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.

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