One of the most interesting, most popular, yet also quite controversial elements in the Book of Mormon is Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision. Some readers might agree with the interesting part but be surprised by the controversial part. This is after all one element of the restoration that seems such a big part of our culture. The main problem some see is the purported dependence of the vision on the book of Revelation. Not only is the book of Revelation late – at least the end of the first century – but the genre of Apocalypse is a part of Hellenistic Judaism and Christianity. Nephi is from pre-exilic Israel and so some critics see this as an example of an anachronism in the text.
There are two main responses to this. The first is the very nature of the translation. No one denies there being 19th century aspects to the text. At a bear minimum we have an English not Greek or Hebrew text. Further it seems to most thoughtful believers that the text is a loose translation in terms of fidelity to any original text. That is one can’t help but notice the heavy influence of the KJV Bible on the translation of the text. Passages or paraphrases from the NT are used to translate passages that were written long before NT. Even if some of these are lost ancient texts that later authors were quoting, it’s very doubtful all of them are. That pushes us to the loose translation thesis.
As Blake Ostler and others noted decades ago, the translation process itself likely contains expansions. Those expansions might be to clarify things that were in the original text or to simply by revelation give further information. We see that with translation of the Bible by Joseph Smith where, particularly with Genesis, we get long passages not in the original Biblical text. While some of that might be corrections, more likely it was new information in response to Joseph’s questioning. This combination of loose translation and expansion means that the prophecies of the angel to Nephi could in part be shaped by the knowledge and religious style contemporary to Joseph. So a more vague original prophecy by the angel may be expanded to clarify it in terms of the American Revolution or the battle of the British against the Spanish Armada. Likewise the translation may draw intention comparison to Revelation in the Bible by expanding images to more clearly tie them to imagery in John’s apocalypse. In particular the translation likely was shaped by the theological understanding of such images in the early 19th century.
The question of anachronism is thus much more difficult than it first appears given the very nature of the text itself. Allusion to or even quotation of later passages simply is insufficient. What we need are images themselves that are obviously not pre-exilic. Critics will point to elements that they feel are problematic and characteristic of Hellenistic Apocalypses and thus anachronistic. The problem is that most Hellenistic apocalypses (and I’m here including extra-canonical ones like 4 Ezra or 1 Enoch) make extensive use of earlier imagery.
One of the prime types of imagery in many apocalypses including Revelation is the primordial battle between God and chaos. Mythically that’s often personified as the dragon or sea monster Tiamat in its battle with God. That’s a common near eastern myth that is itself found extensively in pre-exilic imagery including the narrative of the escape of Israel from Egypt in Exodus. In addition to the divine combat and Exodus pattern we have a different divine combat where Israel’s God or pantheon is matched against similar parallel pagan pantheons or deities. Again that can be seen in the basic Exodus narrative but is best seen in the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal.
We know of the dragon imagery in Revelation, but it’s important to note that this image of battle with the monster is a very old and very pre-exilic imagery. Even the idea of God as order battling the devil as chaos is pre-exilic even if the notion of a developed Satan character is seen as later Christian or even a product of Milton’s poem Paradise Lost.
An other aspect of Nephi’s vision is the personification of the Church of the Devil with an imagery of lust. Again, an important element in Revelation but also again a much older imagery. Frequently, as with Lehi’s contemporary Jeremiah or earlier prophets, sexual imagery was used by prophets. The conflict between true Israel and apostate Israel is seen typologically through the symbol of a prostitute. There are two aspects to the imagery. First is the recognition that ritual prostitutes were a part of the pagan worship of Israel’s neighbors. Often great wealth was tied to such practices. Combined with this was the idea of the covenant between God and Israel being analogous to a marriage with an unfaithful spouse. The imagery is particularly prominent in the Book of Hosea (Hosea 3:1-3) but can be found in many prophetic writings. The original imagery goes back to Genesis 38:24 where Tamar posed as a ritual prostitute at a shrine to seduce Judah. Regardless of what one may think of such imagery (there is a reason we tend not to use it today) it was a common feature of ancient Jewish prophetic texts.
In Nephi we thus have extensive imagery that we can see as pre-exilic even if the shape may have many elements in common not only with Hellenistic era apocalypses but also 19th century interpretations of Revelation. The large and spacious building found on the way to the tree of life most likely represents the temple of Baal in Canaanite mythology. There Baal is given permission to build a palace on the holy mountain after his conquest over Yam (Tiamat). This is below El’s tent which is at the source of two rivers where there is a shrine. On this mountain the gods assemble and deliberate. (See Psalms 82 for the Hebrew form) Nephi’s vision sets the pagan view of Jerusalem’s neighbors against Jehovah by seeing it as a false temple representing Baal as the false God and “the vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men.” (1 Nephi 12:18) This idea of a contrast between the true divine and the false impositors is again a common feature of Biblical prophecy, often alluding to Elijah’s conflict with the sacrifice of the priests of Baal. The filthy river alludes to Yam as the God of chaos, rivers and sea. The filthy river is akin to a flash flood in the desert representing Yam’s judgment.
Many of these elements of Canaanite divine geography are found in later apocalypses. 1 Enoch is a good example where many elements of the geography found in Nephi’s vision can be found. The place of 1 Enoch is a heavy topic of discussion among critics since many of Joseph’s scriptures seem to have parallels with it. The main problem is that while 1 Enoch had an English translation in 1821 it’s very unlikely Joseph had any access to it. Regardless 1 Enoch’s geography, including the ascent up the divine mountain through rivers, darkness and mists, draws on these earlier Canaanite myths and Hebrew traditions. They also appear in prophetic texts that are pre-exilic. “Give glory to the Lord your God, before he cause darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains, and, while ye look for light, he turn it into the shadow of death, and make it gross darkness.” (Jer 13:16)
I don’t have time here to go through all the types typically associated with apocalypses and show that they are themselves type scenes much more ancient. (This is after all only a casual blog post) I do want to point out though that Nephi and Lehi’s visions are very characteristic of ancient pre-exilic imagery. I don’t want to deny that the shape of the translation clearly draws on the KJV of the Book of Revelation. It definitely does. However Revelation itself draws upon older sources. Both Hellenistic era apocalypses such as Daniel or 1 Enoch but also much more ancient imagery such as the Tiamat/Yam myths.
1. While one might explain NT passages in Mosiah – 3 Nephi by way of Mormon somehow having access to the New Testament, that doesn’t explain 1 Nephi – Omni which was on the small plates of Nephi and not written by Mormon. The most easy explanation is that the text is paraphrasing the KJV either as a way of indicating a reference akin to how we use footnotes or simply as an unconscious way of translating ideas in Joseph’s vernacular which was perfused with KJV language.
2. Note I’m not saying this [i]must[/i] be the case. I’m perfectly fine with the angel having exhaustive foreknowledge of events. My point is simply that the nature of the text doesn’t require this. So those who have more difficulty with such details shouldn’t take it as a problem.
3. Scholars have often noted that the destruction of the Egyptian army chasing Moses by the waters of the sea parallels God’s battle with the sea monster Tiamat. The idea is that Israel’s God is even king over the waters of chaos with that act of dominance being repeated over and over again.
4. In Babylonian creation myths Tiamat is a dragon who is goddess of the sea and represents chaos. The Babylonian version has her being slain by Marduk while in Ugarit mythology she is Yam (now male) and is slain by Baal. The myth is even amongst the Greeks where it is the battle of Zeus with Typhon. Elements of the myth appear in the flood account in Genesis as well as Genesis 1:2. (The Semetic tehom translated as deep or abyss is sometimes seen as tied to Tiamat) The Leviathan of Job is also a reference to this myth. The most significant example of the myth, ignoring allusions to it such as in the Exodus escape, is Psalms 74 with explicit parallels to the Babylonian battle with Tiamat. The myths get complex and vary somewhat. So often it is Lotan, closely associated with Yam, who is defeated as a sea monster rather than Yam himself. In the Baal Cycle he rescues Asherah, the mother goddess, from Yam. The myth is found in various forms throughout the near east and into Greece. Some even see parallels between Yam and the Egyptian chaos serpent Apep, possibly tied to a period of Canaanite dominanance in Egypt.
5. This pattern of repeating images often based upon early traditions of the forefathers of Israel is called a type scene. Robert Alter has noted how narrative allusions as type scenes is an important part of Biblical narrative. These sorts of allusions are also key components of pre-exilic Jewish prophecy since most of the audience of a prophet would be very familiar with these narratives. Often in ways we simply no longer are today.
6. Michael Quinn has pushed a dependency on 1 Enoch. See Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 193. Looking at the data Richard Bushman has concluded, “It is scarcely conceivable that Joseph Smith knew of Laurence’s Enoch translation.” Rough Stone Rolling, 138 While I find it unlikely a very limited and scholarly treatment of a pseudopigraphal work would be in Joseph’s 1820’s environment, the debate does continue. My point is regardless of whether one looks to the Hellenistic era 1 Enoch, that text itself is drawing on well known pre-exilic myths.