs about the Hebrew Bible.  Christians have, from a very early period, worked to show that their beliefs were the true and understanding of the Hebrew religion, known and anticipated in the past.  We see it throughout the gospels—Matthew in particular—where Jesus’s words and actions are structured to fulfill phrases and prophesies from the Hebrew Bible.  We also see things like the statement in the Gospel According to John where Jesus says that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”[9]  Early apostles like Peter and Paul also made statements that tie the prophetic utterances and stories of the Hebrew Bible to Jesus.[10]  Beyond the time of the New Testament, the early Church Fathers continued the process.  For example, Ignatius of Antioch wrote that: “The beloved prophets were heralds for him; but the gospel is the perfecting of incorruption.”[11]  Augustine of Hippo likewise stated that: “That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at the time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity.”[12]  If the claims of early Christians that they were practicing an ancient and true religion are accurate, it should be no surprise to find that true religion openly practiced by ancient groups like those portrayed in the Book of Mormon.

There are, of course, secular explanations for those claims among early Christians.  Bart D. Ehrman, a well-known New Testament scholar, has pointed out that process of claiming antiquity for Christianity was done because in the Greco-Roman world, anything in philosophy or religion that seemed novel or recent was treated as suspect.  If something was new, how could it be true?  Why would it be that no one had understood the truth before?  To get around this, Christianity advanced the claim that “even though Jesus did just live decades or a century or so ago, the religion based on him is much, much older, for this religion is the fulfillment of all that God had been predicting in the oldest surviving books of civilization.”  They did this by arguing that Christians believed in and held the correct understanding of the Hebrew Bible, which was “older than anything that Greek myth and philosophy can offer.”  By adopting the Jewish scriptures as their own, “Christians overcame the single biggest objection that pagans had with regard to the appearance of this ‘new’ religion,”[13] laying a claim to antiquity for their religion.

It can be argued that Joseph Smith did the same throughout his prophetic career, though perhaps on steroids.  The Book of Mormon, as already discussed, displays the idea that a pre-Jesus civilization practiced a form of Christianity with cardinal doctrines similar to the beliefs of Latter Day Saints.  His inspired revision of the Bible furthered the process, portraying narratives where Adam and Eve are taught about the future Atonement of Jesus Christ and subsequent prophets like Enoch and Moses are likewise fully informed about the Savior of the world.  Joseph Smith himself taught that: “[The priesthood] is the channel through which the Almighty commenced revealing his glory … Commencing with Adam who was the first man. … He was the first to hold the spiritual blessings … to whom was made known the plan of ordinances for the Salvation of his posterity unto the end, and to whom Christ was first revealed.”[14]  It seems to have been an ongoing and important part of Joseph Smith’s ministry to attempt to show that the gospel and doctrine that Latter Day Saints believed in and practiced were ancient and known to the people of God from the very beginning.

Now, this can be taken two ways.  The naturalistic approach is that Joseph Smith was retroactively writing his beliefs into the ancient world and the myths of Jews.  If so, his reasons for doings so were likely not much different than those early Christians who sought acceptance and respectability in the Roman Empire.  The claims would give weight to the belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true religion, practicing the doctrines of the gospel in the way God meant them to be practiced from the very beginning.  Which of course, when accepted, is the basis of second way of taking the information—that God had a plan of salvation that involved Jesus from the very beginning and was transparent and open about that plan to His servants all along, including the founding prophets of the Book of Mormon.  On the one hand, we can stand as Sherem did and say that ancient peoples could not “tell of things to come” and that we have little evidence to the contrary, or we can stand with Jacob and hold to the possibility that prophets prior to Jesus’s birth did “truly testify of Christ.”  How one approaches this most striking claim within the Book of Mormon shapes much of how one approaches the text as a whole.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Acts 11:26, NRSV.  Note about it being a term of reproach comes from the footnote for the verse in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition: An Ecumenical Study Bible, ed. Michael Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] See Acts 9:2, 18:25; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22.

[3] See, for example 2 Nephi 31-32.

[4] Galatians 3:24, NRSV.

[5] 1 Nephi 2:11, 13; 1 Nephi 17:22.

[6] Jacob 7:7.

[7] Jacob 7:5, 11.

[8] Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 25.

[9] John 8:56, NRSV.

[10] Consider, for example, Acts 3:17-24; 1 Cor. 10:1-5; and 1 Peter 1:10-11.

[11] Ignatius to the Philadelphians 9:2.  Charles H. Hoole translation, https://web.archive.org/web/20071229045422/http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-philadelphians-hoole.html.

[12] Augustine of Hippo, The Retractions, cited in Givens, A Very Short Introduction, 30.

[13] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 111-112.

[14] Joseph Smith sermon, 5 October 1840, in Cook, Lyndon W.. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 1119-1126). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

5 comments for “The Way and the Ancient Gospel

  1. March 29, 2020 at 5:20 pm

    Chad, great post, and really great question. What to do with the Book of Mormon’s “most striking claim”?

    I’m of two minds. My recent encounters with Ben Spackman’s work, especially this 2017 talk, have exposed me to the idea that God reveals himself via the principle of accommodation. In the words of Kenton Sparks, “accommodation is God’s adoption… of the human audience’s finite and fallen perspective. Its underlying conceptual assumption is that in many cases God does not correct our mistaken human viewpoints but merely assumes them in order to communicate with us.” In other words, God spoke within different cultures, at different times, in a variety of literary/genre forms, and with varying levels of doctrinal specificity. For example, it seems like the ancient Jews knew very little about an afterlife, and hardly spoke of it at all. That kind of thing.

    I don’t know that I’d call this naturalistic. It seems like a theologically sound principle. But it does imply that God reveals himself “line upon line”–not just to individuals, but in history, with his will and plan gradually coming to be understood. This seems right to me, and makes the most sense of the Hebrew Bible and OT as we have it, I think. The main continuity here is the same God making variations of the same covenant with vastly different cultures, languages, and imaginations, to accomplish his purposes.

    But. Contrast that with your observation about Joseph: that Joseph Smith saw figures like Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses as possessing that same level of detailed understanding. This almost strikes me as an anti-accommodation: God reveals very specific details to all sorts of historical figures, superseding any cultural or imaginative limitations. This expands the continuity radically: not only is the same God, with the same covenant, making covenants with a variety of cultures: but he is revealing fairly consistent doctrinal understanding across time and space. Those expansive understandings did not survive the passage of time in any records we know of. But Joseph revealed it. This seems more at odds with how we know history works, and so like you say, perhaps more “naturalistic.”

    Having thought about this today–again, provocative post, thank you–I think I stand here: I assume the Lehite prophets really understood these aspects of Christianity early, because I take the Book of Mormon as history, as it claims to be. But when it comes to the Joseph Smith Translation–especially the Book of Moses as well as the Book of Abraham–I wonder if these are different (in part because what the JST is is less clear). Perhaps these are new takes on a familiar story to emphasize the continuity of God’s plan across time and space. Perhaps, in the “objective” historical record, God did accommodate more often than not, and revealed himself line-upon-line. But these fresh revelations emphasize that the continuity was always more radical than the historical record could show: that God has, from the beginning, been working history toward Christ, toward the Restoration, and toward whatever shape the Second Coming will eventually take. That’s… exciting.

    Just one guy’s take. But it’s one that works for me.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    March 29, 2020 at 9:29 pm

    Bryan, thank you for sharing. I am also of two minds here. I like what you shared. I feel like the idea of accommodation fits better with what we’re able to discern through academic history studies as things now stand. While there are enough gaps in the historical record to leave open the possibility that the same level of detailed understanding was held by figures of the past and then lost, there also isn’t a lot of evidence for it outside of Joseph Smith’s teachings and translations that I know about. On the other hand, though it makes a lot of sense within our doctrine that if God had a plan from the start, that He would actively work to reveal it and push history towards fulfilling it, which makes it attractive to believe what Joseph Smith did in revising the Bible, etc. God works in mysterious ways, and it’s hard to pin down His approach throughout history.

  3. SDS
    March 30, 2020 at 8:38 am

    It seems to me that what we need is a description of a way of thinking about narratives– and narrative ways of conveying truth– in which the narrative statements are taken as “true” (so that merely “metaphorical” or “allegorical” would be too weak) but not as “literally” or “factually” true. These are the two alternatives we usually contemplate– a story can be true, we think, as a matter of fact, or it can be true although “not factually” in the sense that it conveys some truth. But what we need is something in between those alternatives.

    In fact this way of thinking seems quite familiar. The post began with a Star Wars example. Don’t true Star Wars fans take the stories very seriously, act as if they were actually true? And yet I’m sure they understand that the stories aren’t “really true,” as we might say. From what I read, serious Harry Potter fans do the same. There’s a whole Harry Potter world that true fans take very seriously, and in a way live in. Again, though, they presumably understand that the Harry Potter world isn’t real in the same sense as, say, the Covid-19 world. Probably many of the ancient Greeks and Romans believed in the myths about the Gods in something like this sense. The mythology was a sort of alternative world, and it was real and serious– but not in the same way that the everyday empirical world was real. So the playwrights could revise and retell the stories without seeming to be improperly distorting the truth; it wasn’t that kind of truth.

    Quite likely the authors of at least the early stories from Genesis (and Jonah, and Job, and . . . ) thought in the same way. They were conveying truth by elaborating a story. It likely never occurred to them to ask whether the story was true in the factual sense that, say, biblical literalists intend. The literalists are making a category mistake in their understanding of Genesis. (Not unlike the category mistake that Paul Dunn’s critics made, IMHO, when they got upset when what were obviously not strictly factual narratives turned out to be . . . not strictly factual.)

    It seems to me that Joseph Smith was able to think in this way, and that we need something like this to understand him. He inherited and advanced and elaborated on a world based on Old Testament narratives. In working out that world, it would be natural, perhaps, to treat the characters– Adam and Eve et al.– as having known the full Gospel from the beginning: that would be a way of conveying that the Gospel truths are eternal, not just local. But perhaps our mistake is in taking him as saying that the story of Adam and the angel were true in our factual, historical sense. That, I suspect, is a category mistake. And as long as we treat Joseph’s narratives in this way, I suspect we are going to be making unnecessary trouble for ourselves.

  4. March 30, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Chad, thanks for sharing back. Again, this has been great to think about.

    SDS, absolutely! We do need more ways to talk about truth and how things are true. There’s a great podcast episode from “The Bible for Normal People” where Jared Byas, one of the hosts, talks about that question–giving “truth as fact, truth as meaning, and then truth as wisdom.” And Ben Spackman has talked about genre in LDS scripture a lot, which strikes me as an important corollary. I’d love to see these ideas become more widely known in our church, as I think they could lead to fresh and promising interpretations of scripture.

  5. Chad Nielsen
    April 2, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    There’s a part of me that’s uncomfortable comparing the fandom universes I practice escapism in (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.) with the religious universe that shapes my core views on life, but I think I understand what you’re getting at, SDS. The term “myth” stands out in my mind as the technical one for the type of view you are discussing, but there are a lot of connotations of untruth that come with the term, so probably not the best one to use in common discussion at Church. It’s definitely something we should explore more in the Church, though, especially since the pre-history stories in Genesis are very likely myths in this sense, as you indicated SDS. I am reminded of something that Philip Barlow wrote about Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible while discussing the idea that Joseph Smith’s goal was to mend reality itself: “As a whole the emendations and additions of his biblical translation exude a targumic quality—not necessarily the Bible as it once was, but the Bible as it was supposed to be.” (Philip Barlow, “To Mend a Fractured Reality,” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 38, No. 3 [Summer 2012], 41. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1070&context=mormonhistory.)

    At the same time, it gets complicated in discussing, for example, the story of Adam in that mode within Joseph Smith’s theology, because he seems to have believed that Adam was a literal person. He discussed him as Michael the archangel and the patriarch of the human family that we all will report to for priesthood authority, and possibly reporting visions or personal encounters with the angel/resurrected Adam, etc. (see D&C 27, D&C 128:21, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-8?lang=eng). That’s part of why it is difficult to treat Joseph Smith’s changes to the story of Adam as not being, strictly speaking, factual without undermining other aspects of Joseph Smith’s teachings and worldview. It’s an interesting subject to wade into.

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