Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas
The Visit of Christ to the Nephites
THE BOOK OF MORMON:
AN ACCOUNT WRITTEN BY THE HAND OF MORMON, UPON PLATES TAKEN FROM THE PLATES OF NEPHI … which is … also to the convincing of the Jew and the Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting Himself unto all nations.
—Book of Mormon title page
[p.173]The Book of Mormon describes Christ’s visit to the Nephites after his crucifixion and resurrection in 3 Nephi. In strategic terms, this visit is an occasion to settle doctrinal disputes, provide exemplary behavior for the reader, and to defend a trinitarian view of Jesus. But to do so effectively, the earlier portions must establish the unquestionable authority of Jesus to conclusively settle doctrinal issues and model correct behavior. The narratives that immediately precede and that relate the visit of Christ are structured to increase the authority and persuasiveness of the text.
Arranging the order of events to increase their persuasiveness was a technique of classical rhetoric.1 One such technique was to establish the speaker’s character as trustworthy and worthy of the audience’s respect.2 After the visit of Christ, Mormon applies the narrative about that visit to the reader’s circumstance. This chapter will examine the effectiveness of this three-fold rhetorical arrangement: establishing the authority of Jesus, Jesus’ message, and Mormon’s application of the message to the readers.
[p.174]Establishing Christ’s Authority
The section of the Book of Mormon from Samuel to the visit of Christ (HeI. 13-3 Ne. 10) is a coherent literary unit that acts rhetorically as an introduction of and preparation for Christ. I call this literary unit “the Book of Signs.” New Testament scholars have designated as “the Book of Signs,” or “Sign Gospel,” both the first section of the Gospel of John and a supposed source for the Gospel of John.3 While both books share a common interest in providing external proofs for Christ, there are important differences between the signs in the Book of Mormon and signs of Christ in the New Testament. In the gospels a sign (semeion in Greek) is a manifestation of the breaking of God’s kingdom into history. Such signs include symbolic acts as well as apologetic miracles. Feeding the 5,000 symbolizes feeding Israel in the wilderness as well as spiritual nourishment. The Book of Mormon uses signs as external proofs, as narrative foreshadowings, as establishment of authority, and as a means of dividing and judging the audience according to religious allegiance. Signs in the Gospels typically refer to such miracles as Jesus’ healings, whereas the “signs” in this section of the Book of Mormon are (with the exception of the final “sign” of destruction) merely visual demonstrations for literary and theological purposes. I use “Book of Signs” in this chapter to refer exclusively to the Book of Mormon narrative preceding the coming of Jesus.
The literary structure of the Book of Signs consists of a series of episodes containing prophecies, prophetic signs, and wonders. The first subplot uses the literary form of a warning prophet: Samuel the Lamanite (HeI. 13). He is the last major warning prophet before the coming of Christ. While all of the warning prophets teach of Christ, Samuel’s prophecies are unique in their specificity. He prophesies that the birth of Christ will be in five years and that it will be signaled by three signs: (1) a day, a night and a day with no darkness, (2) the appearance of a new star, and (3) many other “signs and wonders in Heaven.” Samuel is explicit in using the language of signs: “And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming … And this also shall be a sign unto you” (Hel. 14:3, 5, 6). Christ’s death will also be marked by “another sign”: three days of darkness and great destruction (Hel. 14:20-27). These predicted signs preface 3 Nephi and the coming of Christ.
Samuel explains the purpose of these and other signs:
[p.175] Many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe that these signs and these wonders should come to pass, upon all the face of this land; to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men; and this to the intent that whosoever will believe, might be saved, and that whosoever will not believe, a righteous judgment might come upon them; and also if they are condemned, they bring upon themselves their own condemnation. And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold ye are free … (Hel. 14:28-30).
As this memorable passage indicates, another purpose of these signs is to create belief in those who are willing and to justly condemn the unwilling. This passage explains that the purpose of Samuel’s narrative on signs is an expansive one, reaching beyond his immediate audience to include “the children of men” generally. The passage then makes a theological point on freedom of choice that is addressed to the reader. Thus a particular narrative event (signs to the Nephites) contains a universal truth (freedom to choose belief or iniquity) which is applied to a particular audience (“ye,” meaning Mormon’s implied audience in the last days). Thus, in the Book of Signs, the reader merges with the Nephite audience so that the signs become not only evidence for the Nephites but for the reader as well.
This rhetorical technique is typical of 3 Nephi. In this section a speaker directly addressing the Nephites subtly expands the audience in a variety of ways to include the reader of the book. When Christ is addressing the twelve disciples about the latter-day House of Israel, he expands his audience by including latter-day Israel as a whole: “O house of Israel.” He thus addresses both the Nephites and modern Israelite readers simultaneously (3 Ne. 1:16). He also tells the Nephites to include certain records for the sake of the modern reader (3 Ne. 26:2). Not all discourse and narrative in these sections should be understood as addressing the reader. Much of it must be seen in light of the narrative as an independent whole in which a speaker addresses the audience in the narrative. In sum, the first rhetorical device in the Book of Signs is to expand the audience to include the reader. And the purpose of Samuel’s rhetoric is to convince the reader of the trinitarian nature of Jesus and to defend prophecy (Hel. 14:11-12; 15:7-16:5).
[p.176]After the prophecies of Samuel, the second subplot-the first involving signs directly-occurs: “There were great signs given unto the people, and wonders; and the words of the prophets began to be fulfilled; and angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the Scriptures began to be fulfilled” (Hel. 16:13-14).
The appearance of angels, giving “glad tidings of great joy,” and the mention of “wise men” are allusions to biblical nativity scenes. The angelic announcement in Luke 2:10 has been transformed in the Book of Mormon into a universal literary form of angelic revelation. Various Nephite prophets have received angelic visitations announcing glad tidings of great joy (1 Ne. 13:37; Mosiah 3:2-3; Alma 13:21-26, 39:15-19; Hel. 5:11, 29, 13:7, 16:13-14). These angelic visitations prepare the recipient to receive the full gospel when Christ comes. It is clear that this phrase from Luke 2:10 is intended to defend the preaching of Christ and the prophetic tradition in all ages. “And now my son, this was the ministry unto which ye were called, to declare these glad tidings unto this people … Is it not as easy at this time, for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us, as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming?” (Alma 39: 15-19). This passage is only one of several in the Book of Mormon where a declaration becomes a literary form repeated in every age, or a universal form.4
The literary device of angelic visitations to prepare a particular audience for Christ may well be the source of the Mormon doctrine enunciated by Joseph Smith that the visitation of angels is part of the preparatory, or Aaronic, priesthood (D&C 13: 1, 84:26). Several passages with parallels to Luke 2:10 universalize the phrase so that angelic visitations in every age become necessary, both before and after Christ’s coming. This procedure fits the Book of Mormon’s typical practice of universalizing biblical texts. All migrations to establish nations are like the Hebrew exodus. All nations have secret combinations and prophetic warnings in times of wickedness, and conversions follow biblical models. All nations possess their own Bible and their own revelations. And, as this verse in the Nephite scripture indicates, all nations have angelic visitations announcing glad tidings. The Book of Mormon makes the Bible a grand archetype for all of history.
[p.177]In this second subplot in the Book of Signs, no other details about the signs are given. Therefore, this general reference to the fulfillment of unspecified prophecies must be understood as preparation for the coming birth of Jesus. Instead of focusing on the signs themselves, this subplot focuses on the reaction of the Nephites to these signs. That reaction was not encouraging. Most of the Nephites and Lamanites hardened their hearts and began to rely upon their own strength and wisdom. They reasoned:
Some things they may have guessed right, among so many [this statement indicates that fulfilled prophecies were part of the “signs”]; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot ‘come to pass, of which hath been spoken. And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying, That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of Heaven and of earth, as it hath been spoken, why will he not shew himself unto us, as well as unto they which shall be at Jerusalem? Yea, why will he not shew himself in this land, as well as in the land of Jerusalem? (Hel. 16:16-19)
These skeptics attacked two things: prophecy and the coming of Christ, both as God and Son of God. As in the first subplot, and later sections of the Book of Signs, this example and other sign narratives are given to defend prophecy itself and also to use prophecy to establish the authority and divinity of Jesus.
The skeptical Nephites in Helaman 16:13-25 rejected the traditional prophetic claims of Christ, because “we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true.” They accused the religious leaders of being” cunning” and using “mysterious arts” of Satan, and of merely perpetuating “traditions of the fathers” to keep the people in “ignorance” and servitude. The narrator tells us that Satan hardened the hearts of these skeptics, inspired their “foolish and vain” ideas, and led them into iniquity, while “reason” became the criterion for determining truth.
These phrases and concepts (or close variants) can also be found in the story of Korihor (Alma 30); both share the thematic purpose of defending Christianity against skepticism using divine signs. Korihor also was an empiricist and skeptic who denounced the religious leadership on similar grounds. (See chap. 8.) He was an anti-christ (meaning he preached against the doctrine of Christ), and he also preached against [p.178]prophecy. These were the same teachings that the skeptics in Helaman 16 attacked. In summary, there is a clear verbal, theological, and literary connection between the narrative of Korihor and the narratives of the skeptics.5 Both accounts are filled with irony and word play,6 thus pointing to the dying heretic as a character type; the skeptic is one who attacks the religious establishment, attacks the central doctrines of the gospel (such as the doctrine of Christ). Furthermore, as we have seen with Korihor in particular, this second subplot represents a refutation of autonomous reason as opposed to religious tradition and revelation. Interestingly enough, the sign serves as an empirical refutation of autonomous reason.
As I have shown in Chapter 8, Korihor’s narrative, along with those of Sherem and Nehor, belong to a set of stories about dying heretics whose main function is to show God’s punishment of those who preach false doctrine. Sherem and Korihor seek for a sign and receive it in the form of their own deaths. In Helaman, the signs are not vain requests from wicked skeptics but miraculous visitations and prophesied wonders, replete with biblical echoes and allusions. But the general function of the narrative is the same: These signs are given to create belief. In short, the second subplot of the Book of Signs is, like the dying heretic narratives, primarily a defense of doctrine. This subplot exemplifies the apologetic nature of this section.
The third subplot follows in the next chapter (3 Ne. 1). Two years after the first set of signs, “the prophecies of the prophets began to be fulfilled more fully; for there began to be greater signs and greater miracles wrought among the people” (3 Ne. 1:4). But the signs had no apparent impact; those who did not believe in the prophecies made a great uproar, claiming that the time for the sign of Christ’s birth had passed without being fulfilled. They claimed that the faith and the joy of the believers was in vain and named a day on which to execute those who believed in the sign, if it had not occurred by that time. Nephi, son of Helaman, prayed about this crisis and heard the voice of Jesus: “Lift up your head and be of good cheer: for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to shew unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my Holy Prophets” (3 Ne. 1:13).
This third subplot again defends the validity of prophecy. But this time the voice of God interprets the sign as a defense of prophecy. In ad-[p.179]dition, this communication contains an important explanation about the nature of Christ as “of the Father, because of me, and of the Son, because of my flesh” (3 Ne. 1:14). Thus this subplot, like the first two (Hel.14:11-12; 16:18), reveals the divine trinitarian nature of Christ.
The signs of Christ’s birth, as prophesied by Samuel, occurred that very night to the great astonishment of the unbelievers, thus providing evidence that the prophecies were valid and that Christ had come into the world (3 Ne. 1:16-17). However, as in the second subplot, Satan later hardened the hearts of some so that they no longer believed in the “signs and wonders.” Again we find elements of an apologue for a world view that includes prophecy and the divinity of Christ.
The fourth subplot describes the near destruction of the Nephites and Lamanites by the Gadianton band. Although this story seems out of place among the sign stories, it begins and ends with a narrator’s commentary interpreting the incident in the context of the Book of Signs.
This Gadianton section begins:
And the people began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from Heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts … imagining up some vain thing in their hearts, that it was wrought by men, and by the power of the Devil, to lead away and deceive the hearts of the people; and thus did Satan get possession of the hearts of the people again, insomuch that he did blind their eyes, and lead them away to believe that the doctrine of Christ ,was a foolish and a vain thing.7 And it came to pass that the people began to wax strong in wickedness and abominations; and they did not believe that there should be any more signs or wonders given (3 Ne. 2:1-3).
This wickedness and disbelief led to major social deterioration and near destruction by the Gadianton band. This war and the near destruction by the Gadianton band is not extraneous to the narrative purposes in the Book of Signs. The Nephites’ disbelief in and disregard for signs from God lead to their near annihilation. Giddianhi, the leader of the band, uses the formulaic phrase of skepticism (“foolish and vain”) in his letter to Lachoneus, his Nephite counterpart. This phrase ties the narrative again to Alma 30 and to the earlier subplots in the Book of Signs. This stock phrase of disparagement by enemies of the gospel reveals the apologetic function to the narratives in which it is used. I will not deal [p.180]with the events of this conflict, which the Nephites repel only by gathering together in one place and withstanding a prolonged siege by the Gadianton band. The Gadianton narratives have their own formulaic development in the Book of Mormon that will be discussed in Chapter 10. I will simply note here that the victory over the band serves as another sign convincing the people of the truth of the prophetic signs, as the narrator commentary reveals in the Gadianton subplot:
And now behold there was not a living soul among all the people of the Nephites, which did doubt in the least thing in the words of all the holy prophets which had spoken; for they knew that it must needs be that they must be fulfilled; and they knew that it must be expedient that Christ had come, because of the many signs which had been given, according to the words of the prophets; and because of the things which had come to pass already, they knew it must needs be that all things should come to pass according to that which had been spoken (3 Ne. 5:1-2).
Thus this apparent interruption describing military history constitutes a fourth consecutive subplot, defending prophecy and the doctrine of Christ. After the war the people are righteous for a time, but their prosperity leads to class structure and eventual wickedness. The people kill or disregard the prophets, even in the face of marvels wrought by Nephi. Conspirators murder the chief judge and the prophets. The people begin again to have “great doubtings and disputations,” despite the fact that “many signs had been given” (3 Ne. 7: 15-26, 8:4). This wickedness and the rejection of prophetic wonders lead to the final sign in this Book of Signs-the three days of darkness and the destruction that signify Christ’s death.
The accelerating iniquity has prepared the reader for the climactic calamities at Christ’s death (3 Ne. 8:1-20): A “great storm” arises in conjunction with earthquakes, “a great and terrible tempest,” whirlwinds, the wholesale destruction of cities (by fire, sinking into the sea, and collapse of a mountain), and a vapor of darkness so thick it is tangible. The people lament the destruction, taking responsibility at last for killing and casting out the prophets and attributing the destruction to their guilt. Then God speaks, repeating five times the details of the destruction. After recounting each destructive event, God’s voice reiterates the reason for the destruction: “ … that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not [p.181]come up any more unto me against them” (3 Ne. 9:5, 7, 8, 9, 11). The constant repetition of the awful destruction accompanied by its cause forcefully reinforces the concept that rejecting prophets will exact a fearful penalty. This narrative of destruction ends the Book of Signs as a crescendo that points to its main apologetic element-a defense of the institution of prophecy, and a defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ as the Father and the Son.
After recounting and analyzing these signs, God introduces himself as Jesus Christ and encourages the survivors to repent. The Book of Signs ends with an editorial comment that the destruction and the coming of Christ fulfill prophecy. Mormon cites various prophets as an example (3 Ne. 10:11). These writings, though not contained in the Hebrew Bible, are on the brass plates.
What may we conclude about the inclusion of the Book of Signs in the Book of Mormon? Structurally, it consists of five subplots, most of them conventional narrative forms also used elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. These are the warning prophet narrative with its providential view of history and pessimistic view of human nature, the dying heretic tale which, as we have seen, serves a doctrinal purpose, and the secret combination narrative which describes the manifestation of social evil. But their functions here are combined with the larger purposes of the Book of Signs. To use a rough comparison with music, the Book of Signs is “polyphonic literature”-several layers of independent voices (or forms) whose interplay produces a coherent whole.
Once the proof for Christ’s divine authority is established in the Book of Signs, more controversial issues can be settled by his direct pronouncements when he visits the Nephites. The Book of Signs brings a new set of prophetic witnesses to defend traditional Christian doctrines. Their combined witnesses establish a common base of agreement on which more controversial doctrines will be built in the following sections. Thus what on its face appears to be apologue has other rhetorical interests as well.
The Appearance of Christ
The Book of Mormon creates not just a credible character or an appeal to authority, but an appeal to an authority that no reader in the implied audience could question-newly discovered words spoken by Christ himself that have not been tampered with by centuries of copying and [p.182]editorializing. After the darkness abated, God speaks three times from heaven. Only in the last of these repetitions did the people understand the words, which depend on God’s New Testament statement at the baptism of Jesus: “Behold, my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name, hear ye him” (3 Ne. 11:7/ /Matt. 3:17, 12:18, 17:5; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). Jesus then appears and introduces himself: “Behold I am Jesus Christ, of which the prophets testified that should come into the world” (3 Ne. 11:10). The people then remember the prophecies concerning Christ and assemble to see and touch the wounds of his crucifixion, an event reported in words reminiscent of the experience of Thomas in John 20:24-29.8 The introductions of God and Jesus serve the same functions as the Book of Signs—to persuasively testify of Christ and the fulfillment of prophecy. In addition, the biblical allusions reinforce the truth of biblical events and doctrines.
The Book of Signs and the introduction of Christ to the Nephites establish his authority as the son of God. Jesus then grants authority to twelve disciples, teaches, quotes and interprets biblical passages, and works miracles in three separate visits. The events and large sections of his speeches in these visits have parallel events and wording in the New Testament mission of Jesus (teaching, healings, blessing the children, selecting disciples, etc.). These events and words act as an apologue both for the Bible and for the authority of the Book of Mormon for the latter-day reader. This is an example of one of the uses of the Bible in the Book of Mormon discussed in chapter 1—that of supporting witness.
Many of the same events are repeated in each of Christ’s three visits. In two visits he quotes or paraphrases lengthy biblical texts with modifications, then interprets them (Matt. 5-7; Mal. 3-4; portions of Isa. 52 and 54), authorizes the twelve to baptize and bestow the Holy Ghost, then grants each a request. Nine desire to enter heaven after death, while three choose to remain alive until Jesus’ second coming. In each of the three visits, he settles a particular doctrinal dispute, establishes exemplary behavior (baptism, partaking of the Lord’s supper, and clarifying the name of the church), ministers to the people, and prophesies concerning the latter days (particularly emphasizing the gathering of Israel). As in the Helaman 5 narrative, each of the three visits of Christ is marked by words and actions that are unutterable (HeI. 5:33, 44; 3 Ne. 17: 17, [p.183]19:34, 26:14-18, 28:13-14). In short, the visits of Christ are formulaic and repetitious.
Other evidence of these visits’ formulaic nature appears when we compare Christ’s visit to the brother of Jared with the visits to the Nephites. Moroni explains how the 1830s reader should understand these two visits: “Jesus shewed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body, even as he shewed himself unto the Nephites; and he ministered unto him, even as he ministered unto the Nephites: and all this, that this man knew that he was God, because of the many great works which the Lord had shewed unto him” (Ether 3:17-18; italics mine).
Repetition in Book of Mormon narratives serves several functions. One reason is artistic and another is didactic. For example, repetition in the Psalm of Nephi (2 Ne. 4:16-35) adds aesthetic and spiritual appeal. The double set of three prayers offered by the brother of Jared before his people’s transoceanic voyage reinforces lessons about the power in the prayer of faith. The repetition of many larger narrative scenes and formulaic plots, such as the piety/prosperity cycle and the angelic visits to preach glad tidings in every age (/ / Luke 2:10), reveals a typological and cyclical view of history. The repetition in Christ’s three visits to the Nephites highlights his functions: to settle doctrinal disputes, to establish proper behavior and ritual for the church, to establish the truthfulness of certain biblical texts, to interpret them in desired ways, and to witness to the latter-day restoration of Israel. The repetitions in all of these narratives display the highest levels of spirituality—extreme emotions, Christ’s weeping, unutterable words, authoritative pronouncements, and extraordinary divine signs that provide unusual and conclusive proof of the truth of a particular and fundamental doctrine. The narrator records Christ’s third and final appearance to the Nephites in terms reminiscent of his visit to his New Testament apostles after his resurrection: “And Jesus came and stood in the midst of them … ” (3 Ne. 27:2/ /Luke 24:36). He then grants the desires of the three Nephites, an event parallel to the post-crucifixion narrative in John. (See Excursus 1.1.)
Perhaps as important as any repetition are the three references to the unutterable in all three visits of Jesus. By understanding the three visits as formulaic or repetitive, we can better interpret all three expressions [p.184]of the unutterable as a single phenomenon. John W. Welch has interpreted these references to the unutterable as an allusion to the temple endowment ceremony developed during the early 1840s in Nauvoo.9 In other words, Welch believes that the words are unutterable because it is forbidden to speak them, not because the meaning that the words attempt to convey is ineffable. I find Welch’s argument problematic. As the record makes clear, what the people saw and heard was not recorded and remained unspeakable not only because it was forbidden but also because it was so wonderful that human speech failed in its capacity to express it. “And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak” (3 Ne. 17:17). “And behold, the heavens were opened, and they were caught up into heaven, and saw and heard unspeakable things. And it was forbidden them that they should utter the things which they saw and heard; neither was it given unto them power that they could utter the things which they saw and heard” (3 Ne. 28:13-14). The experience echoes phrases from Corinthians (3 Ne. 17:15-20, 19:30-36//2 Cor. 12:4/ /Hel. 5:33; 3 Ne. 28:12-l4/ /2 Cor. 12:2-4).
A second difficulty with Welch’s thesis is that it is Jesus’ prayer (3 Ne. 17) that is described as unutterable. The prayer was clearly not part of a temple ceremony. It occurred on the temple grounds, not in the temple, and was part of an informal healing session and sermon (3 Ne. 17: 15). It was simply a prayer so wonderful that it transcended language. The text states that the words could not be written, yet the people understood them in their hearts. The same formulaic language is used for the unutterable events in the prayer and in the transformation and ascension of the disciples. It is reasonable therefore to interpret the unutterableness of the experience as due to their inability to express it rather than as a prohibition due to the temple’s sacredness. This interpretation is supported by the parallel verses in Helaman 5:33.
Only in the ascension of the disciples quoted above is there a prohibition against speaking the words. But even in this instance, it seems more likely that the wonder and uniqueness of the experience rendered it ineffable than that they were commanded to be silent to preserve secrecy.
I therefore conclude that the text has no necessary connection to [p.185]the Mormon temple ceremony; yet in a broader sense, Welch’s thesis deserves some attention. This 3 Nephi record of the Savior’s visit among his people is, if not a temple ceremony, a theology that prepared early Mormons for the temple. The formulaic nature of these manifestations in Ether, Helaman, and 3 Nephi is intended as the highest expression of religion. A comparison of these unutterable events and words, featured repeatedly in the three visits of Christ, leaves the impression that the Book of Mormon anticipates a higher level of religion-a truth beyond language, an ultimate truth that transcends our present experience.
In the Nephite social world from which the wicked have been violently removed, Christ established a new world view characterized by doctrinal certainty and social equality. Yet it tells us that there are new concepts to learn, still higher unspeakable truths. Thus the Book of Mormon promises a new world view for its latter-day readers. The Book of Mormon sketches what might be called a world in construction. We see those hints in 3 Nephi 29-30 and in 4 Nephi.
Mormon’s Commentary: 3 Nephi 29-30
Mormon positions himself to draw parallels between the faithful Nephites—believers living in an unbelieving world that threatens their faith with violence before Christ’s first coming—and the faithful readers in a skeptical and violent world of the latter days before Christ’s second coming. The pattern of parallels between the history in 3 Nephi and the history in the reader’s world indicates that Mormon’s action is purposeful.
The whole Book of Signs is an apologue for a world view consisting of a belief in Christ’s divinity and in prophecy. Mormon’s commentary in 3 Nephi situates the reader in the same historical circumstance as the Nephites before the coming of Christ. Like the Nephites in the Book of Signs, Mormon portrays the reader as living in an era of wickedness when people do not believe in prophecies or in the works of Jesus Christ (29:1-6, 30:2) The destruction of the wicked at the coming of Christ in 3 Nephi acts as an implicit warning to the reader that destruction awaits the wicked at the Second Coming. A suggestion of social commentary appears in the statements that it was the “great and notable” cities that were destroyed and that the people [p.186]were covered with a thick darkness. This phrase hints that the usual social order is violently subverted.
Both the reader and Nephites in 3 Nephi live in a period of “lyings and deceivings” (3 Ne. 1:22, 21:19, 30:2). The wicked Nephites in the Book of Signs declared that the time had passed for Christ’s birth. Likewise, Mormon warns that the reader should not suppose that God delays his coming to the house of Israel but will fulfill his ancient covenants with them (3 Ne. 29:2-3). During both periods, God’s “sword” hangs over the people. Massive destruction of the wicked preceded the first coming and will precede the second (3 Ne. 2:19, 29:4).
Believing and repentant Nephites are baptized, an ordinance that is the subject of important discussions in 3 Nephi. Third Nephi 30:2 exhorts the latter-day Gentiles to be baptized. Mormon ends 3 Nephi with a direct address to the reader, urging him or her to repent and believe in the prophecies of the restoration of the house of Israel. Christ makes a similar prophecy. These references interpret the Book of Signs and visit of Christ in a personal way for the reader, making the Nephite history parallel to the reader’s own history.
1. George Alexander Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton, NY: Princeton Vniversity Press, 1963), 10-12; Burton L. Mack and Vernon Robbins, Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1989), 10-12.
2. Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece, 13544; Mack and Robbins, Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels, 206-208.
3. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Vol. 1 of the Anchor Bible Series (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966); Robert]. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1992), 175-93; Nonnan Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974), 224-26.
4. For another example, the Book of Mormon presents John the Baptist’s message (Matt. 3:1-12) as a universal massage to prepare for Christ’s coming. See Mark D. Thomas, “The Art of Nephite Narrative,” AML Annual 1998 (Salt Lake City: Association for Mormon Letters), 30-40.
5. Both ridicule the foolishness of prophecy (Alma 30:14/ / Hel. 16:20), defend reason and an empiricist epistemology (Alma 30:15/ / Hel. 16:20), refer to the foolish and vain religious hope (Alma 30:13/ / Hel. 16:22), denounce tendencies to sin (Alma 30:18/ / Hel. 16:22), attack the clergy (Alma 30:23, 28/ / Hel. [p.187]16:21), attack the doctrine of Christ (Alma 30:6/ / Hel. 16:18), and portray Satan as the inspiration behind their movement (Alma 30:18,53/ / Hel. 16:22-23).
6. David P. Wright, “The Poetics of Alma 30,” unpublished manuscript, photocopy of typescript in my possession, used by permission.
7. Note the verbal echo from the story of Korihor and the skeptics by the use of the phrase “foolish and vain” (Alma 30:3; Hel. 16:22).
8. As chapter 6 demonstrates, the story of Nephi and Lehi converting their Larnanite jailors parallels (Hel. 5) and was intended to meet the same purposes as Christ’s visit in 3 Nephi. In that conversion story, God spoke three times from heaven, a threatening mist of darkness obscured the participants’ vision, angels ministered, and a large number were witnesses. The empirical nature of these manifestations provided proofs of Christ’s divinity for the reader.
9. John W. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount: A Latter-day Saint Approach (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book/FARMS, 1990), 80-83.