The Visit of Christ in Third Nephi, 2 – At the Temple
Posted by joespencer on August 27, 2013
3 Nephi 11 opens by noting that a “great multitude” was “gathered . . . round about the temple which was in the land Bountiful” (3 Nephi 11:1). A host of questions arise at this point for the careful reader of the Book of Mormon. When did the Nephites build a temple at Bountiful? Why was this temple spared during the destructions associated with Christ’s death, when the older and arguably more religiously central temple of Zarahemla seems not to have survived? Why was Nephi—and why were the other eleven who would be chosen along with Nephi—in Bountiful, and specifically at the temple in Bountiful? Was there some kind of ceremonial or ritual event under way when Christ appeared to Lehi’s children?
If anyone has begun to answer these questions, it’s John W. Welch, who, in a lengthy article called “The Temple in the Book of Mormon” as well as in a full-length book called Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount, has had much to say about why Christ’s visit took place at the Bountiful temple. These questions are worth pursuing, and Welch’s studies are an important place to begin. I want, though, to ask a rather different question here—perhaps simpler, perhaps more complex. I want to think about the curious fact that it’s only here in 3 Nephi 11 and two centuries earlier in Mosiah 2 that there’s any talk in Mormon’s history (as we have it) of people gathering to temples in the larger land of Zarahemla. (A brief reference to multiple temples in the land of Zarahemla in Alma 16 doesn’t say anything more about people being present at them than that Alma and Amulek taught in temples.) My question might be put thus: Why is it that people gather around the temple to hear a sermon only at the very beginning and at the very end of the history of the land of Zarahemla?
As if to highlight this fact, it’s worth noting that there seems to be a deliberate textual echo of Mosiah 2 in 3 Nephi 11. The wording of the latter’s first verse, already partially quoted above, is as follows: “there were a great multitude gathered together of the people of Nephi round about the temple which was in the land Bountiful.” Compare this to Mosiah 2:2, 6: “there were a great number, . . . and they pitched their tents round about the temple.” This phrase—referring to people being “round about the temple”—appears only in these two texts in all of scripture.
So what does the connection imply? It seems to me that it serves at the very least as a structural indicator. There’s something significant about the fact that the history of Zarahemla stretches from a gathering round about the temple in Zarahemla to a gathering round about the temple in Bountiful—each of them the occasion of a father proffering his son to the people as their ruler. In the first of the two events, we have a specific note—extremely rare in the Book of Mormon, interestingly—that the people came up to the temple to perform sacrifices according to the law of Moses (see Mosiah 2:3). In the second of the two events, the people gather immediately after having been told that they should put an end to offering sacrifices according to the law of Moses (see 3 Nephi 9:19-20). In both cases, the messenger who speaks to the people at the temple warns the people against contention (see Mosiah 2:32-33; 3 Nephi 11:28-30). There’s reason, further, to see the sacramental institution in Third Nephi as connected to King Benjamin’s earlier teachings as well (see Mosiah 5:5-11; 3 Nephi 18:5-11). And most significantly, the second of the two events serves as the fulfillment of what was predicted in the first event: Benjamin gathered his people around the temple to provide them with a prophecy concerning the coming of the Christ (see Mosiah 3:5-11), and Lehi’s children eventually gathered around a temple to see the Christ come to them in resurrected glory (see 3 Nephi 11:8-12).
There’s more to be thought about here. As many Latter-day Saint scholars have indicated, temples serve a state function—they play a role in the establishment of state power and in the promulgation of law. There’s a certain sense, then, in which these two events mark two extremes in a profoundly political story. Benjamin, of course, marks the high water mark of the history of Nephite monarchy. His gives his famous sermon only after having stabilized the Nephite political state in the valley of Zarahemla (a generation after the Nephites had settled there, remember), and part of what he sought to do through his sermon was to secure that stabilization by obliterating the differences among the people—giving them all a single unifying name (“Christ”). What issued out of that circumstance was a new law, as it turns out. Benjamin focused in his sermon on commending obedience to the laws his successor Mosiah would establish, and those laws became the law undergirded by the complicated system of judges that would replace the monarchy a generation later. What we watch happen, though, as the story progresses through the books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman, is a slow degradation of precisely those laws—culminating in the first chapters of Third Nephi with a complete dismantling of the Nephite state. As if to confirm that slow dissolution of the law promulgated from Benjamin’s temple sermon, the destructions of 3 Nephi 8 include a complete annihilation of the very temple where that law was originally instituted. The shift from the temple in Zarahemla to the temple in Bountiful seems to mark the people’s hope for a new law, for something to reestablish stability after the complete collapse of the Nephite state. And it turns out that that hope precisely is fulfilled when the people gather round about the temple in Bountiful. The King of Kings appears to provide them with a law that will establish two centuries of peace—a full reparation of the two centuries of conflict and war that had just come to an end.
I suspect there’s much more to learn, but perhaps all this suffices just to set up some basic parameters for further study. It shouldn’t be overlooked that all that happens in Third Nephi happens “round about the temple,” and that that sets the entire event up as a parallel to—a kind of fulfillment of—what took place “round about the temple” two centuries earlier with Benjamin.
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