The great boldness of writings attributed to Joseph Smith are displayed in their full splendor in the 3 Nephi account of how the Lord visited some of his “other sheep” in the New World and set up his church among them. It would be hard to imagine a project more dangerous to life or perilous to the soul than that of recommending to the Christian world as holy scripture writings claiming to contain an accurate account of the words and deeds of the Lord among men after his resurrection. Nothing short of absolute integrity could stand up to the earthly consequences of such daring in nineteenth-century America. For we know exactly how Joseph Smith’s neighbors reacted to his claims, and it was not with complacent or sympathetic tolerance.
And yet the particular part of the Book of Mormon to which we refer, the post-resurrection mission of Christ in the New World, has not been singled out for condemnation. It has, in fact, met with surprisingly little criticism. Why is that?
For one thing, the tone and content of this particular history are so elevated and profoundly sincere as to silence the would-be critic. More probably, however, the story of Christ’s ministry among men during the forty days after his resurrection (see Acts 1:3) is one which churchmen have always skirted, frankly disapproving of Luke’s literalism. What can one say about events for which, as one scholar puts it, “no metaphysical or psychological explanation can be given”? 1 How does one test matters that lie totally beyond our experience?
In recent years, the rediscovery of very elderly Christian writings such as the Old World forty-day texts stories suggests at least one type of test one would bring to bear when looking at 3 Nephi. With surprising frequency the oldest of these Old World texts purport to contain teachings of the Lord to his disciples after his return from the dead. Since this is precisely the subject of 3 Nephi, we can happily compare the 3 Nephi account with these older writings.
Of course, one must always take care to keep things in perspective when comparing scripture with other texts. Scripture is accepted as the true account, so any discrepancies between it at other texts must be seen as corruptions in the non-scriptural texts. The approach is to look for patterns and general themes; if the details also coincide, so much the better. When I first studied the Old World forty-day texts some years ago, common themes and episodes emerged clearly. 2 One text in particular, the Coptic Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, makes it clear that 3 Nephi has more in common with the themes of the earliest Christian writings than we have heretofore realized. 3 Among the parallels are the Lord’s desire for unity among his people and his offer to give them whatever they may righteously ask of him. In both accounts, he eats with them, feeds them, administers the sacrament (accompanied by a sacramental prayer), and prays with them.
Permit me to make a list of features common to many Old World forty-day texts. The similarities between them and 3 Nephi are striking; and since none of these texts were available in the 1820s, they serve as evidence that Joseph Smith did indeed translate an authentic record.
1. The Apostasy is foretold. Even though the literature on the Old World forty-day mission of the Lord is extensive, it disappeared from the Christian world because it was never very popular. One reason is its pessimism. In almost all the accounts, for example, the Apostles anxiously ask the Lord about the future of the Church. They are surprised to hear that it will fall prey to the plottings of evil and disappear after two generations. “The Apostles protest, as many do today: Is this a time for speaking of death and disaster? … But Jesus remains unyielding.” 4
One finds the same condition in the Book of Mormon: the glad message of the resurrection and the glorious union of the Saints is dampened by the declaration that the Church will survive only for a limited time.
“And now, behold, my joy is great, even unto fulness, because of you, and also this generation. … for none of them are lost.
“Behold, I would that ye should understand; for I mean them who are now alive of this generation. …
“But behold, it sorroweth me because of the fourth generation [in the Old World, it was the second generation] from this generation, for they are led away captive by him even as was the son of perdition; for they will sell me for silver and for gold. … And in that day will I visit them, even in the turning their works upon their own heads.” (3 Ne. 27:30–32; italics added.)
On both hemispheres, Church members were only too willing to forget such disturbing prophecies.
2. Sacredness of the Lord’s words. A second reason for the loss of the Old World forty-day literature was the secrecy with which the writings were guarded. The usual title or instruction to the texts specifies that “these are the Secret teachings” of the Risen Lord. The secrecy with which the communities treasured these documents made possible all sorts of misrepresentations, forgeries, and Gnostic nonsense. Such forgeries and misrepresentations flourished throughout the Christian world of the second century and brought final discredit to both the writings and their sects.
In 3 Nephi we find a similar concern with restricted material. The concern, however, is not so much for secretness as for sacredness. The Lord restricted some things from being recorded because the people were not ready for them. The implication is that when the people reached a certain spiritual stature, they would receive the information.
“And now there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach unto the people.
“And if … they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation.
“Behold, I was about to write them, all … but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people.” (3 Ne. 26:6, 10–11.)
“Write the things which ye have seen and heard, save it be those which are forbidden.” (3 Ne. 27:23.)
Besides things which should not be recorded were those which by their nature could not be:
“And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man … [such] great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak.” (3 Ne. 17:17.)
“And tongue cannot speak the words which he prayed, neither can be written by man the words which he prayed.
“So great and marvelous were the words which he prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man.” (3 Ne. 19:32, 34.)
3. The Savior appears to “other sheep.” Characteristic of the Old World forty-day literature is its emphasis on certain teachings neglected or opposed by later Christianity. Whether or not religious scholars choose to accept these teachings as authentic, it is their presence in 3 Nephi which interests us here. For example, Luke does not mention the Savior’s visits among his servants throughout the world, although he records the Lord’s comings and goings in Judaea. In the Old World forty-day literature, however, there is discussion that the Savior is to appear to people in all parts of the world. So also in the Book of Mormon:
“I have other sheep which are not of this land, neither of the land of Jerusalem, neither in any parts of the land round about whither I have been to minister. …
“They … have not as yet heard my voice. …
4. The Lord reviews history and reveals the future. In early Old World Christian texts, the Savior’s post-resurrection teachings are both prophetic and apocalyptic. They review the history of God’s dealings with men on earth from the beginning down to the Second Coming. The story is usually presented in a series of “dispensations,” alternating periods of light and darkness through which the world and the Saints must pass. The 3 Nephi version goes back to the establishment of the Risen Lord’s teachings among many peoples scattered in many places, not in just one location (ch. 15). It predicts the future of these teachings among the peoples of the earth and its dissemination throughout the world among the Gentiles (ch. 16). Chapter 20 carries the story of Israel and especially of the Nephites themselves right through to our day. And chapter 21 describes God’s future dealings with the people on this hemisphere, climaxing with the establishment of the New Jerusalem.
5. Christ visits the spirit world. Another recurring theme in Old World literature concerns the most natural question to ask anyone returning to earth: Where did you go? What did you see? When the disciples in the Old World asked these questions, the Savior responded with accounts of his visit to the spirit world. (See 1 Pet. 3:19–20; see also JST, 1 Pet. 3:19–20 and D&C 138.)
J. A. MacCulloch has gathered together ample documentation for the story of the preaching of the Lord in another world. These range from numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments through all the writers of the early Christian Church and the apocryphal writings, especially the earliest ones. 5 From ancient times, he shows that the doctrine, resting on 1 Peter 3:18–19, has baffled the Christian clergy. [1 Pet. 3:18–19] The reason, he explains, is that “the plain meaning of the passages conflict with their [the clergy’s] views of the nature of life beyond the grave” (p. 50).
When the Lord returned from his Easter absence in another world, “the question was bound to arise,” writes MacCulloch, “What did Christ’s soul do there?” And the answer: “As Christ was active for good on earth, so also would He be in Hades [world of spirits]. … As he preached the good news on earth, so also would he preach it in Hades” (p. 315). For the early Christians, “Hades, Paradise, Heaven, were regarded as local places,” the spirit world not being utterly removed from anything earthly (p. 318). In the Old World Descent literature, the same type of work by the Lord and the Apostles—preaching, baptizing, 6 teaching—goes on whether on earth or in the spirit world (pp. 55, 169).
It is such parallels as these that could well cause religious scholars to ask if the writer of 3 Nephi drew upon the Descent literature and the Old World forty-day stories as source material. The problem is that the forty-day literature was unknown in the 1820s, and the Descent literature had no credit with the clergy. MacCulloch himself is left in a quandary: “The old doctrine of the Descent … need not be taken literally. Yet we cannot regard it as mere ‘dead wood’ as the clergy do today” (p. 232). The many hints in the scriptures only sowed confusion among the theologians—due, they said, to (1) “our Lord’s constant reticence both with regard to the Other World and with regard to Himself, and (2) the whole nature of the Descent doctrine with its notions of a local underworld” (p. 317).
These concepts the doctors of the church simply could not accept. Exactly like the Old World forty-day teachings, the Descent was a carefully guarded doctrine. Its most famous expression was in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. The Gospel was written by “an early writer, using traditional materials,” which was later “transformed into one of the most popular of mystery Plays—the Harrowing of Hell.” 7 A brief look at Nicodemus with 3 Nephi in mind is in order. Keep in mind that the Gospel of Nicodemus is apocryphal and as such contains some details that will not jibe with the true accounts found in scripture. Still, the similarities are numerous.
The Descensus story begins “with our fathers in the depth of hell, the blackness of darkness” (Nic. 13:3). Suddenly a great light appears, and Adam announces, “That light is the author of everlasting light” (13:3–4). Chapter 16 is devoted to the Gates of Hell, which no longer prevail against those who accept the King of Glory. Then Jesus “stretched forth his hand, and said, Come unto me, all ye my saints” (19:1), and proceeded to organize the Church among them (19:1–3). Adam and all the rest cast themselves at the Savior’s feet and with one voice acknowledge him as their Redeemer (19:4–8). Stretching forth his hand again, he introduces Adam and then “all his saints” to the mark of the crucifixion” (19:11). Then, “taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell” into a higher realm, “and all the saints of God followed him” (19:12).
A strange episode concludes the story in this apocryphal tale. We are faced with the condition of Enoch and Elijah, “who have not tasted death” but must still go on a three-day mission to Jerusalem, be put to death, and “be taken up again into the clouds” (20:1–4). Similarly, the final chapter reports that the whole account has been written by two special witnesses. These were “Charinus and Lenthius,” who were “not allowed to declare the other mysteries of God,” or to communicate with men except on special occasions (21:3). “We have only three days allowed” in Jerusalem, they note, after which “now they are not seen by anyone” (21:5). The reason is that they have been “commanded to go beyond Jordan, to an excellent fat country” to continue their labors (21:4). These two men, according to the story, were the pair also known as the sons of Simeon, who supposedly after being raised from the dead were sent on this special mission by the Lord to testify of his resurrection. After finishing their work in the Old World, they “were changed into exceeding white forms and were seen no more” (21:8).
The account of the Savior’s visit to the New World ends on a similar note. Just before his departure, three of his disciples ask to remain on the earth to minister among men. Their request is granted, and a “change” is “wrought upon their bodies” that “they might not taste of death.” (See 3 Ne. 28:38.) Thereafter they ministered to the Nephites and Lamanites, eventually to go “unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people. … They are as angels of God, “although unrecognized and unknown. (See 3 Ne. 28:25–32.)
The Book of Mormon parallels to the Descensus story itself are dramatic. In 3 Nephi the hosts that sit in darkness are the Nephites themselves, exhausted and despairing after three days of destruction followed by total darkness. The Lord comes to them as a figure of light “descending out of heaven … clothed in a white robe” exactly as he does to the spirits in hell in the Old World writings. He announces “I am the light and the life of the world” (3 Ne. 11:8), who has come to bring them light and deliverance. They accepted him as their Redeemer and “the whole multitude fell to the earth.” (3 Ne. 11:12.) Then he identified himself to them and announced his mission, “and … they did cry out with one accord, saying: Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him.” (3 Ne. 11:17.)
The first thing the Lord did was to insist that they all be baptized. This is exactly as in the Descensus accounts where he confers the “seal” of baptism upon all to whom he preaches in the underworld before they can follow him out of darkness up into his kingdom. Jesus puts it to them as an act of deliverance, offered to all of us: “And this is my doctrine, … that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me. And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved.” (3 Ne. 11:32–33.) Then the Lord says a striking thing to the Nephites:
“Verily, verily, … this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
“And whoso shall declare more or less than this … the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.” (3 Ne. 11:39–40; italics added.) He has come to open the gates of hell that bar them from freedom. The “harrowing of hell” has seldom been described more literally.
6. Jesus reveals the nature of his resurrected body. The Savior’s proof that he is really a resurrected being and not a spirit is the same in the New Testament account and in other Old World versions. In each, Jesus calls for food—real food—and insists that his people share it with him in a sacred meal. The meal usually follows baptism, putting its seal upon the union of those who follow the Lord. In 3 Nephi the sacral meal with the Risen Lord is an event of transcendent importance, to which we shall refer below.
7. Jesus prepares his disciples. Most religious scholars and theologians have interpreted this Old World forty-day mission of Christ as a final, compressed teaching time. During it, he lays a firm foundation for his disciples who will go into all the world to lay a foundation for the Church. The disciples need this teaching. At the time of the crucifixion, they were demoralized and scattered, far from powerful ambassadors of the Lord unto the world. The Old World forty-day teachings prepare them for their missions. The Book of Mormon account parallels this purpose exactly. After Jesus establishes his church among the people, he spends two chapters exclusively with his chosen disciples, preparing them for their missions. (See 3 Ne. 27, 28.)
8. The Savior repeatedly travels between heaven and earth. The comings and goings of the Savior moving between heaven and earth are charged with excitement. As mortals dealing with the mundane, we wonder whether such things can really be. But Luke, in his meticulous reports, wants us to know once and for all that they really can be. The wonder of it quickens the reader’s pulse, but how could we describe the state of mind of those who actually experienced it? The early day Christian writings try, but it is 3 Nephi 19:1–3 that really catches the emotion. [3 Ne. 19:1–3] In 3 Nephi we see the celestial splendor of his comings and goings. We see the utter glory of his presence. And we see the Savior’s closest and most loving intimacy, which is especially tender in the accounts of his dealings with children.
And so, we may well ask, “What imposter with no text or precedent to guide him could hope to venture into the unexplored morass of the Old World forty-day accounts where to this day the student finds no solid foothold, without quickly coming to grief?” The calm, unhesitating deliberation with which the author of 3 Nephi proceeds where religious scholars and poets have feared to tread has been explained as an example of Joseph Smith’s impudence—a desperate argument. The other explanation—that he was translating an authentic document—deserves a fair hearing.
Hugh W. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” Vigiliae Christianae, 20 (1966): 1–24; also in his When the Lights Went Out (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), pp. 33–54.
See When the Lights Went Out for further discussion.
J. A. MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell: A Comparative Study of an Early Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1930), pp. 262ff. References for the following discussion are cited parenthetically in the text.
In Vigilae Christianae, 20 (1966), p. 6–7.
MacCulloch, pp. 83ff and 131ff.
For a fuller discussion of this point, see the author’s five-part essay “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times” in The Improvement Era, beginning January 1949, p. 24.
A readily available edition of the Gospel of Nicodemus is the Forum paperback, The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1963), pp. 63–90. Further references in this text to this edition are cited by chapter and verse in parentheses.