When I was a missionary, it was customary to introduce the new investigator to the Book of Mormon by inviting them to read the appearance of the Savior to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11. I remember being concerned whenever this invitation was given that the investigator would continue reading into 3 Nephi 12-14 and realize that the Savior teaches the Nephites essentially the Sermon on the Mount from the King James Version of Matthew 3-5. I knew that if the investigator started asking questions about this, I would not have a satisfactory answer.
In the many years since my mission, I have read most of the apologetic literature dealing with this issue, and while I have learned a number of helpful things along the way, none of the arguments have satisfied me as to why the KJV Sermon on the Mount is in the Book of Mormon. As readers of the BOM are aware, the SOM comes at the beginning of Jesus’ teachings to the surviving Nephites, though his teachings continue for thirteen more chapters through 3 Nephi 27.
I was unable for a long time to come to grips with the fact that the presence of the KJV SOM in the BOM is an indisputable indicator of its modern production. I was so busy whistling past the graveyard and looking at other things (things that were more faith promoting), that I didn’t have to. But always in the back of my mind the issue lurked. And the natural result was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.
Eventually I was able to admit the obvious—that there is simply no good reason consonant with total and complete BOM ancientness for entire chapters of New Testament KJV to appear in its pages. This admission on my part had a two-fold effect: (1) It allowed me to finally let go the hopeless effort to explain it away in a manner consistent with the BOM being completely ancient, and resolved the cognitive dissonance I had long been experiencing; and, (2) It liberated me to actually look at the KJV passages in the BOM.
This was huge for me. Before this, I had been so busy being afraid of the KJV passages that I had not allowed myself to read them closely and see what they had to say in the BOM. It allowed me the freedom to ask questions about the KJV passages, most important of which for me was, “Are the KJV passages just filler?” And, if not, “What does the BOM actually do with the KJV passages?”
Once I got to the place where I could allow myself to ask these questions, I began to see that not only were the KJV passages not filler, and that the BOM was in fact “doing something” with them, but that what the BOM was doing with the KJV passages was complex and remarkable.
Here I will begin the first of an expected three-part article examining what the Book of Mormon actually does with the Sermon on the Mount.
It is easy to see this three-chapter sermon as an undigested lump sitting there like a doctrinal island with no connection to the teachings that follow. A closer reading, however, shows that the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi is far from filler. Instead, it serves as a foundation text for the rest of the Savior’s teachings, and we find threads of it woven into the warp and woof of what Jesus declares thereafter.
- The SOM’s teaching that salt that has lost its savor is good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men (12:13) is applied to the fate of the Gentiles who reject the gospel: “I will suffer my people, O house of Israel, that they shall go through among them, and shall tread them down, and they shall be as salt that hath lost its savor, which is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of my people, O house of Israel.” (16:15)
- The SOM’s teaching that “I give unto you to be a light of this people” (12:14) is applied by Jesus later to his Nephite disciples: “Ye are my disciples; and ye are a light unto this people, who are a remnant of the house of Joseph.” (15:12)
- The SOM’s admonition to “let your light so shine before this people” (12:16) becomes Jesus’ Nephite teaching to “hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.” (18:24)
- The SOM’s teaching that Jesus “is not come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy but to fulfil” (12:17) is echoed to the Nephites: “Behold, I do not destroy the prophets, for as many as have not been fulfilled in me, verily I say unto you, shall all be fulfilled.” (15:6)
- Similarly, the SOM’s teaching that “in me (the law) hath all been fulfilled” (12:18) is expanded upon when Jesus tells the Nephites he is the one who gave the law of Moses and that “the law in me is fulfilled.” (15:4-5)
- The SOM’s statement that “I have given you the law and the commandments” with the injunction that “ye shall believe in me” and “keep my commandments” to “enter into the kingdom of heaven” (12:19-20) is reiterated later as Christ identifies himself as “the law” with an injunction to “look unto me, and endure to the end” and “keep my commandments” in order to have “eternal life.” (15:9-10)
- The SOM’s declaration that “old things are done away, and all things have become new” (12:47) is picked up later when the Nephites do not understand this saying, and Jesus says, “Marvel not that I said unto you that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new.” (15:2-3)
- The SOM’s admonition that “I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your
Father who is in heaven is perfect” (12:48) is echoed at the end of Jesus’ ministry to the Nephite disciples, “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (27:27b)
- The SOM’s warning against using “vain repetitions” in prayer “as the heathen, for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (13:7) finds application in the Nephite disciples’ prayer to God, “And they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire.” (19:24b)
- The SOM’s pattern of prayer set by Jesus—“After this manner therefore pray ye” (13:9a) finds application when Jesus tells his Nephite disciples, “And as I have prayed among you even so shall ye pray in my church.” (18:16a)
- The SOM’s instruction that “your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him” (13:8b) is recalled later when Jesus says, “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you.” (18:20)
- The SOM’s axiom that “every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened” (14:8) is replicated in Jesus’ words to his Nephite disciples, “Therefore, ask, and ye shall received, knock, and it shall be opened unto you; for he that asketh, receiveth; and unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened.” (27:29)
- The SOM’s injunction to “enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, which leadeth to destruction, and many there be who go in thereat; Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (14:13-14) finds renewed application to the Nephite disciples—“Enter ye in at the strait gate; for strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it; but wide is the gate, and broad the way which leads to death, and many there be that travel therein, until the night cometh, wherein no man can work.” (27:33).
- The SOM’s teaching that “whoso heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, who built his house upon a rock” that when the rains fall, etc., “it fell not,” but the one who hears and does not do these sayings is likened to a man who built “upon the sand” and his house “fell, and great was the fall of it” (14:24-27) will be repeated and amplified to the Nephites—And if ye shall always do these things blessed are ye, for ye are built upon my rock. But whoso among you shall do more or less than these are not built upon my rock, but are built upon a sandy foundation; and when the rains descends, and the floods come, and the winds blow, and beat upon them, they shall fall, and the gates of hell are ready open to receive them.” (18:12b-13)
- This same teaching in the SOM (14:24-27) is found in the mouth of Jesus shortly before he gives the SOM (12-14) where he says, “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.” (11:40).
- The SOM’s string of beatitudes (“blessed are ye”) statements (12:1-11) is bookended with a beatitude promised by Jesus to his disciples if they will follow his gospel—“Therefore, if ye do these things blessed are ye, for ye shall be lifted up at the last day.” (27:22)
Though not intended to be exhaustive, this list of 16-entries indicates that the SOM given in 3 Nephi 12-14 is not just filler, but literally (and literarily) permeates the balance of the Savior’s teachings to the Nephites.
Further, the SOM teachings are not simply reiterated, but are often amplified and clarified in subsequent Nephite exposition. For example, the SOM injunction to “let your light so shine” (12:16) is expanded upon to the effect that the “light” is Jesus himself. (18:24) The SOM’s teaching that in Jesus is the law “fulfilled” (12:18) is not just quoted later, but additional information given that Jesus is the one who gave the law to Moses in the first place. (15:4-5) The warning against “vain repetitions” in prayer (13:7) is amplified by showing that the Nephites avoided this because “it was given unto them what they should pray.” (19:24b)
Keeping track of the SOM threads during the balance of the Savior’s Nephite ministry, and using them in context and with additional elaboration, is no mean feat. It introduces an unexpected complexity and beauty into this section of the Book of Mormon.
But this isn’t all.
The next two articles will be devoted to showing additional layers of complexity in this narrative; a complexity that, like layer after layer of varnish, makes the resulting composition shine.