The Visit of Christ in Third Nephi, 1 – Saying and Showing
Posted by joespencer on August 25, 2013
3 Nephi 10:18-19 provide us with what’s probably best described as Mormon’s introduction to the visit of Christ to the New World. The preceding several chapters have of course recounted the massive destructions and consequent human lamentation and divine communication associated with Christ’s death in the Old World. The immediately preceding verses, though, have brought that tale to a close with a challenge from Mormon: “he that hath the scriptures, let him search them and see and behold if all these deaths and destructions . . . is not unto the fulfilling of the prophecies of many of the holy prophecies” (3 Nephi 10:14). But in 10:18-19, Mormon leaves off this difficult narrative to turn to the “great favors” that were shown to those who were spared.
It’s a fascinating few words of transition, a passage we almost never pay attention to as Latter-day Saints. I want to focus on a few theological points of interest that appear in the text.
The first point to be made is that there is, in the passage, an attempt of sorts to differentiate saying and showing. Here’s the text (using, as is my wont, Skousen’s reconstructed “earliest” text, but inventing my own punctuation):
And it came to pass that in the ending of the thirty and fourth year, behold, I will shew unto you that the people of Nephi which were spared—and also they which had been called Lamanites which had been spared—did have great favors shewn unto them and great blessings poured out upon their heads, insomuch that soon after the ascension of Christ into heaven he did truly manifest himself unto them, shewing his body unto them and ministering unto them. And an account of his ministry shall be given hereafter—therefore, for this time I make an end of my sayings. (3 Nephi 10:18-19.)
Note, first of all, the three instances of the verb “to show” here: “I will shew unto you,” “great favors shewn unto them,” and “shewing his body unto them.” And then note that these several showings are presented as uniting to motivate a certain cessation, specifically of saying: “therefore, for this time I make an end of my sayings.” It’s as if Mormon, when he comes to the task of writing the narrative of Christ’s actual visit, has to exchange talk for indication, has to cease speaking so that it’s possible for him just to point.
This distinction wants attention from the philosophical reader, because Ludwig Wittgenstein—among the twentieth century’s most important philosophers—drew a distinction between saying and showing in his early masterpiece, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The Wittgensteinian distinction, in its basic form, is meant to differentiate what might be called scientific description (“saying”) and other uses of language, broadly construed (“showing”). What can be said is whatever can be captured in a straightforwardly significant proposition about the world. What must, however, only be shown is whatever can’t be so captured—ranging from statements about the logical form of the proposition all the way to statements about what is good or what is beautiful. We might put it this way: whenever we come up against what can’t be said in an acceptably scientific way, we’re dealing with what can only be shown. And, as Wittgenstein famously concluded the Tractatus, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” When the boundaries of (scientific) knowledge are transgressed, one must make an end of one’s sayings and give oneself to a kind of silent showing.
There’s something remarkably Wittgensteinian about Mormon’s introduction to the visit of Christ. With all the showing going on in 3 Nephi 10:18-19—beginning from the first with Mormon’s announcement that he will show something to his readers—it’s quite significant that he announces his intent to “make and end of [his] sayings.” Having played the role of a kind of scientific historian to this point in his project, Mormon now comes up against a certain limit. No longer able just to say, just to report, just to describe, he finds that he has to impose silence on himself so that he can silently indicate the messianic manifestation. Of course, as we know, he’ll do just as much reporting, just as much saying, in his account of Christ’s visit as he’s done in his abridgments of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman. But it’s of real significance that he refuses to call that continuation of the historiographical an act of saying, preferring to describe it as an act of showing.
Let me confirm this refusal by noting an awkward bit from 3 Nephi 10:18, right at the beginning of this introduction or transition to the visit of Christ. I’ve already quoted it above, but here it is again, now with all punctuation removed: “and it came to pass that in the ending of the thirty and fourth year behold I will show unto you that the people of Nephi . . . .” The awkwardness of the text here might not be obvious at first, but it reveals itself when one tries to add punctuation—or at least it revealed itself to me when I tried to punctuate the text. I think what we have here is two rival beginnings to a single sentence. Mormon first begins his transition to the narrative of Christ’s visit with the Nephites’ wonted “and it came to pass that” formula. But then he begins again after providing a time-stamp, now with a “behold, I will show unto you that” formula. That the two formulas serve parallel functions is marked by their parallel use of “that” at the end of the phrase (if the two formulas weren’t rivals, but instead were meant to work together, then there would be only one “that”). Each formula strives to be the introduction to what Mormon goes on to describe as happening to “the people of Nephi.”
Now, if we take “and it came to pass that” as the historiographical formula in the Book of Mormon, the unmistakable indicator of historical development or passage of historical time, then we can see a kind of struggle here in 3 Nephi 10:18 between the historiographical and something else—namely, a certain non-historiographical showing (tied to an injunction to “behold”). Further, there’s a struggle between the merely impersonal (“and it came to pass that” is only reportive, without any talk of “you” or “me”) and the personal (“behold, I will show unto you that” reminds the reader that there’s an “I” and a “you” in the act of writing and reading). Thus the consciously phenomenological and the concretely intersubjective vie with the flatly communicative and abstractly reportive. Should the showing formula then be taken as an illustrative instance of the prophetic as such, just as the reportive “and it came to pass that” formula can be taken as the illustrative instance of the historiographical as such? Might we say that what we have in the opening of Mormon’s transition to the story of Christ’s visit is a kind of struggle between, precisely, the historical and the prophetic?
We might note that struggle between the historical and the prophetic is at work elsewhere in Third Nephi. In what I think is the most brilliant part of Grant Hardy’s book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, he argues that there’s a moment in Third Nephi where the Lord forces Mormon to abandon his wonted historical form of discourse to assume, however reluctantly, the position of the prophet. This takes place, on Hardy’s account, right at the end of Third Nephi, when Mormon is wrapping up his account of Christ’s several visits (see Understanding, pp. 209-213). Hardy does some careful reading between the lines to find this struggle, exemplary interpretive work. I wonder, though, whether we don’t have an anticipatory kernel of this later-developed theme, a kind of first installment, right here in the introduction of sorts to the whole story of Christ’s visit. Here “sayings” give way to “showing,” historical report to prophetic manifestation.
There’s a host of theological—and importantly concrete—questions we might ask about this struggle between the historiographical and the prophetic. We do a lot of history, all the more obsessively those of us in the academy (or at least in Mormonism’s more “intellectual” circles). To what extent should we allow the prophetic to shape—if not to interrupt!—the historical narratives we weave? Are there certain privileged points in our history or histories where we find a kind of responsibility to let strictly scientific historiographical methods go and give ourselves instead to a kind of prophetic gesture of testimony or witness?
However we answer these questions, we might do well to recognize that even Mormon occasionally felt as if there was something a bit too insistent about his many “and it came to passes.” Even he seems to have seen that he came by the phrase too naturally. And although we’re usually happy to pat ourselves on the back for being better story-tellers—less repetitive, perhaps—we might also do well to recognize that we’re just as inclined as Mormon was to try to crowd out the prophetic through obsessively-scientific historiography, whether with an eye to demonstrating spiritual truths or with an eye to academic respectability in telling our story. Maybe “and it came to pass” is our pet, too.
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