"So Great and Marvelous Things":
The Literary Portrait of Jesus as Divine Lord in 3 Nephi
As we study 3 Nephi through a literary lens, we can see that the writer crafted a narrative that portrays Jesus not as another man with whom others associated but as the glorified and resurrected Christ, the Eternal God whom the Nephites worshipped. Like the four Gospels of the New Testament, 3 Nephi offers a beautiful and powerful account of the Savior and his ministry. But it is different from its four companions in a number of significant ways. For Latter-day Saint readers, a central message of the four Gospels in the New Testament is the good news that Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, has taken upon himself a body and come to live among us. Though it may not be explicit throughout the four Gospels, we can see that Jesus is God-who-is-now-Man, whereas 3 Nephi portrays him as God come back to earth, Man-who-is-now-God.
This title is not meant to imply that the mortal Savior was no longer God, but that the Gospel writers are frequently portraying what we might call his “human side.” Even the book of John, the Gospel that frequently focuses on the divinity of Jesus, begins by proclaiming that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). In other words, John is proclaiming that God is now a man who lives among us. Though God, the Jesus in the Gospels is a man who attends wedding festivals, has children sit on his lap, and converses with common people at a well and in the fields and cities. He is powerful—performing miracles throughout the land—but also approachable.
By contrast, 3 Nephi portrays the Lord as Man-who-is-now-God. This title does not imply that he was only a man before, but that, while the four Gospels often emphasized the humanity of the Savior in his mortal state, 3 Nephi emphasizes his godly nature in his resurrected state. Rather than his way being prepared by a single man crying in the wilderness, as described in the New Testament, in 3 Nephi city after city in the New World is destroyed because of wickedness, showing forth his power and righteous judgment. We read not of a babe born in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothing, but of a heavenly being who descends from heaven, clothed in a white robe. In Matthew, the Lord tells people to be perfect even as their Father in heaven is perfect, but in 3 Nephi he includes himself with the Father as an example of perfection to follow.
The difference in how 3 Nephi speaks of the Savior is not limited to what happened when he was with the Nephites, however, but can also be seen in the way in which the Nephite author offers his account of what happened. In other words, the difference between the four New Testament Gospels and the 3 Nephi account of his ministry is not just in what happens, but in how it is described.
A Literary Text
Much of the difference between 3 Nephi and its four biblical companions lies in the simple fact that the Savior often did different things with the Nephites than he did with the Jews. It is merely a matter of history. In 3 Nephi, Jesus is resurrected and glorified; he is different than he was in mortality, and the text should reflect that. Martin S. Tanner writes that the “dichotomy is not between Matthew and 3 Nephi, but rather between the mortal and resurrected Jesus.” 1 And New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl notes, “The image of Jesus in the whole of 3 Nephi . . . is that of a revealer” rather than “a teacher in the ongoing community of God’s people correcting the foibles and the misconceptions of religious people.” 2 It is a matter of history that the Savior appeared to the Nephites by descending from the sky, so, the logic goes, how else could the writer relate the account of his appearance? One might surmise that the writer is simply giving an account of an historical event. Since the history of the resurrected Savior is different from the history of the mortal Savior, the account will naturally be different.
While that is certainly true, it is not the complete answer. We do not know, for example, that everything the Savior did in 3 Nephi that varied from his actions in the Gospels can be attributed to the fact that he was resurrected in the one account and not the other. To assume that the reason he could provide the sacrament to the Nephites without having any bread or wine to begin with (see 3 Nephi 20) is that he was resurrected could be just as fallacious as to claim that the reason he walked on water in the Gospels, but not in 3 Nephi, is because he was mortal. There is more to this issue than simply noting that the events were different and that the nature of the Savior was different (resurrected as opposed to mortal), thereby assuming that the accounts vary for those reasons. The writer of 3 Nephi was inspired to write the way he did, leaving out some facts and including others. He does not offer us an account of everything the Savior said to the Nephites, but he chooses certain statements and includes them for a purpose. What the noted Bible-as-literature scholar Robert Alter describes regarding biblical narrators also applies, at least in many instances, to the writer of 3 Nephi:
How does the Bible manage to evoke such a sense of depth and complexity in its representation of character with what would seem to be such sparse, even rudimentary means? Biblical narrative offers us, after all, nothing in the way of minute analysis of motive or detailed rendering of mental processes; whatever indications we may be vouchsafed of feeling, attitude, or intention are rather minimal; and we are given only the barest hints about the physical appearance, the tics and gestures, the dress and implements of the characters, the material milieu in which they enact their destinies. In short, all the indicators of nuanced individuality to which the Western literary tradition has accustomed us—preeminently in the novel, but ultimately going back to the Greek epics and romances—would appear to be absent from the Bible. . . . Though biblical narrative is often silent where later modes of fiction will choose to be loquacious, it is selectively silent in a purposeful way.3
While we may not be able to claim with surety what the purposes of 3 Nephi’s author are by including what he does in each specific instance, we can speak with confidence about the effect of the text he left us. The literary qualities of his writing help to convey the image of Jesus as resurrected, glorified God. While a large number of literary elements could be studied in 3 Nephi—and other writers have looked at parts of the book in literary terms 4—this paper will focus on three important aspects of the Lord’s Nephite ministry—prayer, miracles, and dialogue—to explore how the literary nature of the book helps to convey Jesus’s divinity.5
The writers of the Gospels provide us with many instances of the Lord praying 6 and tell us at least part of what he said.7 John gives us a verbatim account of what the Lord says in his great Intercessory Prayer (see John 17). When he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead, we know that he prays, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 11:41–42). Even in Gethsemane, when he says one of the most sacred prayers ever offered, we know something of what he prays: “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42). In each New Testament narrative in which part or all of a prayer of the Lord is recorded, we see at least part of his human side as he speaks to his Heavenly Father much as he would teach us to do.
There are several times, though, when the Lord prays but the writer does not tell us any of what was said: “he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12); “as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him” (Luke 9:18); “he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23). While these are biblical examples of the writer not telling us what the Lord said in a prayer, the author does not say that he could not write what was said. Perhaps the writer was too far away to hear what the Savior prayed or simply did not record what was said, but the author does not seem to give significance to the fact that the words of the prayer are not written.
On the other hand, the first time in 3 Nephi when the Savior prays with the Nephites, we read of this sacred communion between the Son and his Father as something that we humans cannot even discuss. “The things which he prayed,” the writer tells us, “cannot be written, and the multitude did bear record who heard him. And after this manner do they bear record: The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father” (3 Nephi 17:15–16). By including this important observation in his account, the writer helps to portray Jesus as Man-become-God—a being whose words of prayer cannot be written. On the first level of analysis, we can understand the simple but exquisite message that the Lord’s words were “great and marvelous.” It is as though the writer is saying, “What the Lord said in his prayer was so amazing that I simply do not have words to describe it.” We use similar expressions today in modern speech: “Words just can’t describe the experience” or “I just don’t have the words.”
However, this first-level analysis does not do justice to the text. The writer is not saying that he does not have words to describe the experience of hearing the Savior pray for them; he is saying that the words the Savior said cannot be written. A woman present when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address may have said she could not put into words how it felt to hear the president give that historic speech, but she could not say the words could not be written. They were, in fact, written, and anyone can read them. The writer of 3 Nephi provides us with some information—the Savior’s words cannot be written—but he does not give us all the information. By not telling us why the Savior’s words could not be written, the narrator opens the door to a number of possibilities. Did the Lord tell the people not to write the words?8 Were the words too sacred to write? Did the people simply not have the ability to write the words because they were so captured by the grandeur of the moment? Were the words the Lord prayed uttered in a different language, one that the people could not write even though they could understand, perhaps miraculously, what he said? Of course, the writer possibly did not know why the words could not be written, so he did not tell us why. But that possibility also opens up questions about why he would not know. And, there is the interpretation that would maintain that the writer purposely left out any explanation because it was simply not important. Here again, readers would wonder why he would not believe that the words of the Lord’s prayer would be important to know.
By withholding this information, the writer creates a text that invites us to ask questions, to reflect on experiences we have had in our lives, and to see if we can make any connections. If he had directly told us the reason, our pondering would have been quite limited by the single explanation given. By leaving out any explanation, however, a whole world of possibilities opens up that allows us to learn more about ourselves and what we can understand about our own spiritual experiences.
The writer continues to explain why he cannot write what the Lord prayed: “And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak” (3 Nephi 17:17). A careful reading of this text confirms that the writer is once again not speaking of his inability to describe how he felt, but of his inability to write what was said. The focus is not on how the listeners felt (he does not even mention their feelings at this point), but on the words they “heard Jesus speak.” The author is not saying, “no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive how we felt as we both saw and heard Jesus speak.” Something different is going on here: the words were spoken, the words were heard, but the words cannot be spoken or written by anyone who heard them.
The conclusion of this verse, though, does deal with the feelings of those present, saying that “no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father” (3 Nephi 17:17). Here, he is not speaking of the words the Lord used but of their joyful response to those words. Note, though, that he is also no longer speaking about not having the words to write—he does not say that he cannot write the words that convey the joy the people felt—he is merely stating that no one can conceive the joy the people felt. Throughout these three verses, the writer says that he cannot write the words the Lord spoke, without ever saying that he could not write the words that conveyed the joy people felt.
A similar account occurs later when the Lord prays again. This time the writer notes that “tongue cannot speak the words which [the Lord] prayed, neither can be written by man the words which he prayed. And the multitude did hear and do bear record; and their hearts were open and they did understand in their hearts the words which he prayed. Nevertheless, so great and marvelous were the words which he prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man” (3 Nephi 19:32–34).
Here, the writer is specific about why he cannot write the words: the words were so great and marvelous that they cannot be written. The phrase great and marvelous was used in the earlier account, but not as an explanation as to why the words could not be recorded, only as a description of what the people saw and heard. Still, even in this account, we do not know why the words could not be written because we do not understand the relationship between the words being “great and marvelous” and the inability to write them. Does the writer not have the words to match the sublimity of the Lord’s prayer, for example, or has he been commanded to not write them because of what was said? Does “great” mean “too sacred” to be written or spoken by mortals? Once again, by including this scene the author helps to create an image of the Savior in 3 Nephi as Divine Lord, whose words are so great they cannot be written. And, by excluding the reason why the words’ greatness stops them from being written, he has opened the door to our personal reflection and understanding.
It is noteworthy that these instances of the Lord praying and of those hearing not being able to write his words are not always the case in 3 Nephi. Other times in the book the words of the Lord’s prayer are recorded verbatim, such as when he prays, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast given the Holy Ghost unto these whom I have chosen; and it is because of their belief in me that I have chosen them out of the world” (3 Nephi 19:20; see 3 Nephi 19:21–23, 28–29). In another instance when he prays, the writer does not inform us what was said but describes the event: “He took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. And when he had done this he wept again” (3 Nephi 17:21–22). Here, however, the writer does not claim that the words cannot be written but simply does not write the words of the prayer.
Another significant event recorded in 3 Nephi regarding prayer is when the Nephites pray not to God the Father, but to the Lord himself. The Savior had explicitly taught the Nephites to pray to the Father in the Lord’s name. “Therefore ye must always pray unto the Father in my name; and whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you. Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed” (3 Nephi 18:19–21). Yet, after praying to the Father in the name of Jesus earlier in the text, the disciples “did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God” (3 Nephi 19:18). While this is an exceptional case, and we are taught to pray only to Heavenly Father, this scene supports the 3 Nephi portrayal of the Savior as Divine Lord. Prayer, after all, is communication with God. The fact that the Lord does not permit anyone to pray to him in the New Testament Gospels, but allows them to pray to him in 3 Nephi, is another indication of how he is now Man-become-God. In fact, not only do they pray to the Savior, but they call him “their Lord and their God.”
In a number of accounts in the Gospels, the Lord performs miracles. For example, he changes water into wine (John 2:1–11), heals people (Matthew 9:27–31), feeds five thousand men with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:15–21), walks on water (Matthew 14:25–33), and even raises a man from the dead (John 11:1–45). And, of course, the atonement, from the Garden of Gethsemane through the cross on Calvary to the empty tomb, is the greatest of miracles. In many ways, however, the miracles he performs with the Nephites, written about in 3 Nephi, go beyond those recorded in the Gospels, once again offering a portrait of the Savior as a powerful God. Even the Lord teaches about the difference: “So great faith have I never seen among all the Jews; wherefore I could not show unto them so great miracles, because of their unbelief” (3 Nephi 19:35).
This is not to say that all 3 Nephi has to offer concerning the Lord’s miracles is that they are somehow more impressive than most of the miracles in the Gospels. Someone studying 3 Nephi as history could rightly conclude that more spectacular miracles are mentioned in 3 Nephi because the Lord actually performed more spectacular miracles with the Nephites than he did with the Jews. However, from a literary perspective, we need to note what miracles the 3 Nephi writer chose to include and how he wrote about them.
In the New Testament the Lord feeds thousands of people from only five loaves of bread and two fish; in 3 Nephi he provides the sacrament to the multitude without even one loaf of bread or cup of wine, miraculously producing the bread and wine from nothing. “Now, there had been no bread, neither wine, brought by the disciples, neither by the multitude; but he truly gave unto them bread to eat, and also wine to drink” (3 Nephi 20:6–7). In the Gospels, the Lord heals a number of people, but the general pattern is that individuals seek him to be healed. In this Book of Mormon account of the Lord’s ministry, he invites everyone present who is afflicted to come forth to be healed. “Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy” (3 Nephi 17:7). He heals everyone present who needs his healing touch, as “all the multitude, with one accord, did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner; and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him” (3 Nephi 17:9; see 3 Nephi 26:15, which includes mention that he raised a man from the dead). Matthew gives the account of people bringing little children to Jesus so that he could “put his hands on them, and pray,” and “he laid his hands on them” (Matthew 19:13, 15). In 3 Nephi, however, the Lord prays for the people, then tells them to look at their children. “And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them” (3 Nephi 17:24).
We can find one of the Lord’s great prayers in John 17, when he offers what is often called his Intercessory Prayer. The Savior offers a similar prayer on behalf of the Nephites. This 3 Nephi prayer, though, is accompanied with miraculous events that we do not find with the prayer recorded in John. The disciples pray to the Father in the name of Jesus, asking that the Holy Spirit be given to them. They are baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit, and then “they were encircled about as if it were by fire; and it came down from heaven, and the multitude did witness it, and did bear record; and angels did come down out of heaven and did minister unto them. And it came to pass that while the angels were ministering unto the disciples, behold, Jesus came and stood in the midst and ministered unto them” (3 Nephi 19:14–15). Jesus commands the disciples to pray, so they begin praying to him. He then departs and offers the first part of his prayer, thanking the Father for giving the Holy Spirit to those whom he had chosen out of the world, acknowledging that they were given the Holy Spirit because they believed in him, and praying for them and for those who will hear their words so that they may be one with him (see 3 Nephi 19:20–23). Afterward, he returns to the disciples, who are still praying to him. “And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof” (3 Nephi 19:25). The Lord then goes a little way off and continues his prayer, asking that they will be purified, praying not for the world, but for these people who have been given to him out of the world, and praying that they will be one with him (see 3 Nephi 19:28–29). He returns to his disciples who are still praying and who are “white, even as Jesus” (3 Nephi 19:30). At this point the Lord walks off a little way again and offers a prayer that is so “great and marvelous” that “the words which he prayed . . . cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man” (3 Nephi 19:34). Though some of the content of this 3 Nephi scene of prayers is similar to what the Lord said in his Intercessory Prayer recorded in John, the author of the Nephite account includes events that illustrate the Savior’s godliness. Jesus is not simply praying, as he did in John, but he is the one to whom others are praying. And, there is much more than prayers occurring in this narrative: a miraculous change is taking place for each of his disciples.
After Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, he sees the moneychangers in the temple and cleanses it. The blind and lame come to him and are healed, and the children in the temple cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The chief priests and scribes are displeased, asking Jesus if he hears what the children are saying. “Yea,” the Savior replies, “have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” (Matthew 21:14, 16). During the Savior’s ministry among the Nephites, he has a similar experience with the children, yet it is, once again, even more astounding. The Savior “did teach and minister unto the children of the multitude . . . , and he did loose their tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things, even greater than he had revealed unto the people; and he loosed their tongues that they could utter” (3 Nephi 26:14). The next day, the people gather together and see that “even babes did open their mouths and utter marvelous things; and the things which they did utter were forbidden that there should not any man write them” (3 Nephi 26:16).
The Gospels give us an account of an individual who is translated, even though the account is far from clear: “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me. Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” (John 21:22–23). We know from modern revelation, including the Book of Mormon (see 3 Nephi 28:6), that this passage of John refers to John himself, and that he was indeed translated. While this great miracle of translation is only mentioned once in the New Testament Gospels, and done so somewhat ambiguously, the 3 Nephi account is much clearer. Three disciples are involved, and Jesus makes clear that these three servants are translated when he says,
Ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven. And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father. And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the things which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one. (3 Nephi 28:7–10)
After the Savior touches each of the disciples except for the Three Nephites, he departs. The heavens are opened and the three are caught up in heaven, seeing and hearing “unspeakable things” that they were “forbidden” to utter (3 Nephi 28:13–14). We are then told a good amount about the Three Nephites by Mormon, the abridger of this record—how they ministered “upon the face of the earth,” united “as many to the church as would believe in their preaching,” and baptized people. We even learn that the Three Nephites were cast into prison, “delivered out of the depths of the earth,” “thrice . . . cast into a furnace” but received no harm, and twice “cast into a den of wild beasts” only to “play with the beasts as a child with a suckling lamb” (3 Nephi 28:16–22). While the New Testament offers one brief, somewhat confusing account of John’s being promised translation, 3 Nephi shows the Lord promising three people such a blessing and offers the most detailed information we have on what it means to be translated. Without modern revelation, we cannot be sure what has happened with John, but the Book of Mormon shows us a God who has the power to translate people and gives us a glimpse into what power lies in being translated.
The Gospels provide us with brief glimpses of the resurrected Savior. He appears to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” after they have been at his tomb; to two disciples on the road to Emmaus; to his assembled disciples; to Thomas, inviting him to touch his wounded side; and to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias (see Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20–21).9 While there is no doubt that the four Gospels are testimonies that Jesus was resurrected, the 3 Nephi account is an even stronger witness of his resurrection. We read of his descending from heaven and of his ministry as a resurrected being to the Nephites for several days. After reading this gospel, there can be no doubt that the Lord was resurrected with a physical body and that he could continue to minister to his people even after his death. It could not be more poignantly stated than in 3 Nephi:
Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come. And when they had all gone forth and had witnessed for themselves, 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 Nephi 11:14–17)
The 3 Nephi telling of the resurrected Lord leaves no room for debate over such things as whether the Savior received an actual, physical body. The resurrected Savior in the Book of Mormon is no metaphor, but a living, breathing God who walks among the people, preaching to them and allowing thousands to touch his wounds and bear witness of his reality.
If, as Stendahl notes, everything in John is “a little more miraculous” than what we read in the synoptic Gospels,10 we can readily understand that the miracles in 3 Nephi go far beyond what even John has to offer in depicting the divinity of the Savior. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the 3 Nephi miracles are just “more” than the ones in the Gospels. The author of 3 Nephi purposefully chose certain miracles to relate and then related them in particular ways that portray the Savior as much more than a man—he is the Most High God, capable of exercising his great power in blessing his followers.
In discussing the Bible, Alter writes that “quantitatively, a remarkably large part of the narrative burden is carried by dialogue, the transactions between characters typically unfolding through the words they exchange, with only the most minimal intervention of the narrator,” and adds that “the very occurrence of extended dialogue should signal the need for special attentiveness as we read.” 11 When we read such verbal “transactions between characters” in the Bible, we know that something significant to the narrative is occurring. We can see a number of examples of Alter’s observation in the Gospels, such as the Lord’s discussions with Nicodemus (see John 3), the woman at the well (see John 4), and the multitude during his discourse on the Bread of Life (see John 6).12 However, each of these instances of dialogue, as well as others in the Gospels, portray Jesus as very much a man with whom others can interact through conversation. People can ask him questions, disagree with him, and even challenge what he says.
Many examples of dialogue in the Book of Mormon signify special attention is warranted. The dialogue between Korihor and Alma comes to mind (see Alma 30), of course, but there are many other examples as well, such as Nephi and the Spirit of the Lord and, later, Nephi and an angel (see 1 Nephi 11), Jacob and Sherem (see Jacob 7), Ammon and King Limhi (see Mosiah 8), Amulek and Zeezrom (see Alma 11), and Ammon and King Lamoni (see Alma 17–18). Many passages throughout the Book of Mormon do not have dialogue because it is not necessary or even important to the text’s message and purpose. For example, since we are dealing with 3 Nephi, we see no dialogue when we read of the Nephites and Lamanites uniting to defend themselves against the Gadianton robbers (see chapter 2) or when the Nephite armies defeat the robbers (see chapter 4).13 However, there are times in 3 Nephi when it would make sense to include dialogue, but the author purposefully excludes any word of dialogue. Occasionally it is obvious that people must be talking with each other and what they say would be of interest to us, but we read no dialogue. Such instances also indicate that “special attentiveness” is called for. For example, when the Lord first appears to the Nephites, Heavenly Father speaks when he introduces his Son to the people, and the Lord speaks when he proclaims who he is and instructs the Nephites, but at no time in that chapter is there dialogue (see 3 Nephi 11). One may argue that no dialogue appears in the chapter because no dialogue occurred during the course of the actual historical event. That is unlikely, though, especially when we consider that the Lord spent hours allowing everyone present to touch his wounds (3 Nephi 11:15). It is difficult to believe that not one instance occurred during that entire time in which the Lord spoke to someone and that person spoke in return, or in which two people spoke with each other. It is true that the people shout afterwards “Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God!,” but that is an exclamation of praise, not dialogue (3 Nephi 11:17). The author dramatically emphasizes the Lord and what he says by omitting dialogue. He portrays the experience as God coming down from heaven and capturing the attention of his people, rather than as a man appearing and conversing with others.
This lack of dialogue with the Lord is not unique to this chapter. When the Lord institutes the sacrament among the Nephites, he interacts with the people there rather extensively. He tells his disciples to go for bread and wine, commands the multitude to sit down, takes the bread from his disciples and blesses it, gives it to his disciples and tells them to eat, commands his disciples to give the bread to the multitude, and then teaches his disciples about the sacrament. (I repeat “his disciples” to illustrate how often he interacted with other people and had the opportunity to converse with them.) Next, he repeats this process for the wine (see 3 Nephi 18:1–11). Not only is there no dialogue in this entire chapter, but the Savior is the only person who even speaks. There is no account of the disciples saying a word, or of even a single person in the multitude speaking. By leaving out words by any other person, the writer creates a feeling in the text of awe toward the Savior. While the blessing and passing of the sacrament is by definition a communal experience, it is also a sublimely reverent experience in which any communication is to be between the people and their Lord through worship, not conversing.
By contrast, after the Savior ascends into heaven we have an example in which quite a bit of speaking takes place among the people. What is remarkable, though, is not one example of dialogue exists in the text—not even one sentence of speech. After he ascends, “every man did take his wife and his children and did return to his own home” (3 Nephi 19:1), but there is no record that anyone in the families spoke. “And it was noised abroad among the people immediately, before it was yet dark, that the multitude had seen Jesus, and that he had ministered unto them, and that he would also show himself on the morrow unto the multitude. Yea, and even all the night it was noised abroad concerning Jesus” (3 Nephi 19:2–3). Here we finally have an account of people speaking, but there is still no dialogue and no quoted speech. The next day, the disciples separate the multitude into twelve bodies and teach them. The disciples teach the people to pray, and both the people and the disciples pray, but the writer does not include a word of what was said (see 3 Nephi 19:5–7). The disciples then minister to the multitude “those same words which Jesus had spoken—nothing varying from the words which Jesus had spoken” (3 Nephi 19:8). We have at least a partial account of what the Lord taught the previous day, so we know that the disciples had a great deal to report to the multitude, yet no words are quoted. In fact, for the remainder of the chapter, only the Savior’s spoken words are recorded. We do not know what the disciples say in their prayers, what the people say in theirs, or what, if anything, was said among the people or between them and the Lord. The chapter makes it clear that words were spoken, but the writer once again places the emphasis on the Savior and what he says.
Considering how many times people have discussions with the Lord in the Gospels, it is amazing—and significant—that only two examples of dialogue with the Savior are recorded in all of 3 Nephi. The first instance of dialogue occurs when the Lord asks Nephi to bring the record he has kept. Nephi brings the record and the following dialogue is recorded (I have reformatted it, with quotation marks added, to emphasize the passage as dialogue):
[The Lord is apparently speaking to Nephi at this point.] “Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel, the Lamanite, that he should testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them.”
And he said unto them [the disciples]: “Was it not so?” And his disciples answered him and said: “Yea, Lord, Samuel did prophesy according to thy words, and they were all fulfilled.”
And Jesus said unto them: “How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?”
And it came to pass that Nephi remembered that this thing had not been written. And it came to pass that Jesus commanded that it should be written; therefore it was written according as he commanded. (3 Nephi 23:9–13)
Several elements of this account of the dialogue help shape the portrayal of Jesus as God and not as just another man with whom mere mortals can have conversations. First, the Lord is the primary speaker here. The disciples say only one sentence. Second, the exchange is basically the Lord reprimanding the disciples for not including an account of the resurrection of many Nephites. He speaks directly to Nephi at first, reminding him of Samuel’s prophecy; then he speaks to the disciples as if to solicit their support for what he has reminded Nephi: “Was it not so?” Second, though Nephi is the record keeper at this point, the Lord asks all of them the pointed question as to why the account of the Nephite resurrection was not included. Perhaps he does so out of compassion to soften the effect of his reprimand on Nephi and to imply to those present that each had a responsibility to make certain the record was complete. Third, the writer crafts the dialogue into a two-person exchange, the first person being the Lord and the second person being his disciples speaking as one. Naturally, the disciples did not say, “Yea, Lord, Samuel did prophesy according to thy words, and they were all fulfilled” in unison. If we had been present for this dialogue, we may have seen that only one of the disciples replied to the Savior, or that several said different statements that could be summarized by the quotation offered in the account. While we cannot determine the reason the writer crafted the dialogue in this way, we can see the effect of his doing so: the disciples’ response is anonymous, thus shifting the power and significance of the dialogue to the Savior, where they belong.
The second dialogue appears several chapters later when the disciples are gathered together praying. The Lord appears to them and has the following dialogue (once again, reformatted and with quotation marks added):
“What will ye that I shall give unto you?”
And they said unto him: “Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter.”
And the Lord said unto them: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, why is it that the people should murmur and dispute because of this thing? Have they not read the scriptures, which say ye must take upon you the name of Christ, which is my name?” (3 Nephi 27:2–5)
The Savior then continues with his answer for the remainder of the chapter—for a reply that is a total of thirty verses! The same three qualities of the first dialogue hold true for this one as well. The Savior is the primary speaker, an element of reprimand appears in his answer (in this case, his reprimand is directed toward the people for their murmuring and disputation), and the writer crafts the dialogue to have the disciples speak as though they are one person. Additionally, this exchange begins with a question from the Lord that shows that he answers prayers (he comes as a result of their praying), possesses great power (he is able to give them what they want), and feels compassion (he cares about them and wants to know what they want).
The second part of this dialogue with the Savior in 3 Nephi occurs in the next chapter. The Lord has just completed the reply to his disciples’ question when the following takes place (reformatted, with added quotation marks):
And it came to pass when Jesus had said these words, he spake unto his disciples, one by one, saying unto them:
“What is it that ye desire of me, after that I am gone to the Father?”
And they all spake, save it were three, saying: “We desire that after we have lived unto the age of man, that our ministry, wherein thou hast called us, may have an end, that we may speedily come unto thee in thy kingdom.”
And he said unto them: “Blessed are ye because ye desired this thing of me; therefore, after that ye are seventy and two years old ye shall come unto me in my kingdom; and with me ye shall find rest.”
And when he had spoken unto them, he turned himself unto the three, and said unto them: “What will ye that I should do unto you, when I am gone unto the Father?”
And they sorrowed in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired.
And he said unto them: “Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me. Therefore, more blessed are ye, for ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven.” (3 Nephi 28:1–7)
The Lord’s answer continues for another four verses. This section of the second dialogue continues in the same pattern as the first. The Lord is the primary speaker, once again saying more than anyone else in the text. There is an element of reprimand—twice, in fact. The first is when the Lord tells the nine disciples that their desire to come to him quickly is a good thing by saying, “Blessed are ye because ye desired this thing of me.” The three feel reprimanded, in a way, when they infer that their desire is not as valid, and they sorrow “in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired.” The second reprimand could have been inferred by the nine disciples, when they hear the Lord tell the three that they are “more blessed” for their desire. The writer, again, crafts the disciples’ speaking as though one person is talking; the nine are portrayed as saying the same sentence, and the three, though they never speak, have the same desire. It is unlikely that the Lord said the exact same words to each of the twelve in asking his question, and it is even more unlikely that each of the nine answered with the exact same words. By portraying the dialogue in this way, the writer takes the attention away from word choice and how the individual questions and answers differed and focuses our reading on the Lord’s words and what he was doing for these followers. And finally, as with the first part of this second dialogue, it begins with a question from the Lord (though it is not an answer to a prayer, so far as we know), shows his power (he is able to give them something they desire to receive after he is returned to the Father), and manifests his compassion (he cares about each of the twelve disciples and wants to give them what they desire, even when they do not all desire the same thing).
It may be tempting to suppose that one reason there is so little dialogue with the Savior in 3 Nephi as compared to the Gospels is because the devastating destruction before the Lord came to the Nephites left only good people. When he taught among the Jews, he frequently had to deal with wicked people who were seeking to trap him in his words. While it is true that the people in the Lord’s Nephite ministry were more righteous than many in his mortal ministry, it is also true that he conversed with many faithful followers in the Gospels. In the New Testament, Jesus does not enter into dialogue with enemies only, or even with only nonbelievers. He also has dialogues with his apostles, disciples, and people of goodwill. In fact, in the book of Matthew alone, we find the Savior conversing with such people as the blind men whom he healed (see Matthew 9) and Peter, his apostle. The Savior converses with Peter several times in Matthew: when Jesus tells him that he is blessed because of his testimony, when he chastises him for objecting to his future death, when he asks him about paying taxes, and when he tells him that he will deny knowing him (see Matthew 16, 17, 26). While it is true that the Gospels give accounts of the Lord discussing various issues with the unrighteous (even with the devil himself in the wilderness), they also include dialogues with others as well.
By including so little dialogue with the Savior in 3 Nephi, and by carefully choosing the dialogue that is included and crafting it as discussed above, the writer of the book has helped to create a different image of Jesus than the one we read about in the New Testament Gospels. This 3 Nephi Jesus, resurrected and glorified, is not a man among men, but Divine Lord among his people. The Nephites do not question him, challenge him, or disagree with him—they stand in awe of him, kneel before him, pray to him, and worship him. What he speaks is eternally important, and the Nephites come to listen.
While all who love the Lord cherish the accounts of his life found in the Gospels of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon offers a fifth account that portrays the Savior and his divinity in even more clear and undeniable ways. This fifth version does not diminish the first four in any way but complements them by allowing us to see more of Jesus as the glorified, resurrected God that he is. By using a literary lens to study the 3 Nephi account of the Savior’s visit to the Nephites, we can see how the author crafts the narrative to portray him not as a man living on the earth, interacting with others on a daily basis and living among them, but as Divine Lord, come down from heaven to minister to his people and save them.
Many scholars have written about the Bible as literature. In fact, this particular approach to the Bible is considered significant enough to be offered as part of the standard curriculum of English departments for many universities (including Brigham Young University). The well-respected scholar Robert Alter has written The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), in addition to editing, with Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987). Leland Ryken has published extensively on the Bible as literature, including The Literature of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), and Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 1992). Even the great literary critic Northrop Frye wrote about this topic in two books: The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982); and Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990).
For decades, scholars have taken an interest in studying the Book of Mormon through a literary lens as well. Sidney B. Sperry discusses the types of literature (including allegory, song, epistle, psalm, lamentation, historical narrative, memoir, prophetic discourse, oratory, symbolic prophecy, and, especially relevant to this paper, what he termed “the American Gospel”) in his book Our Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1950). John S. Tanner writes of some of the literary qualities in the Book of Mormon in his article “Literary Reflections on Jacob and His Descendants,” in The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy: Papers from the Fourth Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, 1988, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1990), 251–69. Bruce Jorgensen wrote a careful and insightful literary study in his “The Dark Way to the Tree: Typological Unity in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: BYU Studies Center, 1981), 217–31. Richard D. Rust wrote his seminal book, Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1997), as well as such articles as “ ’All Things Which Have Been Given of God . . . Are the Typifying of Him’: Typology in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief, 233–43; “Book of Mormon Imagery,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 132–39; and “ ’So Curious a Workmanship’: The Book of Mormon as Literature,” in Colloquium: Essays in Literature and Belief, ed. Richard H. Cracroft, Jane D. Brady, and Linda Hunter Adams (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2001), 189–210. I have also written “Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life: Understanding the Dream as Visionary Literature,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 52–63; and “The Literary Power of the Book of Mormon,” in Living the Book of Mormon: Abiding by Its Precepts, ed. Gaye Strathearn and Charles Swift (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2007), 72–84. And, most recently, Grant Hardy has written Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). These are just a handful of examples of studies of the Book of Mormon as a work of sacred literature.
As with any research approach, studying scripture as literature strives to answer some questions while leaving some for others to answer. For example, studying the scriptures through a literary lens does not pretend to answer historical questions, though historical context can play a role in understanding some literature. Similarly, while literary analysis may be informed by an understanding of a doctrinal perspective, its purpose is not to determine doctrine. Often in literary studies we may focus less on trying to determine what an author intended and more on realizing the effect the author’s text has on its readers. Just as a historical, linguistic, or doctrinal analysis has its own focus that, by necessity as well as by definition, forces some aspects of the text out of the analytical picture, so does literary analysis focus on the literary elements and questions in a text while not devoting as much attention to other, less-related concerns.
Charles Swift is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. His PhD dissertation was a literary study of the vision of the tree of life and how it conveys ideas about teaching and learning.
1. Martin S. Tanner, review of “Book of Mormon Christology,” by Melodie Moench Charles, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/2 (1995): 10.
2. Krister Stendahl, “The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi,” in Reflections on Mormonism, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 151. Stendahl sees 3 Nephi as being something of a break from the three synoptic Gospels and having a style of discourse common with the Gospel of John. While I agree that 3 Nephi is more like John than any of the other Gospels in a number of ways, and that a sharing of style exists in the revelatory nature of the Lord’s discourse, 3 Nephi also takes the portrayal of the Savior and his divinity beyond what we find in John.
3. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 114–15.
4. For example, see Richard D. Rust, Feasting on the Word; James T. Duke, The Literary Masterpiece Called The Book of Mormon (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2004); and Sidney B. Sperry, “Types of Literature in the Book of Mormon: ‘The American Gospel,’ ” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 48–68.
5. I could choose other literary elements to consider from 3 Nephi, of course. However, these three—prayer, the depiction of miracles, and dialogue—are significant enough in the book to allow for identifying literary patterns that help create a portrait of the Savior as experienced in 3 Nephi. These three elements are also markedly different from the way they are used in the Gospels.
6. See also Robert L. Millet, “The Praying Savior: Insights from the Gospel of 3 Nephi,” in this volume.
7. When I refer to the Gospels in this paper, I am always referring to the Gospels as we have them in the King James Version of the Holy Bible. It is beyond the scope of this study to discuss passages that scholars believe are not original because they are missing from the earliest known texts, or to debate authorship. This is a literary study focusing on 3 Nephi as compared and contrasted with the Gospels found in the KJV.
8. We have an example of this happening elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, when the angel tells Nephi: “But the things which thou shalt see hereafter thou shalt not write; for the Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them” (1 Nephi 14:25).
9. Appearances of the resurrected Savior are mentioned in Acts, but our discussion here is centered on the Gospels. Still, what we can read about the resurrected Savior in Acts is very limited.
10. Stendahl, “Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi,” 150.
11. Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative, 182. As a scholar of Jewish writings, Alter is referring to the Hebrew Bible. However, later in his book he also seeks to “underscore the wider applicability of the approach” he is writing about (see p. 179). His observations about biblical dialogue in the Hebrew Bible apply to other scripture with the common background of Jewish culture as well.
12. I have purposely cited examples only from John to illustrate the point that even in this Gospel, which is often noted as emphasizing the divinity of the Savior, we find examples of how people approached him and entered into discussions with him as they would with any other person.
13. I make a distinction between dialogue, when two or more people converse, and merely speaking. After the Nephites defeat the Gadianton robbers, they speak when they praise the Lord, but they are not conversing with anyone.