| Giuseppe Angeli, Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire,
c. 1740/1755. From the National Gallery of Art.
I am increasingly touched by the way in which subtle elements from ancient Judaism can be found in the Book of Mormon in ways that don’t fit the popular model of Joseph as a sponge soaking up all things biblical from his immediate environment and squeezing it back onto the pages of his own book. The existence of artfully executed biblical themes in the Book of Mormon also doesn’t fit the oft-employed model of Joseph the ignoramus who didn’t know that Christ was born in Bethlehem, didn’t understand that no temple could be built outside of Jerusalem, and was so bad at making up Jewish names that he blundered with crazy names like the Latin woman’s name Alma for a Hebrew man — all serious blunders in 1830 which now have impressive evidence from antiquity supporting their plausibility.
A somewhat improved or more plausible model is that of “Joseph the well-versed Bible student who got lucky on some things but was still an ignoramus on many basic issues,” issues like the importance of David and the Davidic covenant, a matter which allegedly proves the “mormonic” book could not possibly have come from ancient Jews. This was the novel argument of the 2016 graduate thesis of Kyle Beshears at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which I treat at length in “Too Little or Too Much Like the Bible? A Novel Critique of the Book of Mormon Involving David and the Psalms,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 29 (2018): 31-64.
Beshear’s basic premise is that someone who really understood the Bible would know that a genuine ancient civilization derived from Hebrew people would have followed the Bible’s emphasis on David and the Davidic Covenant, and would surely have constantly evaluated the success and righteousness of their kings through comparison to King David. The Book of Mormon, however, falls short for it largely neglects David and actually criticizes him for his unauthorized polygamy. In light of Beshears’ interesting critique, I must agree that someone closely imitating the Bible to describe an ancient Hebrew civilization probably would have given much more emphasis to and favorable treatment of David. However, a closer looks shows that the favorable treatment of David that Beshears demands is a characteristic of the ancient tribe of Judah in the southern Kingdom, and ancient Hebrews from the northern kingdom and its tribes, such as Lehi and his tribe of Joseph, could easily have held less favorable views of the fallen king and the security of his kingdom. In fact, recent scholarship puts the Book of Mormon’s attitude toward David upon a firmly plausible foundation, showing that the Book of Mormon reflects a more thorough knowledge of ancient Israel than even advanced Bible students like Beshears can be expected to have. The weaknesses that Beshears highlights in what he calls the “mormonic” book actually prove to be surprising strengths that add to the remarkable case for ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.
Those who look at the intricate and extensive references to the Exodus in the Book of Mormon and to its heavy and artful use of Isaiah must recognize that the Book of Mormon shows strong affinity with ancient Jewish thinking, where the Exodus was woven into many aspects of Jewish life, and where Isaiah was an especially prominent influence that continued to be a major influence into New Testament times. But one can argue that anyone reading the Bible carefully can readily notice the significance of the Exodus for many writers and the beauty and influence of Isaiah, so Joseph as a sponge may be a reasonable model for those aspects.
Evaluating models for Book of Mormon origins may get especially interesting, in my opinion, when we consider the prominent Jewish prophet Elijah and the influence of Elijah on the Book of Mormon. Like David, Elijah is barely mentioned in the text. In fact, his name occurs once and that is only when the final chapter of Malachi is quoted (3 Nephi 25:5). Modern scholarship, however, shows that ancient Jews gave great emphasis to Elijah, and thus we can find many interesting though often easily overlooked allusions to Elijah in the New Testament. Is it time for a new graduate thesis from some seminary to criticize the paucity of Elijah references in the Book of Mormon? Before some professor of divinity and his or her graduate students get their hopes up, let me warn that disappointment awaits such an effort. Yes, a superficial analysis shows a serious lack of attention to Elijah in our “mormonic” text, but as with the case of David, modern Bible scholarship gives us tools to reveal surprising subtleties that place the Book of Mormon once again on firmly ancient ground. In fact, it turns out that Book of Mormon writers appear to have been highly skilled in weaving Elijah themes into the text, though it was done with such subtlety that the noteworthy role of Elijah in the text has often gone unnoticed. My exploration of such issues began after reading an especially fascinating work of scholarship: Nicholas P. Lunn, The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9–20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014),
Students of the Book of Mormon may be hard-pressed to think of any obvious Elijah themes woven into that text. I suggest it is only by looking at modern scholarship on the subtle use of Elijah themes in the New Testament that we can see the Book of Mormon in a new and impressive light. For me, it was after reading recent biblical scholarship elucidating the use of Elijah
themes in the New Testament that I was surprised to see some of the concepts
had been woven into the Book of Mormon. I discuss this with several
examples in “The Book of Mormon Versus the Consensus of Scholars: Surprises from the Disputed Longer Ending of Mark, Part 2,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25 (2017): 323-365.
One of my favorite examples where modern scholarship helps me better appreciate the subtle use of Elijah themes in the Book of Mormon involves the issue of “intensification,” in which miracles worked by Elijah are echoed in the accounts of miracles done by Christ, but amplified to make the ministry of Christ clearly more impressive. For example, in 2 Kings 4:42-43, Elijah, starting with just 20 loaves, miraculously provides food to feed about 1oo people. Intensification of this miracle can be found in the New Testament accounts of Christ feeding the multitude, according to Adam Winn in Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), Kindle edition, p. 83. Elijah feeds a hundred, while Christ feeds 5,000 in Mark 6. Intensification.
Winn also finds it significant that in the miracles of Mark, Christ
begins with a smaller amount of food than Elisha did: five loaves and
two fishes in Mark 6:41 and seven loaves in Mark 8:5 versus 20 loaves in
2 Kings 4:42.
The Book of Mormon, of course, also includes a miracle in which Christ feeds a “multitude,” probably even more than the 5,000 in Mark 6. The account of day one of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites ends with a count of 2,500 people as eyewitnesses (3 Nephi 17:25). They then labor tirelessly throughout the night to spread the word and gather even more people for the next day, and when they gather, there are now too many to be taught in one single group, so the 12 disciples break them up into 12 groups to rehearse the words of Christ from day one (3 Nephi 19:2–5) before Christ comes and ministers to them and feeds them miraculously. This is a logical intensification: the minor miracle of Elisha is magnified by the mortal Messiah among the Jews and then even further by the resurrected Lord among the Nephites
Winn also finds it significant that in the miracles of Mark, Christ begins with a smaller amount of food than Elisha did: five loaves and two fishes in Mark 6:41 and seven loaves in Mark 8:5 versus Elijah’s 20 loaves in 2 Kings 4:42. The intensification trend continues: Christ’s miraculous feeding of the Nephites is done with no bread or wine to begin with (3 Nephi 20:6–7), the ultimate intensification of this aspect of the story.
Another feature in the Elisha story noted by Winn is that the command to give to the people is given twice, which has a seemingly weak parallel in Mark with the command to the people to be seated (a second command) in Mark 6:39 and 8:6 (Winn, p. 82). But in 3 Nephi 20, the command to give to the multitude is explicitly stated twice, once for the bread and once for the wine (vv. 4–5). Another parallel from Winn is that Elisha’s servant gives the bread to the crowd, as the apostles give to the crowd for Christ (ibid.) Likewise, it is the Nephite disciples who distribute the miraculously provided bread and wine to the multitude.
Further, Winn notes that extra food remains after Elisha’s miracle (2 Kings 4:44), just as baskets of extra food remain after Christ feeds the crowds (Mark 6:43 and 8:8) (Winn, p. 82). Whether food remained among the Nephites is not mentioned in the text, but the word remnant is used immediately after the miracle: “when they had all given glory unto Jesus, he said unto them: Behold, now I finish the commandment which the Father hath commanded me concerning this people, who are a remnant of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi 20:10). Christ again speaks of gathering the scattered “remnants” of Israel in v. 13.
Finally, Winn notes that the Elisha account occurs in a time of famine (“a dearth in the land,” 2 Kings 4:38), in parallel to the hunger from going a day or longer without food in Mark 6:31 and 8:1–2 (Winn, p. 82). The hunger is implicit in 3 Nephi 20, since the Nephites who were present on day one of Christ’s ministry have been laboring apparently nonstop through the night to spread the word of the Messiah’s appearance to bring crowds to Bountiful the next day and naturally may have neglected food with so much work to do and so great a miracle before them. Their hunger may be alluded to when Christ explicitly mentions hunger and thirst after He leads the sacramental rite, saying, “He that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul; and he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger nor thirst, but shall be filled” (3 Nephi 20:8).
Overall, Winn proposes eight parallels that relate the Elisha story to the miraculous feeding accounts in Mark. Similar parallels in 3 Nephi 20 occur for all but one, the expression of doubt or hesitation by the servants involved (2 Kings 4:43 and Mark 6:37, 8:4). However, this missing element is consistent with the emphasis on the greater faith of the Nephites at this stage. Among this tried and faithful people, Christ is able to work greater miracles, as Christ tells them in 3 Nephi 19:35. The absence of doubt as a parallel is a reasonable and appropriate reversal of the pattern apparently alluded to in 2 Kings 4. Winn observes that reversals of themes are often used in ancient literature when building on a previous text (Winn, pp. 13–14, 29, 79–81, 112). Thus one can argue that Mark’s use of Elisha’s miraculous feeding in the account of two of Christ’s miracles is used with equal detail and resonance in 3 Nephi 20, while differing from Mark in some significant and appropriate ways rather than being a clumsy copy.
I suspect most readers of the Bible have no idea that the Christ’s feeding of the multitude has many subtle parallels to a miracle of Elijah. It is through modern scholarship that this possibility is revealed, and it is rather surprising that the same cluster of subtle parallel elements are employed appropriately in the Book of Mormon, with even further intensification.
Other intriguing elements from Elijah and Elisha in the Book of Mormon are considered in my article at The Interpreter, “The Book of Mormon Versus the Consensus of Scholars: Surprises from the Disputed Longer Ending of Mark, Part 2. These include:
- The miracle of being “taken up.” The Assumption of Christ, of course, has intriguing parallels to the taking up of Elijah at the end of his ministry. Book of Mormon parallels include the apparent taking up of Alma2 (Alma 45:19) and Nephi3 in 3 Nephi 1:2.
- The role of fire in Elijah’s departure (via a chariot of fire) is reflected and in various scenes in 3 Nephi.
- The transfiguration of Christ, an important Exodus and Elijah theme in Mark 9, which has parallels in 3 Nephi, where transfiguration occurred for Christ and His disciples (3 Nephi 19:14, 24–25) and also in the “transfiguration” of the Three Nephites (3 Nephi 28:1–17). Interestingly, subtle allusions to Exodus themes in the transfiguration elements in Mark, uncovered in modern scholarship, are also found in the Book of Mormon.
- Elijah’s miraculous work of ministry in opposing the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18) and possible parallels in the ministry of the Twelve Disciples as they prepare the people for the second day of Christ’s work among the Nephites (3 Nephi 19-20).
- The use of the word tarry in both Elijah’s final interactions with Elijah and in the calling givenn to the Three Nephites (3 Nephi 28:12; 4 Nephi 1:14, 30 ,37; Mormon 8:10 and 9:22).
- The blessing the Three Nephites received from the Savior (3 Nephi 28) with parallels to the blessing Elijah gave to Elisha before passing on his mantle in 2 Kings 2.
- The role of Elijah as a forerunner or an “Elias” to prepare the way for the Savior, like John the Baptist, which is paralleled in the Book of Mormon by Nephi2, the son of Helaman and father of the prophet Nephi3, another worker of miracles. Nephi2 was ministered to by angels and like Elijah, disappeared without a known burial (3 Nephi 1:3), and offers several other important relationships to Elijah and Elisha, including sealing powers, use of famines, etc. See also “How Did Nephi Use the Power to Seal on Earth and in Heaven?,” Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #182, Sept. 7, 2016.
- The miracles of Helaman 5 as a prefigurement of the ministry of Christ that invokes Elijah themes in multiple ways.
- The role of clothing as a symbol of authority in both the story of Elijah and the Book of Mormon.
Modern scholars have argued that Christ is depicted as the “new Elijah/Elisha” in the Gospel of Mark. In the Book of Mormon, His elect Three Disciples also seem to play that role. Like Elijah, they are “caught up into heaven,” though not permanently. Like Elijah and Elisha, they work great miracles after having received divine authority. Like Elisha, they are associated with the word tarry multiple times, as they are the ones who will tarry following the physical ascent of their Master.
3 Nephi may thus display not only intentional allusions to Exodus themes but also make references to Elijah in ways similar to Mark’s subtle but pervasive themes that unify his Gospel, as elucidated by Nicholas P. Lunn in his above-mentioned work, The Original Ending of Mark.
An objection to Christ as Elijah in the Gospel of Mark is that Mark identifies John the Baptist as a type of Elias/Elijah. Mark 1 introduces John the Baptist as the messenger preparing the way for Christ, “clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins” (Mark 1:6), an allusion to 2 Kings 1:8, where we read that Elijah was a “hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins,” a visual link. Elijah is mentioned several times in Mark 9 in the middle of that Gospel, where in v. 13 Christ states that “Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him,” referring to the recent martyrdom of John the Baptist. If John is Elias, how can Elias be Christ?
The issue is resolved by recognizing that Elias can be a role or an archetype who can involve more than one agent or more than one aspect of the role. Christ, in working miracles, showing divine authority, and ascending majestically to the Father, acts as an Elijah/Elias. A similar issue is found in the Book of Mormon. Christ ascends to heaven and displays the miraculous powers of Elijah, but His successors in a miraculous ministry, the Three Nephites, take up the mantle and work wonders like Elisha, while they themselves are “caught up” into heaven for a while.
Just as the Gospel of Mark subtly draws upon many Exodus and Elijah themes in depicting Christ’s ministry, similar themes appear to have been woven into the Book of Mormon account in ways that make sense for ancient lovers of the Hebrew scriptures who understood the majesty of the ministry of Christ. Modern scholarship such as that of Nicholas Lunn and Adam Winn gives us tools to better appreciate the ancient beauty of the Bible, and these tools also reveal hidden richness in the Book of Mormon text. As always, there is more to the Book of Mormon than meets the eye.