Nephi’s Jerusalem

“And thus Laman and Lemuel, being the eldest, did murmur against their father. And they did murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them. Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father.” First Nephi 2:12-13

In 598 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem, which surrendered to him on March 16th 597 BC.[1]

Cuniform tablet in the British Museum documenting Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597 BC.

Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem’s king hostage, along with his royal court.

2 Kings 24:10 At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it, 11 and Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. 12 Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him. In the eighth year of the reign of the king of Babylon, he took Jehoiachin prisoner.

The armies of Babylon pillaged the city and plundered the Temple and palace.

2 Kings 24:13 As the Lord had declared, Nebuchadnezzar removed the treasures from the temple of the Lord and from the royal palace, and cut up the gold articles that Solomon king of Israel had made for the temple of the Lord.

Nebuchadnezzar took captive to Babylon all the wealthy, skilled and able-bodied men (~10,000 in all), leaving only the poor.[2]

2 Kings 24:14 He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left. 15 Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive to Babylon. He also took from Jerusalem to Babylon the king’s mother, his wives, his officials and the prominent people of the land. 16 The king of Babylon also deported to Babylon the entire force of seven thousand fighting men, strong and fit for war, and a thousand skilled workers and artisans.

To consolidate power and establish control, Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as a puppet-king of Judah, whose job it was to ensure that tribute was paid on time.

2 Kings 24:17 He made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place and changed his name to Zedekiah.

This was by far the largest of the three deportations of the Jewish Diaspora. The prophet Ezekiel and the ostensible author of the Book of Daniel were carried hostage to Babylon at this time. According to Jeremiah, who counted only men, 3,023 Judeans were deported in 597 BC (52:28), 832 inhabitants in 586 BC (52:29), and 745 Jews in 582 BC (52:30). Thus, this first deportation was ~4 times larger than the second and third deportations.

Nephi begins his story “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah” as Nebuchadnezzar is hauling away his slaves and treasure. With this historical background in mind, here are eleven questions for Sunday school class:

1. Were the families of Lehi, Ishmael, and “Laban and his fifty” among “the poorest people of the land”, such that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t notice them?

2. Why, after the city had already fallen, did “many prophets” show up and prophesy that the people must repent or the city would fall?

3. Why did the Lord tell Lehi that “many should be carried away captive into Babylon” when most of them were already gone?

4. Why did Lehi condemn the few remaining “poorest people of the land” for their wickedness and why did they “mock him” for saying the already fallen city must fall?

5. How did the Babylonian army miss Lehi’s “gold, and his silver, and his precious things” and “all manner of riches” along with the plates of brass, Laban’s sword, armor, treasury, servants etc.?

6. Why didn’t the plates of brass, which contained “a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” mention anything about the surrender of Jerusalem or Nebuchadnezzar’s plundering and hostage taking?

7. Why were Laman and Lemuel et al. “desirous to return unto the land of Jerusalem” if only a few poor people were left?

8. Why did neither Laman nor Lemuel “believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed” when the city had already surrendered?

9. Why was Nephi grateful to be delivered “out of the hands of Laban” but apparently ambivalent about their delivery out of the hands of Nebuchadnezzar?

10. Why did Nephi boldly prophesy to his brethren that the already fallen Jerusalem should fall “at some future period”?

11. Was the author of First Nephi aware of the manner in which Zedekiah came to power?

[1] “In the seventh year [of Nebuchadnezzar-599 BC.] in the month Chislev [Nov/Dec] the king of Babylon assembled his army, and after he had invaded the land of Hatti (Syria/Palestine) he laid siege to the city of Judah. On the second day of the month of Adar [16 March] he conquered the city and took the king [Jeconiah] prisoner. He installed in his place a king [Zedekiah] of his own choice, and after he had received rich tribute, he sent forth to Babylon.” — Babylonian Chronicles, No 24 WA21946.

[2] The observation in 2 Kings 24:14 that “only the poorest people of the land were left” after the first deportation is supported by Jeremiah’s description of the second deportation (586 BC) where some of these remaining poor were rounded up. Jeremiah 52:15 Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile some of the poorest people and those who remained in the city, along with the rest of the craftsmen and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon.

Crawling Over the Book of Mormon

“If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages… then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit.”Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, October 2009 General Conference

Probably the number one argument for the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon is the presence of numerous alleged Hebraisms in the text. These Hebraisms are asserted to come in such wide varieties and to appear so frequently that some apostles and Hebrew-speaking apologists see the book “teeming” with “Semitic complexity”. Other Hebrew scholars however, see things differently.[1] How can we objectively determine what constitutes actual evidence for Semitic authorship of the text?

That we should expect any Hebraisms at all in the Book of Mormon requires the following crucial assumptions:

  1. Reformed Egyptian is merely a shorthand script (not a language itself) for writing Hebrew.
  2. The condensed script somehow preserves Hebrew grammar, syntax, logography, morphology etc.
  3. The Nephite’s alteration of Hebrew (Mormon 9:32-33) did not change the grammar, syntax etc.
  4. Joseph dictated a tight word-for-word translation of the Reformed-Egyptian Altered-Hebrew to Oliver Cowdery.[2]

If any of these assumptions are invalid then there is no reason to expect any genuine Hebraisms to have made it onto the original manuscript. Although there is no evidence to suggest any of the above assumptions are valid (other than perhaps Joseph’s spelling out of certain names, suggesting tight translation), let’s assume for the moment that they are all true, and hence that the text should reflect Classical Hebrew style and grammar. We can then choose one of two approaches for evaluating the Hebraisms on a case by case basis.

The first (most common) approach is to scour the text to find some parallel with biblical poetry or other language pattern, then announce the discovery of a subtle literary ploy, proclaim the highly sophisticated understanding of the Nephite author, and declare victory.

A second (less common) approach is to (a) establish controls for discerning between actual Hebraisms and normal/acceptable English, and (b) determine quantitatively if the Hebraisms appear with significantly greater frequency in the BoM than in the D&C or other non-Nephite writings.[3]

To illustrate the differences between these two methodologies, let’s look at cognate accusatives as a test case. Cognate accusatives consists of a verb immediately followed by a noun derived from the same root; for example: “cursed with a sore cursing”, “work all manner of fine work”, “judge righteous judgments” etc. These types of expressions occur in the Bible and are thought to constitute genuine Semitic constructs. Hence, it may be cause for excitement to read that Lehi “dreamed a dream” or that the abominable church “yoketh them with a yoke” and so forth. Our enthusiasm may be dampened however, when we learn that the very first cognate accusative to occur in the BoM, “handle with our hands”, occurs not in the Nephite text but in The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.[4] We might be further discouraged to read in the D&C that the Lord will “work a marvelous work” (18:44), that He “cursed them with a very sore and grievous curse” (104:4), that Joseph “desired, with exceedingly great desire” (127:10) etc. What does it mean when cognate accusatives flow freely not only from the mouths of Nephites but also from Joseph Smith when speaking either for himself or for the Lord?

Perhaps the most popular Hebraism is the chiasmus, a rhetorical form characterized by reversal of structure, such that clauses display inverted parallelism; e.g.,

A: But many that are first
     B: shall be last;
     B: and the last
A: shall be first. (Matthew 19:30).

Short chiasmi occur naturally and unintentionally in virtually all writing; e.g.,

A: Old King Cole
     B: was a merry old soul,
     B: and a merry old soul
A: was he.

Much longer chiastic structures appear to occur in the Book of Mormon; e.g., Mosiah 3:18-19, Alma 36 and many others. It has been asserted that chiasmi of more than two elements are almost unknown outside of ancient writings.[5] The D&C however, contains many examples of lengthy chiastic structures; e.g., 88:34-39:

A: And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same. That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.
B: All kingdoms have a law given;
       C: And there are many kingdoms;
          D: for there is no space
             E: in the which there is no kingdom,
             E: and there is no kingdom
          D: in which there is no space,
       C: either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
    B: And unto every kingdom is given a law;
A: and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.

Other examples are: 5:1-23, 11:1-30, 29:30-33, 60:1-14, 61:23-30, 63:17-49, 88:51-61, 93:23-38, 101:44-53, 104:68-69, 107:8-18, 107:72-76 and 109:29-50.[6]

The trouble with chiasmus is that parallel elements cannot be precisely defined. With sufficiently loose tolerances, such that any word or idea in a clause can be matched to any similar word or vaguely related idea in a parallel clause, chiastic structures of almost any size can be found in almost any text.

What apologists really need is a definitive construction, common in biblical Hebrew, that is found in the Book of Mormon and nowhere else in Joseph’s writings. Such is the hope attached to if-and conditional sentences.

Conditional sentences typically contain two clauses: a condition clause called the protasis, and a result clause called the apodosis; e.g., “If you build it, they will come.” The if-and conditional sentence, “If you build it and they will come.” constitutes improper English. According to Royal Skousen, the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon contains at least fourteen instances where “and” occurs in place of “then”, or a comma, as a bridge between the protasis and apodosis in various conditional sentences, suggesting that “and” was specifically controlled for.[7]

Skousen’s claim is remarkable not only because if-and conditionals are extremely awkward English but also because they appear nowhere in the KJV Bible. Hence, unlike other Hebraisms, these phrases cannot be explained by Joseph trying to imitate Bible language. According to Daniel Peterson, if-and conditionals constitute “language contamination,” i.e., leakage from the text’s original language into the translation language.[8] But do such phrases constitute “a subtle divine hint that the original language of the Book of Mormon wasn’t English,” as Peterson alleges?

It is important to realize that the Hebrew letter ו (waw) in a conditional sentence serves more as a marker than an actual word. Ancient languages like Arabic and Classical Hebrew lacked punctuation; hence, words/letters like waw were used as vehicles for marking, similar to the modern comma, semicolon etc. The meaning of waw therefore depends on context. It often means “and” but when linking protases to apodoses it should be translated as “then” or a comma. The Masoretes were aware of this and treated the waw conjunction as a vehicular (rather than linguistic) device. Nevertheless, let us suppose that Joseph, upon seeing the Reformed Egyptian equivalent of waw in his seer stone, was given “and” as its English equivalent, regardless of context. Does this actually show up in the original translation manuscript?

Skousen and Peterson trumpet Helaman 12:13-21 as containing the most impressive examples of if-and conditional expressions:

13 yea and if he sayeth unto the earth move and it is moved
14 yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done . . .
16 and behold also if he sayeth unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done
17 behold if he sayeth unto this mountain be thou raised up and come over and fall upon that city that it be buried up and behold it is done . . .
19 and if the Lord shall say be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever and behold no man getteth it henceforth and forever
20 and behold if the Lord shall say unto a man because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever and it shall be done
21 and if the Lord shall say because of thine iniquities thou shalt be cut off from my presence and he will cause that it shall be so[9]

They present these seven cases as if they were complete sentences, each with its own protasis and apodosis, but this is not in fact the case.

Printer’s Manuscript of Helaman 12:7-13:3

Joseph did not indicate sentence structure in his dictations. The original manuscript (pre editing) is entirely devoid of punctuation.[10] John Gilbert had to guess at punctuation when they divided the text into sentences for printing.[11] This was no easy task because Joseph was master of the run-on sentence (e.g., the sacrament prayers). His revelations are saturated with strings of “and…” clauses. For example, consider his lengthy “jaws of hell” conditional sentence in D&C 122:5-7. (The multi-part protasis is green and the apodosis is purple.)

If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

Helaman 12:13-22 is actually comprised of three complete sentences, in which the “and”s in question are all part of the protases (changes to punctuation and capitalization are in red):

yea, and if he saith unto the earth, Move, and it is moved; yea, if he saith unto the earth, Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours, and it is done; and thus according to his word, the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for sure it is the earth that moveth, and not the sun.

And behold, also, if he saith unto the waters of the great deep, Be thou dried up, and it is done; Behold, if he saith unto this mountain, Be thou raised up, and come over and fall upon that city, that it be buried up, and behold it is done; and behold, if a man hideth up a treasure in the earth, and the Lord shall say, Let it be accursed, because of the iniquity of him that hath hid it up, behold, it shall be accursed.

And if the Lord shall say, Be thou accursed, that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever, and behold, no man getteth it henceforth and forever; and behold, if the Lord shall say unto a man, Because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever, and it shall be done; and if the Lord shall say, Because of thine iniquities, thou shalt be cut off from my presence, and he will cause that it shall be so; and wo unto whom he shall say this, for it shall be unto him that will do iniquity, and he cannot be saved; therefore, for this cause, that men might be saved, hath repentance been declared.

In punctuating Joseph’s translations, Cowdery, Gilbert et al. were occasionally compelled to sneak in periods to put interminable protases out of their misery. Skousen and Peterson make the same mistake in jumping to the apodosis before Joseph is finished with the protasis. The Helaman examples are all of the form:

If [God says something]
and [something happens and God says something else and something else happens…]
[then you finally get the apodosis].

Joseph’s stream-of-consciousness dictation style, in the cadence and rhythm of a frontier sermon, appears to explain all fourteen of Skousen’s alleged if-and conditional constructs in the 1830 BoM. According to Skousen, Oliver Cowdery mistakenly removed the if-and conditional in 1 Nephi 17:50 in the printer’s manuscript and Joseph erroneously edited out the remaining thirteen if-and Hebraisms in the 1837 publication. Since these alleged Hebraisms were never really there in the first place, it rather appears that Skousen has, in essence, edited the Hebraisms into the original manuscript.

So what happens if we embark on an apologetic hunt for Hebraisms in some other book of known authorship? Robert Patterson has applied the same methodologies to Green Eggs & Ham as apologists have applied to the Book of Mormon and found Dr. Seuss’ text to be packed full of Hebraisms and teeming with literary and Semitic complexity.[12] We could conclude from his results that Elder Holland et al. would be foolish to reject 72 pages of text without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages. However anyone making such a conclusion, elect or otherwise, would be misled and deceived. Elder Holland is free to reject the ancient authorship of Green Eggs & Ham for perfectly obvious reasons. No crawling is necessary.


[1] David P. Wright, “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon …and Joseph Smith in Isaiah, Part 4: Disparities with Hebrew Language, Text, and Style,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, by eds. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, 157-234. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002.

[2] Many apologists shun the tight translation model since it cannot explain the verbatim copying of many chapters from the KJV Bible. These apologists favor a loose translation model, whereby Joseph was free to render ideas in his own words and borrow extensively from the KJV text. — Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987): 66-124.

[3] Edward H. Ashment, “‘A Record in the Language of My Father’: Evidence of Ancient Egyptian and Hebrew in the Book of Mormon” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed.

[4] We also might note that the curious phrase “curious workmanship” in the witness statement was a favorite expression of the Nephites and Jaredites as well (1 Nephi 16:10, 18:1, Alma 37:39, Ether 10:27).

[6] Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” BYU Studies 43:2.

[7] Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origens by Noel B. Reynolds.

[8] Daniel C. Peterson, “Poor English, but good Hebrew — a divine hint of Book of Mormon truth?Mormon Times, 28 October 2010.

[9] The original manuscript of Helaman 12 is not extant. — Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, 259-78 (1970).

[10] The only textual divisions in the original manuscript are the occasional word “chapter”.

[11] John Gilbert, the compositor for the 1830 edition, added punctuation, paragraphing, and other printing marks to about one-third of the pages of the printer’s manuscript. These same marks appear on one fragment of the original, indicating that it was used at least once in typesetting the 1830 edition. Gilbert described the process as follows: “After working a few days, I said to [Hyrum] Smith on his handing me the manuscript in the morning, ‘Mr. [Hyrum] Smith, if you would leave this manuscript with me, I would take it home with me at night and read and punctuate it, and I could get along faster in the daytime, for now I have frequently to stop and read half a page to find how to punctuate it.’  His reply was, ‘We are commanded not to leave it.’  A few mornings after this, when [Hyrum] Smith handed me the manuscript, he said to me, ‘If you will give your word that this manuscript shall be returned to us when you get through with it, I will leave it with you.’  I assured Smith that it should be returned all right when I got through with it.  For two or three nights I took it home with me and read it, and punctuated it with a lead pencil. This will account for the punctuation marks in pencil, which is referred to in the Mormon Report, an extract from which will be found below.     …     Every chapter, if I remember correctly, was one solid paragraph, without a punctuation mark, from beginning to end. Names of persons and places were generally capitalized, but sentences had no end.  The character or short ‘&’ was used almost invariably where the word ‘and’ occurred, except at the end of a chapter.  I punctuated it to make it read as I supposed the author intended, and but very little punctuation was altered in proofreading.     …     [Oliver] Cowdery held and looked over the manuscript when most of the proofs were read.  Martin Harris once or twice, and Hyrum Smith once, Grandin supposing these men could read their own writing as well, if not better, than anyone else; and if there are any discrepancies between the Palmyra edition and the manuscript these men should be held responsible. Joseph Smith, Jr., had nothing to do whatever with the printing or furnishing copy for the printers, being but once in the office during the printing of the Bible [Book of Mormon], and then not over fifteen or twenty minutes.” — RECOLLECTIONS OF JOHN H. GILBERT, 8 September 1892, Palmyra, New York, typescript, BYU.

[12] Robert Patterson, “Hebraicisms, Chiasmus and Other Internal Evidence for ancient Authorship in Green Eggs and Ham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 173-178.

The Christmas Story

(Luke chapter 2 is green.)

(Matthew chapter 2 is red.)

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

Caesar Augustus appointed Cyrenius governor of Syria in AD 6, with instructions to “be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance”. Hence, these verses establish this year as the earliest possible birth date of Jesus.

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Unfortunately, King Herod the Great died in 4 BC (shortly after the lunar eclipse on March 13th).[1] This would have made it difficult for him to converse with the wise men after a decade of decay in his tomb.

Burial tomb of Herod the Great

These accounts, therefore, are mutually exclusive; i.e., we must choose one or the other (or neither), since both cannot be correct.

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

No historical sources mention a Roman-world census of the entire population; those of Augustus covered Roman citizens only.[2] Furthermore, it was never Roman practice to require people to return to their ancestral homes for accounting or taxation.[3] The notion of everyone in the Roman Empire returning to his ancestral city to be taxed is extraordinarily infeasible.

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Luke and Matthew each struggled with the problem as to how to get Jesus born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill Micah 5:2. They sought to overcome the Pharisees’ contention that Jesus was not the Christ (John 7:41-42,52), since he “came from Nazareth of Galilee” (Mark 1:9). Their respective solutions to this problem are completely different; whereas Luke uses the Census of Quirinius as justification to temporarily transport Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Matthew simply begins in the requisite city.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The King James translators rendered the Greek word kataluma (Gr: καταλυμα  or καταλυματι) as “inn”; however, in this context it means “guest room”. Luke uses this word again in 22:11 in referring to the large upper-story “guestchamber” in the private house where Jesus observed the Last Supper with his disciples. Luke uses pandocheion (Gr: πανδοχειον) (10:34) to denote the public “inn” where the Samaritan brought the wounded traveler.
It was common practice to bring animals into the lower level of rural homes at night for safety and warmth. It thus appears that when the upper level of the house became too crowded with relatives, Mary took the baby downstairs and laid him in a stone feeding trough, which made an excellent cradle.

A stone manger

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 ¶And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

For “wise men” Matthew uses μάγους (magi), which, in this context, means “astrologers”. This word is found in LXX Daniel 2:2,10,27 referring to the attendants of the king.[4] Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience who expected their king to be adored by important people with kingly gifts.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

Luke, on the other hand, wrote for working-class gentiles; hence, peasant shepherds as opposed to noble magi.

12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Here Matthew sends the young family on a ~600 mile detour to prevent any rabbis from using Hosea 11:1 against Jesus.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Luke emphasizes Jesus’ lowly birth and common cloth wrappings in order to persuade the shepherd class that the baby was one of them.

16 ¶Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Such large-scale infanticide demands multiple attestation; however, Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents is not mentioned by Luke, Josephus, Tacitus or any other Jewish or Roman historian. In fact, Herod only executed three Jewish children, whom he perceived as threats to his throne: his sons Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 BC and his son Antipater in 4 BC.[5] Nevertheless, Matthew succeeds here with his Jewish audience in painting infant Jesus as a second Moses, who narrowly escapes the clutches of a murderous tyrant.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The “multitude of the heavenly host” refers to the army of good angels who fought in the War in Heaven under the leadership of Archangel Michael and/or “Yahweh of hosts”. Luke is appealing to beliefs passed down from ancient Canaanite religion, deriving from Assyro-Babylonian mythology, regarding the motion of the sun, moon and stars (Deuteronomy 4:19; Judges 5:20).

19 ¶But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.
22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judæa in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:
23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Matthew continues his Moses motif in describing Jesus’ exile. By sending the family from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth, he covers all possible origins for the King of the Jews.

So what do these two different stories teach us?

Just as there was no room in the “inn” for Joseph and Mary, neither is there historical room in The Nativity for Luke’s shepherds or Matthew’s Magi. These mythical figures have got to go.

The sheep however, are welcome to stay.


[1] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.6.4 & 17.8.3.

[2] Emil Schürer, Fergus Millar (editor), Geza Vermes (editor), The history of the Jewish people in the age of Jesus Christ Vol I, (Continuum, 1973) 401.

[3] James Douglas Grant Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 344.

[4] In producing his gospel, Matthew relied on the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. This is known from his misquotes of Hebrew Isaiah et al., based on LXX mistranslations, and from his use of the Septuagint’s parthenos or “virgin” (Matt. 1:23) for the Hebrew almah, meaning “young woman”, in Isaiah 7:14. Had Isaiah specifically meant “virgin”, he would have used bethulah: Tim Callahan, Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? 115-16.

[5] Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus, 1997, I.3 “Romans, Herodians and Jewish sects,” p.49.

Confounding the Wise

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;”1 Corinthians 1:27

I. Setting the Stage:

According to Joseph Smith’s History, on the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, the angel Moroni appeared in his bedroom and told him about the Golden Plates. The angel quoted Isaiah and other prophets, saying that their prophecies were about to be fulfilled. Oliver Cowdery wrote about this visit in a letter to W. W. Phelps, wherein he related that the angel declared he had come “that the scriptures might be fulfilled, which say —‘God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty’“. The angel, quoting Isaiah 29:14, proclaimed that the Lord “will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; the wisdom, of their wise shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid”. The angel went on to explain that “this cannot be brought about until first certain preparatory things are accomplished,” then he invoked Isaiah 29:13 to warn that “those who draw near to God with their mouths, and honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far from him, will seek its overthrow”. The angel instructed Joseph that “the scripture must be fulfilled before it is translated, which says that the words of a book, which were sealed, were presented to the learned” (Isaiah 29:11). Finally, the angel made clear to Joseph that he was to be the Lord’s instrument in fulfilling Isaiah 29:12, “for thus has God determined to leave men without excuse, and show to the meek that his arm is not shortened that it cannot save.”[1]

The following day, Joseph walked to the hill Cumorah and dug up the plates. When he reached into the box to grab them he received a shock. The angel then reappeared and admonished him to remember what he had told him the previous night. In another letter to Phelps, Cowdery explained that “in an instant, all the former instructions, the great intelligence concerning Israel and the last days, were brought to his mind”. The angel declared that before the record could be translated the promise of the Lord (i.e., the Isaiah 29 verses) must first be fulfilled. He explained that the record on the plates “cannot be interpreted by the learning of this generation;” but rather, “they are to be translated by the gift and power of God” and that “by them will the Lord work a great and a marvelous work: the wisdom of the wise shall become as nought, and the understanding of the prudent shall be hid”.[2]

II. Preparing the Script:

In January 1827, Joseph told Emily M. Austin (a friend of Joseph and Emma at Colesville) of “that which Isaiah the prophet had spoken of; a vision which should become as the words of a book that is sealed; which was delivered to one that was learned, saying ‘Read this, I pray thee;’ and he said, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed;’ and the book is delivered to one that is unlearned, saying: ‘Read this, I pray thee;’ and he said, ‘I cannot, for I am unlearned; moreover, inasmuch as this people draw near me, with their mouths and with their lips do honor me, therefore I will proceed to do a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.’” According to Emily, Joseph “brought up many prophecies to show that the Lord was about to do a marvelous work” and such rumors “circulated throughout the country”.[3]

For Joseph, Isaiah 29:11 dictated a clear set of requirements, which had to be accomplished before he “that is not learned” could begin translating; otherwise the opportunity to fulfill this prophecy would be missed. The “words of a book” had to first be delivered by “men” to “one that is learned”.[4] Then, when the learned man was asked to read the words, he had to reply to the effect that he could not read a sealed book. The script thus called for three actors, a learned man, an unlearned man and a delivery man. In December 1827, Joseph cast Martin Harris for a leading role in his drama.

Joseph could not have picked a better man for the delivery job. According to Pomeroy Tucker, Martin “could probably repeat from memory nearly every text of the Bible from beginning to end, giving the chapter and verse in each case.” Harris was fond of “proving the lack of wisdom” of “the rejecters” and always relied on “his favorite quotation, that ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise’” as a “self-convincing argument in reply to similar adversity in his fanatical pursuit.”[5] It is a remarkable coincidence that Martin’s favorite saying was spoken repeatedly to Joseph by the angel Moroni. With Harris itching to put the scholars to shame, it was a simple matter for Joseph to create a document that no linguist could possibly read. And with the failure of their translation-efforts guaranteed, the success of the mission was assured.

A copy of the characters on the Anthon transcript

III. Playing the Part:

Martin set off from Harmony in Feb. 1828 with transcript in hand. Before heading east, he stopped to see John A. Clark in Palmyra and showed him the transcript. Clark thought that the “H”-like character might be Hebrew but otherwise considered the whole thing a fraud. Clark reports that his “ignorance of the characters in which the pretended ancient record was written, was to Martin Harris new proof that Smith’s whole account of the divine revelation made to him was entirely to be relied on.”[6] Martin next went to Albany to see Luther Bradish and then journeyed on to New York City to see Samuel Latham Mitchill. When Mitchill failed to speak the words of Isaiah 29:11, Martin sought out Prof. Charles Anthon of Columbia College.

Martin told the professor that “a young man” had given him the transcript with instructions to “submit it to the learned”[7] and thus “he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles.” Anthon identified some of the characters as “Greek”, “Hebrew” and “Roman” and specifically denied the presence of “Egyptian Hieroglyphics.“[8] After some further discussion, Martin gave the Professor a little prompting by mentioning, completely out of context, that “part of the plates were sealed” (even though Martin had not yet seen the plates). This paid off handsomely as Anthon replied with the golden words, “I cannot read a sealed book.”[9]

After procuring the requisite quote from the learned man, Harris returned to his friend John Clark and told him “that among others he had consulted Professor Anthon, who thought the characters in which the book was written very remarkable, but he could not decide exactly what language they belonged to.” Clark relates that “Martin had now become a perfect believer. He said he had no more doubt of Smith’s divine commission, than of the divine commission of the apostles. The very fact that Smith was an obscure and illiterate man, showed that he must be acting under divine impulses: — ‘God had chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things to confound the mighty’”.[10] Later, John Gilbert, Book of Mormon typesetter, wrote that “Martin returned from his trip satisfied that Joseph was a ‘little smarter than Professor Anthon.’”[11]

IV. Charming the Patrons:

Sixteen months after Martin’s triumphant return from New York (and with Mosiah-Moroni plus 1 Nephi safely completed)[12] Joseph dictated the Anthon affair to Oliver Cowdery in an excruciatingly detailed nineteen-verse midrash of Isaiah 29:11-12.

2 Nephi 27:
6 And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.
7 And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.
8 Wherefore, because of the things which are sealed up, the things which are sealed shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people. Wherefore the book shall be kept from them.
9 But the book shall be delivered unto a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book, which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust, and he shall deliver these words unto another;
10 But the words which are sealed he shall not deliver; neither shall he deliver the book. For the book shall be sealed by the power of God, and the revelation which was sealed shall be kept in the book until the own due time of the Lord, that they may come forth; for behold, they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof.
11 And the day cometh that the words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the house tops; and they shall be read by the power of Christ; and all things shall be revealed unto the children of men which ever have been among the children of men, and which ever will be even unto the end of the earth.
12 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
13 And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead.
14 Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God!
15 But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them.
16 And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God.
17 And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed.
18 Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it.
19 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned.
20 Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
21 Touch not the things which are sealed, for I will bring them forth in mine own due time; for I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work.
22 Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.
23 For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.
24 And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him:

At last, Martin had his reward for undertaking his journey; not to mention an exceedingly strong incentive to foot the printer’s bill. There he was, clear as crystal, in verses 15 & 17, which all but listed his shoe size and blood type. Furthermore, he had the marvelous opportunity to lay claim on verses 12, 14 and 22 as one of the three or so privileged witnesses, for which honor he aggressively lobbied, along with David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery.[13]

V. Taking a Bow:

From June 1830 to July 1833, Joseph spent much of his time translating the Bible (JST). This effort was necessary “to restore truths to the Bible text that had become lost or changed since the original words were written” and to recover “certain truths that the original authors had once recorded”.[14] As further proof of the monumental importance of Martin’s encounter with Prof. Anthon, Joseph restored the plain and precious details of the visit in his inspired translation of Isaiah 29:

11 And it shall come to pass, that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book; and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.
12 And behold, the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.
13 Wherefore because of the things which are sealed up, the things which are sealed shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people. Wherefore, the book shall be kept from them.
14 But the book shall be delivered unto a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book, which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust; and he shall deliver these words unto another, but the words that are sealed he shall not deliver, neither shall he deliver the book.
15 For the book shall be sealed by the power of God, and the revelation which was sealed shall be kept in the book until the own due time of the Lord, that they may come forth; for behold, they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof.
16 And the day cometh, that the words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the housetops; and they shall be read by the power of Christ; and all things shall be revealed unto the children of men which ever have been among the children of men, and which ever will be, even unto the end of the earth.
17 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it, save it be that three witnesses shall behold it by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
18 And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said, that the words of the faithful should speak as it were from the dead.
19 Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and woe be unto him that rejecteth the word of God.
20 But, behold, it shall come to pass, that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book, Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee.
21 And the learned shall say, Bring hither the book and I will read them; and now because of the glory of the world, and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God. And the man shall say, I cannot bring the book for it is sealed. Then shall the learned say, I cannot read it.
22 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say, I am not learned. Then shall the Lord God say unto him, The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
23 Touch not the things which are sealed, for I will bring them forth in mine own due time; for I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work.
24 Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.
25 For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men, save it be according to their faith.
26 And again it shall come to pass, that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him, Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precepts of men, therefore I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people; yea, a marvelous work and a wonder; for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.

Except for the combination of a few verses, to clean up some choppy sentences, the extra JST verses are identical to those in 2 Nephi 27. Thus, in addition to the brouhaha concerning whether Joseph used a Bible in translating the Book of Mormon, we have the highly ironic likelihood that he used a Book of Mormon in translating the Bible![15]

Joseph gloried in the notion that Isaiah had prophesied his life. In an unfinished history he began in 1832, he took the pen in his own hand and recorded that Martin Harris “took his Journy to the Eastern Cittys and to the Learned saying read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the plates they would read it but the Lord had forbit it and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate and I said cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters and thus the Prophicy of Isaiaah was fulfilled which is writen in the 29 chapter concerning the book.”[16]

VI. Leaving a Mess:

LDS scholars have recently come to realize that Isaiah’s sealed book is not the Golden Plates, but rather the voice of Jerusalem that was to symbolically whisper from the dust; i.e., Isaiah was referring to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, circa 701 BC, when the armies of Assyrian-king Sennacherib layed siege to the city.[17] Joseph Smith’s expanded version of Isaiah 29 is not attested in either the Septuagint or the Qumran Great Isaiah Scroll. The extra verses do not appear in the Codex Sinaiticus, the Latin Vulgate nor any other pre-1829 text. By any reasonable standard of textual criticism (lectio brevior in particular) the JST verses depend on the Nephi verses, which depend on the KJV verses, which derive from the Masoretic Text. In recognition of these difficulties, Cloward, Tvedtnes and others allege that the extra verses belong to Nephi, rather than Isaiah. In their scenario, Nephi reinterpreted Isaiah’s sealed book as his own gold plates and co-opted Isaiah’s dust of death as the hill Cumorah. According to Cloward, prophets are entitled to liken the scriptures unto themselves and “there is no impropriety in their giving old scripture new meaning for their lives.”

The trouble with assigning the extraneous verses to Nephi is that it creates more problems than it solves. Firstly, Nephi’s habit of likening the scriptures unto himself offers no support for this thesis, since neither the learned nor unlearned man refer to him or anyone else in his spatial or temporal locality. If anyone was likening the scriptures unto himself, it was Joseph Smith. Secondly, if Nephi could assign unprecedented new meaning to scripture, then why couldn’t Joseph? What purpose does the middle-man serve? Thirdly, since the Brass Plates served as the basic scriptures of the Nephite nation, and were passed down by all the major prophets from Nephi to Mormon, any alteration of the words of Isaiah could not have gone unnoticed; i.e., metal engravings are not easily erased. Fourthly, Joseph Smith never attributed the extra verses to Nephi. In all of his writings, translations and oral communications he credited the prophesy to Isaiah. If the prophecy was Nephi’s, then why did Moroni attribute it to Isaiah and why did the Lord mislead JS in translating the Bible?

In addition to the above considerations there is the textual evidence. Chapter XI in the 1830 BoM quotes virtually all of KJV-Isaiah 29, except for the first two “Ariel” verses, which clearly address Jerusalem (not New York). The 2 Nephi 27/28 chapter break in the printer’s manuscript, 1830 edition and modern edition coincides with the Isaiah 29/30 chapter break in the KJV Bible.

Printer’s Manuscript with Chapter XII inserted at end of KJV-Isaiah 29

Chapter break in 1830 ed. coinciding with end of Isaiah 29

Chapter breaks did not exist in the Bible until Archbishop Stephen Langton put them there in the 13th century. The most that could have existed on the Brass Plates, were setumah or petuhah demarcating much shorter text units.

Dead-Sea Great Isaiah Scroll with minor petuhah at end of chapter 29

Whereas, the Isaiah-29 quotations in 2 Nephi 26 (modern ed.) are followed by obvious commentary, 2 Nephi 27:2-35 flows forth in a single unbroken voice. (e.g., there is no, “And now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words of Isaiah…”) The embellishment in 6-24 is bracketed by verses 10 and 13 in Isaiah 29, with no transitions whatsoever between the direct quotations and the midrash; in fact, the transition to direct quotation at 24-25 occurs mid-sentence.

It is also apparent that the author of 2 Nephi 27 was averse to “Ariel” since he skips 4 instances of it in Isaiah 29:1-2 and changes it to “Zion” in verse 7.  “Ariel” is a Hebrew name, which, through its connection with Ezekiel 43, appears to suggest that Jerusalem is going to burn. Nephi would have been very familiar with this name for his home town, just as New Yorkers are familiar with “The Big Apple”. “Zion” on the other hand, is probably not a Hebrew word. Nephi would have understood it to mean “Mount Zion” (Isaiah 29:8 ); i.e., a specific place in Jerusalem. Joseph Smith however, used “Zion” in much broader terms; i.e., the gathering place of the saints, which is how the word is used in 2 Nephi 27:3. Additionally, the author of 2 Nephi 27 copied the KJV mistranslations: “Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay”, in verse 27, and “offender for a word”, in verse 32.[18]

The difficulties surrounding JST Isaiah 29 and 2 Nephi 27 are compounded by the exaggerated claims and internal inconsistencies in the official account of the Anthon affair. From 1828 to 1838 the story evolved to meet the expectations of new converts. At first, Anthon could not read the characters, then later he could authenticate but not translate the characters and eventually he could identify the languages and translate the characters.[19] In 1835, Martin Harris and the “Caractors” transcript got conflated with Michael Chandler and the papyri in the rush to prove that “there was one language Professor Anthon could not translate which the Prophet did.”[20]

Although Anthon owned a copy of Champollion’s Précis du système Hiéroglyphique des Anciens Égyptiens (Paris 1824), it is doubtful that this would have enabled him to discern “that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian” or to confidently proclaim that “they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct.” Just how many translations of Reformed Egyptian had the Professor previously encountered? Moroni wrote that “none other people knoweth our language” because the characters were “handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech” (Mormon 9:32-34).

In 1838 Smith stayed with his future wife Lucinda Morgan Harris, widow of Royal Arch Mason William Morgan. Morgan’s 1826 disappearance had prompted David Bernard, in 1829, to add the Royal Arch degree to his reprint of Morgan’s exposé of Masonry’s first three degrees.[21] In the 1830 oath or obligation of a Royal Arch Mason, the grand omnific word, ‘long lost but now found,’ is JAH-BUH-LUN. “Candidates are instructed to understand that this word signifies God, in three different languages, (i. e.) Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Syriac, and that it is the true word of a mason.”[22] Thus, by changing Anthon’s “Greek” and “Roman” letters to “Chaldaic” and “Assyriac”, Joseph appealed to converts with Masonic backgrounds.

In the end, it appears that Martin Harris was right about the foolish things of the world confounding the wise. It has taken scholars many decades to apprehend that the surest words of prophecy are written by less-learned men after the fact.


[1] Cowdery, Oliver. “Letter to W. W. Phelps, Esq.” Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 27, 1835: 77-80.

[2] Cowdery, Oliver. “Letter to W. W. Phelps.” Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835: 195-202.

[3] Austin, Emily M. [Colburn]. Life Among the Mormons. Madison: M. J. Cantrell Book and Job Printer, 1882: 33-35.

[4] Joseph mistrusted italicized words in the KJV Bible. — Wright, David P. “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon …and Joseph Smith in Isaiah.” In American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, by eds. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, 157-234. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002. Hence, it would not have been hard for him to replace “men” with “man” (Martin Harris) in Isaiah 29:11.

[5] Tucker, Pomeroy. Origin, rise, and progress of Mormonism. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1867: 40-42.

[6] Clark, John A. Gleanings by the Way. Philadelphia: W. J. & J. K. Simmon, 1842: 228. Clark misremembers the date of Martin’s first visit as autumn 1827.

[7] Charles Anthon’s April 3rd, 1841 letter from New York, printed in Clark: 233-238. According to Joseph’s mother, “It soon became necessary to take some measure to accomplish the translation of the record into English but he was instructed to take off a fac simile of the  characters <composing the alphabet which were called reformed Egyptian> Alphabetically and send them to all the learned men that he could find and ask them for the translation of the same. Joseph was very solicitous about the work but as yet no means had come into his hands of accomplishing  it.” — Lucy Mack Smith Preliminary History Manuscript, p. 108 (EMD 1:343). According to Joseph’s father, “…the remaining pages [of the gold plates] were closely written over in characters of some unknown tongue, the last containing the alphabet of this unknown language. …[S]ome of them, …[Joseph] showed to the learned…” — Joseph Smith, Sr. 1830 interview (EMD 1:462-63).

[8] Charles Anthon’s Feb. 17, 1834 letter from New York, printed in Howe, Eber D. Mormonism Unvailed. Painesville Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834: 270-272.

[9] Kimball, Stanley B. “The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems.” BYU Studies Vol 10, No. 3, Spring 1970: 325-352. According to Kimball, Harris may have been so intent on fulfilling a scriptural prophecy that he heard only what he wanted to hear. It is unclear whether Anthon actually made the “sealed book” remark, since his comment is not attested in the historical record until 1838.

[10] Clark: 229-230.

[11] Memorandum of John H. Gilbert, 8 Sept. 1892, Palmyra, New York.

[12] Metcalfe, Brent Lee. “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis.” In New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, by editor Brent Lee Metcalfe. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993.

[13] Dean C. Jessee editor, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company; vol 1, 1989:295. In Joseph’s words, “Almost immediately after we had made this discovery; it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and the aforementioned Martin Harris (who had came to enquire after our progress in the work) that they would have me enquire of the Lord, to know if they might not obtain of him to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and teased me so much, that at length I complied, and through the Urim and Thummim, I obtained of the Lord for them the following revelation.”

[14] These verses were deleted from the church website not long after this essay appeared on the Mormon Apologetics & Discussion Board (now renamed).

[15] It also appears that JST-Genesis 50:24-35, which contains extra-biblical details regarding Joseph of Egypt, was copied directly from 2 Nephi 3:5-17, with some minor alterations and additions.

[16] Paul R. Cheesman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating to Joseph Smith’s Early Vision,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965. Dean C. Jessee “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 275-94.

[17] Cloward, Robert A. “Isaiah 29 and the Book of Mormon.” In Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, by Welch & Parry. Provo: FARMS, 1998. and Tvedtnes, John A. “Sealed Books.” In The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness Unto Light. Maxwell Institute.

[18] David P. Wright. “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 31, No. 4, p. 181-206 (Winter 1988).

[19] Hullinger, Robert N. “Isaiah, Buried and Sealed.” In Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism, by Robert N. Hullinger. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992.

[20] John Riggs quoted by Edward W. Tullidge in “History of Provo City.” Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine 3 no.3 (July 1884):283.

[21] Bernard, David. Light on Masonry. Utica: William Williams, 1829: 126.

[22] “Report of Seceding Masons.” The Proceedings of the United States Anti-Masonic Convention. Philadelphia: New York: Skinner and Dewey, 1830, 11 Sept. 1830. 58-59.

The Easter Story

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.” — Ecclesiastes 12:7

A good way to evaluate the historicity of a story is to check whether its constituent events match the chronological order in which they were first reported. Jesus’ crucifixion is followed by two decades of silence in the historical record. However, clues regarding the earliest apostolic teachings during this silent period can be found in the epistles of Paul. One important clue is the pre-Pauline creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:[1]

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Paul “received” this “died… buried… raised… appeared” creed from Peter and James, “the Lord’s brother” at Jerusalem three years after his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus (Galatians 1:18-19). Hence, these beliefs date to about 7 years after the crucifixion and constitute the views of at least two key eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul spent 15 days with Peter gathering the essential facts of the eyewitness accounts; thus, Paul’s teachings, as recorded in his epistles, should closely resemble the views of the original apostles.

So what were these earliest views?

Regarding Jesus’ burial, Paul taught that the Jewish authorities (i.e., the ones who had him executed) took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb.

Acts 13:28 And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed.
29 When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb.

This is consistent with Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5-6, which relates that the Sanhedrin had established two burial sites for the temporary placing of corpses of Jews executed as criminals. The corpses were later removed and reburied honorably by family members.

Regarding the resurrection, Paul taught that Jesus was the first person to be raised from the dead.

1 Corinthians 15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming,

He preached that the resurrection applied only to our spirits, not to our physical bodies.

15:35 But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?”
36 You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies;
37 and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else.

In Paul’s view, we permanently dispose of our physical bodies at death and are raised again as purely spiritual beings; just as a seed planted in the Earth grows into a new plant.

15:42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body;
43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
45 So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

Furthermore, it is impossible for flesh-and-blood bodies to inherit the kingdom of God.

15:50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

In none of his writings does Paul mention the empty tomb, showing of wounds, eating of fish or any other bodily act of the resurrected Jesus.[2]

Paul died in the 60s, along with Peter and James, effectively bringing an end to the generation of contemporary witnesses.

In AD 70, Titus sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Jewish commonwealth along with the temple, which had served as the center of teaching and study for Jewish Christians. This forced an end to the traditional system of oral scholarship and ushered in a new era of written rabbinic discourse. Shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem, an anonymous Christian, not too familiar with the geography and customs of Galilee, took it upon himself to write down the key events of Jesus’ life and death. His story ends thus:[3]

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him.
2 And very early on the first day of the week, they come to the tomb when the sun was risen.
3 And they were saying among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?
4 and looking up, they see that the stone is rolled back: for it was exceeding great.
5 And entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe; and they were amazed.
6 And he saith unto them, Be not amazed: ye seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who hath been crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him!
7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
8 And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.

This is the first mention of the empty tomb in any canonical or non-canonical text. Mark deftly employs it as a powerful symbol for dramatic effect.[4] Jesus’ body is missing; however, it’s unclear whether it has reanimated, been moved or has simply evaporated (along with the linen burial wrappings). Indeed, it doesn’t seem to matter, since Mark’s only apparent purpose is to “sow” the “perishable” natural body to enable the “imperishable” spiritual body to rise from its seed. Of course, by introducing an empty tomb with a missing body, Mark creates the obvious question/objection: why didn’t Peter, Paul, James or any other apostles ever mention these things? Mark solves this problem by only having women present and by having them say “nothing to any one”. The Messianic Secret is thus preserved and the apostles never find out about the empty tomb or the young man in the white robe.

For at least a decade after Mark penned his gospel, church leaders continued to teach a spirit-only resurrection; e.g.,[5]

1 Peter 3:18 Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
1 Peter 4:6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.

As post-Pauline leaders with new agendas took over, Christianity began to splinter into competing sects, largely divided along social status lines. Groups of elite Gnostics perpetuated Paul’s Orphic disdain for the flesh (Romans 7:18-8:18) by rejecting any idea of a physical resurrection. Their chief goal was to become free forever from the taint of matter and the shackles of the body, and to return to the heavenly realm as pure spirits. The uneducated masses however, were disturbed by the idea of losing their body. They were not impressed by highbrow arguments for a disembodied immortality; they just wanted to get their bodies back, which is what the Jewish sects and pagan cults offered.[6] As the Christian movement spread throughout the ancient world, it bumped up against these neighboring cults with their rival gods and competing mythologies.

Most of the other gods, including the Jewish god, were able to raise people bodily from the dead. Indeed, physical resurrections were all the rage in the first century.[7] One Greek god in particular, Ἀσκληπιός Σωτήρ (Asclepius the Savior), was so adept at bringing people back from the dead that Hades feared no more dead spirits would come to the underworld.[8] Coincidentally, “Jesus” (properly, Yeshua) means “Savior” in Hebrew. This fact, combined with Jesus’ reputation as a “fisher of men”, made it only natural for first-century Christians to construct an acronym from the Greek word for “fish” (ΙΧΘΥΣ) in which Jesus, like Asclepius, was assigned the title of “Savior”; i.e., ΙΧΘΥΣ = Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, God’s son, Savior). This acrostic became a confession of faith, in conjunction with the “friend or foe” fish symbol adapted from Greek and Roman pagans in response to persecutions, which had commenced under Nero (AD 64-68).

As large numbers of lower-class Jews and pagans streamed into the church, bringing their former beliefs along with them, a natural syncretism developed between Yahweh and several other gods.[9] Additionally, many Jewish Christians were of the opinion that Jesus was the earthly manifestation of Yahweh.[10] These two forces combined to imbue Jesus with popular features of several other deities, especially those of Asclepius.

Asclepius heals a sick girl

Jesus heals a sick girl

Asclepius was a 12th-century-BC physician, renowned for his miraculous healings. It was believed that he was born of a heavenly father and earthly mother. He restored sight to the blind, made the lame to walk, cast out demons, calmed the elements and prophesied the future.[11] He died a real death, then physically resurrected and ascended into heaven.

Asclepius, a prophet like unto Moses

Church Father Justin Martyr pointed out to Antoninus Pius and his fellow pagans in the Roman senate that Jesus and Asclepius were nothing different and their deeds were essentially identical:

“And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was produced without sexual union, and that He was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing new and different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter… Asclepius, who, though he was a great healer, was struck by a thunderbolt, and ascended to heaven.”First Apology, 21:1-2.

“When we say that He [Jesus] made well the lame and the paralytic and those who were feeble from birth and that he resurrected the dead, we shall seem to be mentioning deeds similar to and even identical with those which were said to have been performed by Asclepius.”First Apology,  22:6.

Later, when Jewish skeptics pointed out that Jesus and Asclepius were too identical, Justin blamed it on the devil:

“And when he [the devil] brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?”Dialogue with Trypho, 69.[12]

Jesus, a savior like unto Asclepius

 Asclepius initially served to inspire Christianity but later turned into one of its chief rivals. For example, it was claimed that numerous people had seen the risen Asclepius:

“And again, when it is said of Asclepius that a great multitude both of Greeks and Barbarians acknowledge that they have frequently seen, and still see, no mere phantom, but Asclepius himself, healing and doing good, and foretelling the future; Celsus requires us to believe this, and finds no fault with the believers in Jesus, when we express our belief in such stories, but when we give our assent to the disciples, and eye-witnesses of the miracles of Jesus, who clearly manifest the honesty of their convictions (because we see their guilelessness, as far as it is possible to see the conscience revealed in writing), we are called by him a set of ‘silly’ individuals, although he cannot demonstrate that an incalculable number, as he asserts, of Greeks and Barbarians acknowledge the existence of Asclepius; while we, if we deem this a matter of importance, can clearly show a countless multitude of Greeks and Barbarians who acknowledge the existence of Jesus.” — Origen, Contra Celsus, 3.24.

Whereas, the Jesus sightings were relatively few, and of only a shadow:

“But this low jester Celsus, omitting no species of mockery and ridicule which can be employed against us, mentions in his treatise the Dioscuri, and Hercules, and Asclepius, and Dionysus, who are believed by the Greeks to have become gods after being men, and says that ‘we cannot bear to call such beings gods, because they were at first men, and yet they manifested many noble qualifies, which were displayed for the benefit of mankind, while we assert that Jesus was seen after His death by His own followers;’ and he brings against us an additional charge, as if we said that ‘He was seen indeed, but was only a shadow!’”Contra Celsus, 3.22.

In the waning years of the first century, Mark’s gospel was found inadequate to compete with the Jewish sects and pagan cults; hence, new expanded narratives were needed. Accordingly, an anonymous Jewish Christian (Matthew) and an anonymous Gentile Christian (Luke) each took it upon himself to embellish Mark’s account. They both liked the bit about the empty tomb but apparently weren’t satisfied with the characters, dialogue or locales. The Christians needed more and Matthew and Luke were only too happy to oblige.

In Matthew’s redaction of Mark, he deletes Salome, and turns the unremarkable “young man” into a blazing angel who introduces himself with a “great earthquake”, descends like lightning, paralyzes the guards, and rolls the stone away single-handedly.[13] (Matthew was apparently a man of action.) The angel sits down on top of the stone door but then changes his mind and takes the two women on a tour of the sepulchre, but they don’t seem to find any burial wrappings. He commands the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen and on his way to Galilee, where they will see him. In contrast to Mark’s women, who were frightened speechless, Matthew’s women depart with “great joy;” and “did run to bring his disciples word.” On their way they encounter Jesus himself, whereupon they hold his feet but don’t seem to notice any wounds. This, finally, is the first mention of any tangible aspect of Jesus’ resurrected body. Jesus confirms that he’s indeed on his way to Galilee and that his brethren will see him when he gets there. The eleven disciples go to a mountain in Galilee where Jesus appears to them but some doubt it’s really him. Except for the unwounded feet, Matthew gives no indication that the resurrected Jesus has a physical body.

In contradistinction to Matthew, Luke replaces Salome with Joanna and some unspecified “other women”.[14] He trades the “young man”, already present when the women arrived, for “two men” in “dazzling clothing” who suddenly materialize inside the tomb while the women are perplexed about the situation. The men help the women remember Jesus’ earlier saying that he would rise again and the women go tell the apostles. Peter, the only one to believe them, rushes to the tomb and sees the linen wrappings. Unlike Mark and Matthew, who put the risen Jesus on the road to Galilee, Luke puts him on the road to Emmaus. He first appears incognito to Cleopas and his companion, and hints at his bodily form by reclining at their table and breaking bread, but then he suddenly vanishes. The men go to Jerusalem, where they find the Eleven and begin relating their recent experience to them. Suddenly Jesus materializes and everybody thinks he’s “a spirit.” Jesus shows them his wounds and declares, “a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then he further proves his physicality by eating a piece of a broiled fish. He commands them to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” and leads them to Bethany where he ascends into Heaven. The apostles return to Jerusalem without visiting any mountains in Galilee.

The radical differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts were likely of little consequence to the early Christians, since they were received by separate audiences.[15] All that really mattered to the masses of illiterate converts who heard these stories were the additional proofs and witnesses they provided (according to ancient standards), which helped build their faith and strengthen their hand against rival religions.

Despite Matthew’s and Luke’s literary prowess, many people remained unimpressed. The risen Jesus was simply unremarkable compared to other resurrected heroes in popular mythology. For example, after rattling off a long list of resurrected man-gods, Celsus asks:[16]

“But the question is, whether anyone who was really dead ever rose with a veritable body. Or do you imagine the statements of others not only to be myths, but to have the appearance of such, while you have discovered a becoming and credible termination to your drama in the voice from the cross, when he breathed his last, and in the earthquake and the darkness? That while alive he was of no assistance to himself, but that when dead he rose again, and showed the marks of his punishment, and how his hands were pierced with nails: who beheld this? A hysterical woman, as you state, and some other one, perhaps, of those who were engaged in the same system of delusion, who had either dreamed so, owing to a peculiar state of mind, or under the influence of a wandering imagination had formed to himself an appearance according to his own wishes, which has been the case with numberless individuals; or, which is most probable, one who desired to impress others with this portent, and by such a falsehood to furnish an occasion to impostors like himself.”Contra Celsus, 2.55.

In order to compete successfully against neighboring sects and cults, the Christians needed to: A) strengthen the (non-hysterical) male witnesses, B) further verify the physical body of the risen Jesus, and C) increase Jesus’ powers above those of Asclepius et al. Sometime around the turn of the century, an anonymous Hellenistic philosopher (John) took up the cause.[17]

Jesus performs an Asclepeion foot washing for Simon Peter at the Last Supper

Itching for some head-to-head competition, John sends Jesus to the Asclepium at Bethesda to steal a cultist right out from under his rival’s nose.[18] Then he leaves Lazarus in the grave for four days, thereby surpassing Asclepius’ resurrection of Tyndareus.[19] He deletes all of the “hysterical” women except Mary Magdalene, who finds a deserted tomb with no young man, no earthquake-inducing angel, no stone for the angel to roll away or sit upon, no guards to spook nor any pair of dazzling men. This time around, Mary Magdalene decides all by herself, without any instructions from men or angels, to run tell Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved”[20] that the Lord is missing. The “other disciple” (John) beats Peter to the tomb and robs him of his previous victory in being the first person to behold the linen wrappings. Peter however, is consoled with the Luke-harmonization prize of being the first one to actually enter the tomb and see the previously unnoticed face-cloth, which had been conveniently rolled up and placed separately from the other wrappings. The second disciple enters the tomb, sees and believes, then he and Peter both go home, apparently without saying goodbye to Mary, who is still outside, weeping. As she weeps, she stoops down, looks into the tomb and sees “two angels in white sitting,” like the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant, “one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.” They ask her why she’s weeping and she replies that they’ve taken her Lord away. Then she turns and sees Jesus but thinks he’s the gardener. He says, “Mary!” and she recognizes him. He forbids her from embracing him and commands her to go tell his brethren he’s about to ascend. That evening Jesus suddenly materializes behind shut doors, which must have been much thinner than the stone door to the tomb, since that one had to be rolled out of the way. He shows his wounds to his disciples and breathes on them but Thomas, the representative of all unbelievers, is absent. Eight days later, Jesus repeats the performance, this time inviting Thomas to reach his finger and hand directly into his wounds in an effort to quash allegations about him being “only a shadow” or a “mere phantom”.

John’s gospel brought the empty-tomb story into full bloom, giving Jesus all that could reasonably be expected of a resurrected deity. Nevertheless, controversies and rivalries between Christianity and its detractors persisted throughout the second and third centuries. Ultimately however, Christianity prevailed by drawing in the emperor of Rome. Today there are far more Christian churches than Asclepeion temples in the world.[21] There remain however, no unambiguous answers to the most fundamental questions regarding the resurrection; e.g.,

Who was there (besides Mary Magdalene)?
Did she/they witness the stone being rolled away?
Who appeared to her/them? A man? An angel? Two men? Two angels?
What did the man/men/angel/angels say to the woman/women and vice versa?
Were there linen burial wrappings in the tomb? If so, who saw them?
To whom did Jesus first appear?
Where did he first appear?
What was the first thing he said?
Did the eleven disciples see Jesus in Galilee or Jerusalem?
How does a glorified celestial body retain its wounds of death?
How did Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to feel his wounds prove he was “raised an imperishable body“?
Etc., etc., etc.,

In retrospect, it appears that the sealed tomb was much like a can of worms. When Mark opened it, out spilled a tangled mess of logical inconsistencies which has yet to be straightened out. No two Gospels agree on any appearance of the risen Jesus.

What then are we to make of the wound-showing, bread-breaking, fish-eating, angel-announced resurrected body of Jesus preached in the post-Pauline gospels? Paul gave this advice to the Galatians:

1:8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!

Some tales get taller with each telling, like the one about the fish that got away.


[1] Paul spent 18 months founding the church in Corinth (Acts 18:1-17), then went to Ephesus (Acts 19:8, 19:10, 20:31), where he wrote this first epistle (16:8) circa AD 53-57.

[2] Earlier in his epistle (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), Paul speaks of the “body of Christ” as metaphor for the church. His imagery here likely derives from his experience with the Temple of Asclepius in Corinth. Throughout his ministry Paul adapted local customs and symbols to his teachings; e.g., his use of the altar “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” in preaching to the Athenians on Mars’ hill (Acts 17:22-23). Patients who came to the Corinthian Asclepium for healing left terra-cotta votive offerings of their wounded body parts: feet, hands, ears, eyes, heads etc. Paul contrasted the individual dismembered parts in the Asclepium with the saints’ membership in the whole body of Christ. — Andrew E. Hill, “The Temple of Asclepius: An Alternative Source for Paul’s Body Theology?” Journal of Biblical Literature, 99, 437-439 (1980).

[3] Mark 16:9-20 were tacked onto the gospel roughly a century later.

[4] By disposing of the corruptible “mortal flesh of Jesus”, Mark enables him to “exchange qualities” and become a god like “Asclepius, or Dionysus, or Hercules”. — Origen, Contra Celsus, 3.42. It was also necessary to empty Jesus’ tomb because some Christians were ridiculing worshipers of Jupiter by pointing to his tomb in the island of Crete. — Contra Celsus, 3.43.

[5] The earliest date for the First Epistle of Peter is partly established by the sequence of provincial boundaries (1 Peter 1:1) set up by Emperor Vespasian in AD 72.

[7] Marcus Tullius Cicero reports, “…if we turn to Greece, they have there a number of gods who were once men, the Alabandi Alabandus, the people of Tenedos Tennes, and the whole nation Leucothea, whose mortal name was Ino, and her son Palæmon; while our own countrymen have Hercules, Asclepius, the Tyndaridæ, Romulus, and several others, who they think were received into heaven like new citizens added to the roll.” — De Natura Deorum, 3.15 (45 BC).

[8] Aristides (530-468 BC) describes Asclepius as “the one who guides and rules the universe, the savior of the whole and the guardian of the immortals.” Julianus (AD 133-193) says “shall I now go on to tell you how Helius took thought for the health and safety of all by begetting Asclepius to be the savior of the whole world?” — Quoted in Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, 150-152 (1945, 1998).

[9] A second-century tablet from the Roman city of Asturica-Augusta bears the Greek inscription, “Zeus, Serapis and Yahweh are one.” — Maureen W. Yeung, Faith in Jesus and Paul, 82 (2002). Archaeological evidence for Asclepius worship in first-century  Syro-Palestine includes: Ascalon, Jerusalem, Samaria, Caesarea,  Ptolemais, Gerasa, Gadara, Tiberias, Sidon and Berytus. — A. Duprez, Jesus et les Dieux Guerisseurs: A Propos de Jean, V 64-79 (1970).

[10] In Hebrew, Jesus’ name is spelled “Yeshua“. The “Ye” in Yeshua is the  abbreviated form of YHWH. “Shua” is from the Hebrew word for salvation, yasha. Jesus’ name in Hebrew and Aramaic literally means “YHWH is salvation.” While YHWH describes who God is, when it is combined with a verb it describes what God does. The name “Jesus” describes the fact that YHWH has become salvation.

[11] Edelstein, Asclepius, § 66-93, 232-56, 382-91, 443-54. Also, Derek Murphy, Jesus Potter, Harry Christ, Ch. 4, (2011).

[12] Like Justin Martyr, C.S. Lewis accepted pagan Christs, but he didn’t blame them on the devil. Rather, he argued that the pagans derived them long ago from an ancient revelation from God. According to C. S. Lewis-biographer Roger Lancelyn Green, Lewis believed that “Christianity fulfilled paganism” and “paganism prefigured Christianity”. — C. S. Lewis: A Biography, pp. 274, 30; Harcourt Inc., (1974).

[13] In having the women witness the stone being rolled away, Matthew responds to the allegation that the disciples had come by night and stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-15).

[14] Matthew and Luke may have deleted Salome because they identified her with the voluptuous girl who danced for her step-father, Herod Antipas, and requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter (Mark 6:21-25, Matthew 14:6-11). Josephus says that this Salome later married her grand-uncle, Philip the tetrarch, and after his death, Aristobulus of Lesser Armenia (Antiquities, XVIII, 5, 4). The Coptic Book of the Resurrection of Christ names the following women who went to the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Mary who ministered to him, Martha her sister, Joanna (Susanna) who renounced the marriage bed, and “Salome who tempted him”. In the Gospel of the Egyptians a certain Salome appears as a disciple of Jesus. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Salome and Mary Magdalene became the disciples of Jesus when they transcended their human nature and “became male”. Jesus shares Salome’s couch and during their discussion she declares “I am your disciple.” It would seem that Salome may have tried to seduce Jesus but instead became his disciple.

[15] The development of the New Testament canon was a very gradual process, beginning with Irenaeus in the second century.

[16] Although Celsus wrote in the second century (after Mark, Matthew, Luke and John), the pagan beliefs to which he refers go back several centuries prior. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the controversies he mentions pre-date the canonical gospels, just as it is reasonable to assume that the creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 pre-dates the actual writing of the epistle. A. Duprez compares Jesus and the healing gods in first-century Palestine (Jesus, 79-85), and K. Rengstorf traces the origin of the controversy between the early Church and the Asclepius cult to the time of the writing of the Gospel of John — Die Anfange der Auseinandersetzung zwischen Christusglaube und Asklepiosfrommigkeit (1953).

[17] In several instances, John uses language peculiar to the Asclepius cult. For example, in describing the foot washing at the Last Supper, John uses the Greek term goyein (13:10), which is a special term for washing in an Asclepium (Yeung, Faith, 79), rather than the Greek word used elsewhere in the Johannine text to describe washing – niptein. — James H. Charlesworth, Jesus and archaeology, 560-566 (2006).

[18] Ben Irwin, “Grumpy Jesus and a pagan swimming pool” (2007). John uses the Greek phrase hygies genesthai (5:6), which is not used anywhere in the Synoptic Gospels but appears frequently in ancient testimonies to the healing powers of Asclepius. — Yeung, Faith, 79.

[19] Pliny the Elder reports, “In more recent times again, the same art has augmented its celebrity, at the cost perhaps of being charged with criminality, by devising the fable that Asclepius was struck by lightning for presuming to raise Tyndareus to life. And this example notwithstanding, it has not hesitated to relate how that others, through its agency, have since been restored to life.” — Natural History, 29.1.3 (AD 77-79). The resurrections of Lazarus (John 11:1-44), the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-43) and the young man from Nain (Luke 7:11-17), in the post-Pauline accounts, rob Jesus of his title “firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

[20] Here and elsewhere John places himself at the center of the action. This, of course, raises the question as to how an eyewitness writing around AD 100 could have lived so long. John (or, more likely, a later scribe, on account of the third-person reference) solves this problem by having Jesus grant him quasi-immortality (John 21:20-24).

[21] It could be argued that there are many Asclepeion temples in the world today but we call them “hospitals”.