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Nephi’s vision seems at times to border on the genre called apocalyptic [link to all my posts and podcasts talking about genre]. Apocalypses came up recently in my first post on Revelation. The genre is important to recognize, because it inform how we understand it.
For example, apocalyptic tends to be binary. As McKenzie says of apocalyptic (re: the Book of Revelation),
“In this view of the world there are two domains- good and evil- at war for the hearts and souls of human beings. Every person and every institution belongs to one or the other of these domains.” –How to Read the Bible: History, Propecy, Literature- Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference, 141.
This dovetails nicely with the statement “there are save two churches only” in 14:10. That does not mean Our Church is Good and Everyone Else’s Church is Bad. Rather, that kind of category supersedes membership records. Stephen Robinson, probably the first LDS to get a PhD actually in Biblical Studies/New Testament (Duke, 1978) wrote an excellent article on these two chapters. The article is here, and with a version in The Ensign as well. See his comments about apocalyptic and the differences between these two chapters.
Related to this is a LDS tradition we inherited that the Roman Catholic Church in particular is Nephi’s Church of the Devil. Robinson addresses that a bit, because it just doesn’t fit what the scriptures say. Sorry.
- Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Great and Abominable Church”- Link.
- Mike Ash, asking “Is Roman Catholicism the Great and Abominable Church?”- Link
13:12, Columbus, and Tradition
Long Latter-day Saint tradition has read this passage as being about Columbus, and spoken very highly of him. Of course, tradition and dogmatic repetition, while culturally powerful, matter much less than revelation.
“Dogmatic assertions do not take the place of revelation, and we should be satisfied with that which is accepted as doctrine, and not discuss matters that, after all disputes, are merely matters of theory. Your brethren, (Signed) JOSEPH F. SMITH, ANTHON H. LUND, CHARLES W. PENROSE.”-James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75], 4:264-65.
Now, if President Monson cites Hinckley citing Hunter citing Joseph F. Smith citing Brigham Young, it carries some weight. But if Brigham Young didn’t get it from revelation, that weight is much less than it would be otherwise. President J. Reuben Clark and Elder Joseph Fielding Smith had some issues with each other. At one point in 1946, Smith (in Clark’s words) apparently accused Clark of rejecting the scriptures. Clark replied to Smith,
You seem to think I reject the scriptures, or some of them. I do not intend to do so, but obviously I am no more bound by your interpretation of them than you are by mine….
Now, as to what the earlier brethren have said–where they have declared themselves as speaking under inspiration and by the authority of the Lord, I bow to what they say. But where they express views based on their own understanding and interpretation, then none of us are foreclosed from exercising our own reasoning powers, inadequate though they may be; but the earlier views do not foreclose us from thinking. This is particularly true, where we come to interpreting their interpretations.- From a letter written to Smith but marked “not sent”, in Clark’s biography, chapter here.
These two citations apply, I think, to many things that LDS (and some leadership) have received as authoritative doctrine, but not examined closely. (See especially the statement by Joseph Fielding Smith in my post here.)
On the one hand, it’s true that many of LDS leaders have interpreted 13:12 to be about Columbus, and that should be accorded some weight. On the other, all that scripture says here is that there was a Gentile, separated by the waters, who was wrought upon by the Spirit of God to cross the waters. That’s very little detail to identify someone. Columbus is the obvious answer, but is he the best answer?
Columbus certainly saw himself as God’s messenger to “the isles of the sea” the means of bringing the Gospel, kept a journal of prophecies and so on. His name means “christ-bearer.” On the other hand, he also caused an awful lot of pain and destruction in enslaving natives and committing atrocities, and was not terribly Christ-like. These two things can coexist, as God can and does make use of awful people. We need not venerate and sanctify Columbus and ignore the evil he did. Notably, the text says nothing about the character of this Gentile.
The man in vision, however, is not necessarily Columbus, but potentially Bartoleme de las Casas or someone else. I strongly recommend
- this great discussion by Russell Stevenson (himself an author on several quality LDS books), and especially note the exchange in the comments there between him and Clark Hinckley (author of Christopher Columbus: Man Among the Gentiles)
- And this discussion at the mostly-LDS American Religious History blog, Juvenile Instructor.
Some other things about Columbus-
- sci-fi commentary of sorts on Columbus, which I quite enjoyed– Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus.
- An old Powerpoint about Columbus.
- Is John’s name a problem in 14:27? Yes and no. John is an anglicized form of the Greek-ized form of Hebrew yehoḥanan or ḥenanyah, “Yahweh has shown favor.” Someone of that name shows up several times contemporary with Lehi, in Jeremiah 28, so the name would certainly have been familiar to him. Of course, prophesy could also show Nephi names he didn’t know. The real problem is that he seems to be talking about the Book of Revelation, attributed to “John,” and there were many Johnsin the New Testament. Tradition has said that this John is the son of Zebedee, the Beloved disciple who also wrote the Gospel of John. However,
from early times it was recognized that there are difficulties in that assumption, notably with respect to the differences between the Revelation and the Gospel. The issues were clearly stated by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria in the third century…. He adduced three reasons for the latter position.
First, the author did not claim to be the Beloved Disciple, or brother of James, or an eyewitness and hearer of the Lord, as John the Evangelist did; many Christians had the name John, and there were two Christian leaders of that name in Roman Asia and two tombs in Ephesus that were acclaimed to be the tomb of John.
Second, there are many contacts of thought between the Gospel and letters of John, but the Revelation is utterly different from both: “It scarcely, so to speak, has a syllable in common with them.”
Third, the style of the Gospel and letters is different from that of the Revelation; the former are written in excellent Greek, but the latter is often ungrammatical and uses barbarous idioms.- Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, “Revelation, Book of.”
The primary issue is assuming “Book of Revelation John” is “Gospel according to John John”, and I think that’s an over-reading of Nephi.
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