"The Lamb of God" in Pre-Christian Texts
“Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father.” (1 Nephi 11:21)
One of Nephi’s favorite titles for Jesus Christ was “the Lamb of God.” Forty-four references to “the Lamb” appear in Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11—14 alone. Aside from the Latter-day Saint understanding of a similar reference in Moses 7:47 and perhaps Isaiah 53:7, what evidence supports the Old World origins of this terminology?
In a 1979 article, recently selected as one of the most illuminating studies on the background of the New Testament, J. C. O’Neill contends that the phrase Lamb of God was not a Christian invention, as some scholars have supposed, but was rooted in earlier Jewish language and imagery.1 His main evidence comes from the Testament of Joseph, a Jewish text probably from the second century B.C.
O’Neill reasons, for example, that no Christian editor would have added the references to the Lamb of God to the Jewish Testament of Joseph 19, because doing so would presuppose two Messiahs (the lion and the lamb figures), a non-Christian tradition that would detract from Christ’s preeminence in the work of salvation.
The ancient roots of Testament of Joseph 19 are further evident when that text is compared with the visions in 1 Nephi and related passages in the Book of Mormon:
- The author of Testament of Joseph 19 learned of the coming Lamb in a dream. Lehi saw in a dream the same vision that Nephi saw, a vision featuring the Lamb of God (see 1 Nephi 11:1, 20—21, 24, 27—36).
- Testament of Joseph 19 describes the scattering of the twelve tribes (compare 1 Nephi 10:12—13; 11:35—12:1).
- Nephi and the author of Testament of Joseph 19 behold a virgin, mother of the Lamb (see 1 Nephi 11:13—21).
- The “robe of fine linen” in Testament of Joseph 19 recalls the virgin’s description in 1 Nephi 11:15 as “beautiful and fair” and the white robe in 1 Nephi 8:5 and 14:19.
- The beautiful mother gives birth to a “spotless lamb” in Testament of Joseph 19 and to “the Son of God” in 1 Nephi 11:18.
- In Testament of Joseph 19 the Lion (Judah?) was found on the Lamb’s left hand and proved ineffective, leaving the Lamb to destroy the beast alone (compare 1 Nephi 11:31, 33; 14:13, 15).
- Both texts prophesy that evil will be destroyed in the last days (see 1 Nephi 11:36; 13:37; 14:14—17).
- In Testament of Joseph 19 the faithful rejoice and are exhorted by their father to keep the commandments of God, common themes in the Book of Mormon (see 1 Nephi 8:38; 2 Nephi 1:16; 2:30).
- In Testament of Joseph 19 Joseph’s posterity is to honor Judah and Levi, the Jews in Jerusalem (compare 1 Nephi 14:8; 2 Nephi 3:12; 29:4—6).
- Both texts recognize that salvation through the Lamb will come “by grace” (2 Nephi 25:23), saving Gentiles and Israelites (see 1 Nephi 13:42—14:2) by taking away the “sin of the world” (Testament of Joseph 19; compare 1 Nephi 11:33).
When John the Baptist announced Christ’s approach with the words “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), he was no doubt using a distinctive messianic title already familiar to the Jews of his day. Although modern Christian readers may consider Nephi’s use of the phrase Lamb of God centuries before the Christian era to be anachronistic, the parallels between the Book of Mormon and Testament of Joseph 19 confirm O’Neill’s position on the pre-Christian antiquity of the phrase. Thus John was not the first to use it in reference to Christ; and John and Nephi, as well as Isaiah, may have been drawing on earlier common sources.
Research by John W. Welch, originally published as a FARMS Update in Insights (August 1998): 2.