Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Matthew?

Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Matthew?

In the Fall 1997 issue of Dialogue, Ronald V. Huggins provides a fascinating look at how scripture has been formed in an essay entitled “Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Matthew?”. In his analysis, Huggins shows several things that most readers of books of scripture fail to notice, acknowledge, or analyze. These include the evolution of the New Testament and Joseph Smith’s incorrect selection when choosing books in the King James Version of the Bible to copy into the Book of Mormon.

The following are some excerpts from the article. I encourage those interested in the topic to read the entire essay as Huggins includes many other examples and valid points that I haven’t included below.

“In 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon the resurrected Jesus Christ repeats in large part the famous Sermon on the Mount, but this time before a New World audience. The Sermon on the Mount appears twice in the New Testament, once in Matthew and once in Luke… The form of the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi agrees with the sequence in Matthew rather than in Luke. And the language is (for the most part) identical to that of the King James Version (hereafter KJV) … where the language of parallel sayings in Matthew and Luke differ, 3 Nephi’s version consistently agrees with Matthew’s form rather than Luke’s.

A standard argument accounting for this phenomenon in the Book of Mormon has been to speculate that when Joseph Smith saw that the passage before him on the gold plates was the same as some known passage of scripture he simply adopted the familiar language of the KJV in his translation. Thus in the present case it would be assumed that we are dealing with the retelling of an almost identical sermon in the New World which had already been delivered in Palestine and been preserved in Matthew. Such an explanation, however, overlooks important factors relating to the composition of Matthew, particularly its use of written sources.

It has long been recognized that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are interrelated in terms of their shared sources. Sometimes their language is identical in related passages, pointing to a common source or else to mutual dependence of some sort. Yet at other times they differ significantly in both language and chronology. By far the most common way of explaining this interrelationship by scholars today is to say, first, that Matthew and Luke had Mark as a common source. They both, in other words, knew and used Mark. It is then further argued that, given their differing versions of the infancy account and genealogy of Jesus, Luke could not have known Matthew, nor Matthew Luke. Such differences, it is urged, would be hard to explain if one gospel writer knew the other. On the other hand, there are a number of passages that Luke and Matthew both have but Mark does not. This being the case, it is necessary to suppose that, not knowing each other, Matthew and Luke must have shared another source besides Mark. This additional shared source is commonly referred to as “Q” (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”).

Another argument commonly given for the independence of Luke and Matthew is the fact that material from Q does not always appear in the same location in Matthew and Luke. It is reasoned, in other words, that if Luke had known Matthew, or if Matthew had known Luke, they would have consistently placed Q material (which is mostly sayings) at the same places in their narratives. They do not.

This common explanation is called the two-source theory, since it contends that Matthew and Luke share two common sources: Mark and Q. Further details of this theory along with a description of the arguments usually set forth in its favor may be found in any standard New Testament introduction.

According to the two-source theory, the compositional problem faced by Matthew and Luke can be understood as follows: Imagine you are about to write a gospel. As sources on your desk you have first of all the gospel of Mark, which will provide your narrative framework but which contains relatively few sayings of Jesus. Also on your desk is another document which contains mostly sayings. Few of these, however, give any clue as to the actual setting in which they were originally uttered. Your task is to shape the two documents (along perhaps with a number of other items you have found elsewhere) into a coherent whole.

According to the dominant two-source theory, something very like this was faced by Matthew and Luke as they set about writing their gospels. Of the two, Luke took the simpler approach to incorporating Q into Mark’s outline…

Matthew, in contrast to Luke’s conservatism with regard to breaking up and redistributing Q material, has, in the process of developing five major dominical discourses (Matt. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), freely rearranged Q material and supplemented it with his own special material. This rearrangement of material is not limited to Q but extends even to reshaping Mark’s narrative outline. Part of Matthew’s rationale for doing this appears to have been (among other things) his interest in structuring his gospel around significant numbers, especially threes and fives. Echoing the Trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19 and the three-tier genealogy of 1:1-16, Matthew’s entire gospel is divided into three main sections by the transitional phrase apo tote erxato … (“from that time on he [Jesus] began… “) at 4:17 and 16:20.9 Following the suggestion made in 1930 by B. W. Bacon, many scholars see in Matthew’s five great discourses an intentional parallel to the five books of Torah, with Jesus being represented as the new lawgiver, the new Moses.

Some scholars have tried to dispense with Q by suggesting that Luke knew and used both Mark and Matthew. The reason that solution is not acceptable was already explained by B. H. Streeter in the 1920s. If Luke had really derived his material from Matthew, he must have gone through both Matthew and Mark so as to discriminate with meticulous precision between Marcan and non-Marcan material; he must then have proceeded with the utmost care to tear every little piece of the non-Marcan material … from the context of Mark from which it appeared in Matthew–in spite of the fact that contexts in Matthew are always exceedingly appropriate–in order to re-insert it into a different context of Mark having no special appropriateness.

A simpler way of expressing this would be to say that (1) although it would be easy to imagine that if Matthew had Luke as one of his sources along with Mark, he might have broken down the sayings sections in Luke (especially the large central section 9:57-19:27) in order to scatter them about in different locations in his gospel in service of his own redactional interests; and (2) it would be harder to imagine and for Luke to accomplish having Matthew before him to draw the various sayings that Matthew has scattered throughout his gospel together (some of them appear outside the boundaries of the five main discourses: Matt. 15:14; 17:20; 19:28; 19:30; 22:1-10) in order to deposit them for no apparent reason in a lump in the middle of his gospel. What conceivable reason, in addition, could Luke have had for dismantling Matthew’s beautiful Sermon on the Mount or for replacing Matthew’s fuller version of the Lord’s Prayer with his own more clipped one? Because of considerations such as these, scholars have rejected the idea that Luke had Matthew as one of his sources.

… whether Matthew knew Luke, or Matthew and Luke knew Q, it is clear that it was Matthew who aggressively restructured and expanded the traditional material that came into his hands in the interest of the design and message of his gospel.

Given Luke’s overall conservatism, compared to Matthew’s, it is scarcely surprising that the majority of scholars today believe that Luke reflects more accurately both the original order and the original form of Q. This general conclusion includes the Q version of the Sermon on the Mount as well…

If Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount derives from a Q Sermon on the Mount “identical, or nearly identical” to Luke’s, as common scholarly opinion suggests, or if he derived it from Luke and then built it up with material from other places in Luke along with additional material of unknown origin, as I have elsewhere argued, then it is clear that to a great extent the form and arrangement of the Matthean Sermon on the Mount comes not from Jesus but from Matthew.

This brings us back to the question raised in the title: “Did the author of 3 Nephi know the Gospel of Matthew?” Obviously the Nephi who recorded the post-resurrection, New World version of the Sermon on the Mount could not have known the gospel of Matthew. But if Matthew is responsible for the arrangement of his gospel’s Sermon on the Mount, then it would also seem to be impossible for the author of 3 Nephi 12-14 to produce those chapters without knowing the gospel of Matthew. The answer to the question in the title therefore is both no and yes. No, Nephi did not know, could not have known, the gospel of Matthew. Yes, the author of 3 Nephi, presumably Joseph Smith, Jr., did know, must have known, the gospel of Matthew. This conclusion strengthens arguments set forth in certain earlier studies. Stan Larson, for example, in his detailed study of the textual history of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as it relates to the 3 Nephi version, concluded that consistently

“the Book of Mormon blindly follows the KJV at the precise point where the KJV falls into error due to mistranslating the Greek or translating late and derivative Greek texts which are demonstrably secondary developments in the textual tradition. The evidence leads one inexorably to the conclusion (at least for the section comprising 3 Nephi 12-14) that the term “translation” is inappropriate, since nowhere in the Book of Mormon version of Jesus’ masterful sermon is there any indisputable evidence of being a translation from an ancient document.”

Given the thoroughness of Larson’s treatment, there is no reason to dwell on questions relating to the textual criticism of the Sermon on the Mount here. Those arguments, in any case, touch only the issue of the transmission of Matthew in its final form, while our discussion deals with an earlier phase-the process of composition through which Matthew originally came into its final form. Given Larson’s article alone, some might continue to appeal (if not quite legitimately at least semi-plausibly) to the argument that Smith, upon realizing that he was encountering a version of the Sermon on the Mount on the gold plates that was for all intents and purposes identical to Matthew’s, simply chose to translate it in the familiar language of the KJV. In the process, the imposing evidence presented by Larson could be dismissed by (1) attempting to cast doubt on current text-critical methods, or by (2) suggesting that Smith’s concept of “translation” was flexible enough to render insignificant those cases where he inadvertently incorporated inferior KJV readings into the Book of Mormon. Is it really so heinous, it might thus be argued, that the ending of the Lord’s Prayer-“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen”-though a late addition to Matthew’s version and therefore probably absent from the lips of the resurrected Lord as he taught the Nephites, ended up in the Book of Mormon? If what we have argued here is correct, however, the Lord was not simply repeating a sermon which he had previously delivered but was organizing his sayings into a form that agreed with the organization Matthew would independently give them several decades later. While “anything is possible with God,” such an explanation makes a sham of all textual and source critical studies.

Once it is recognized that 3 Nephi’s Sermon on the Mount had as its principle source Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount in the language of the KJV, a number of things become clear. Not only does it explain why 3 Nephi’s version contains the textual corruptions of the KJV version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and why Matthew’s organization of the sayings of Jesus appears in a document ostensibly written decades before the gospel of Matthew and in a different hemisphere, it also explains why certain changes were made and why certain other points where changes were not made introduce significant historical and narrational inconsistencies.

While the reasons for some of the changes are not immediately apparent, others seem obvious. The replacement of KJV Matthew’s “farthing” (5:26) with “senine” (12:26), for example, was a move taken to introduce verisimilitude, the senine being “the smallest Nephite measure of gold (Alma 11:3,15-19).”16 Further in the KJV Matt 5:20 Matthew had:

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

3 Nephi 12:20b changes this to:

… for verily I say unto you, that except ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The shared language of these two passages and their identical placement in relation to Matthew’s sequence indicate that 3 Nephi’s version was derived from Matthew. Krister Stendahl’s attribution of the absence in 3 Nephi 12:20b of any mention of Scribes and Pharisees to the “truly refreshing and welcome and unique,” “non-anti-Semitic” character of the Mormon traditional is kind but almost certainly not correct. The more obvious explanation is that Scribes and Pharisees were both bodies in Judaism which arose long after Lehi departed from Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. It is probably with this same motive that 3 Nephi 12:46-47 has also been changed, with the result that the double reference to the publicani (“publicans”) in Matthew 5:46-47 has been removed. It is not because of the “non-anti-Publicanic” character of the Mormon tradition that they are not mentioned, but rather because of the need to remove reference to a class of persons unknown to first-century Nephites. Another example of this is the removal of mention of Jerusalem in 3 Nephi’s parallel to Matthew 5:34-35:

Matthew 5: 34-36a – But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head …

3 Nephi 12:34-36a – But verily, verily I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by Heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth for it [is] his footstool; neither shalt thou swear by the head …

Even more interesting are those instances where we might have expected such changes to be made but they were not. Matthew’s reference to synagogues in 6:2 and 5 is retained in 3 Nephi 13:2 and 5. While the Book of Mormon mentions the existence in the New World of “synagogues, which were built after the manner of the Jews” (Alma 16:13), it is certain that synagogues did not exist as an institution early enough for Lehi and his family to carry knowledge of them to the New World prior to the Babylonian exile. The generally accepted theory of their origin is that they arose in Exilic or early Post-exilic times as a compensatory response to the destruction of Solomon’s temple (and therefore after the departure of Lehi). But actual evidence for their existence even that early is entirely lacking. It was in fact only on the eve of the New Testament period that the synagogue began to come into its own as an established institution within Judaism. By incorporating unchanged Matthew’s passages about what hypocrites do when praying and giving alms “in the synagogues, and in the streets,” 3 Nephi seems to imply that identical institutions inexplicably emerged independently in both the New World and Palestine. This becomes especially striking if the sounding of a trumpet to announce the hypocrites’ giving of alms (Matt. 6:2 / / 3 Ne. 13:2) was an actual first-century practice (rather than merely Jesus’ scathing satire on the general desire of hypocrites to make sure people see them doing good).

One might also have expected that the Aramaic word raca (Matt. 5:22 / / 3 Ne. 12:22) would have been changed. To be sure, Imperial Aramaic was known in Palestine prior to the time of Lehi’s departure, but it had not yet become the common language of Palestine, as it had by Jesus’ day. That would occur, again, only after the Exile. It seems unlikely in view of this that the Nephites could have independently come to use the Aramaic insult raca! against people they did not like in the same way the native Aramaic-speaking Palestinians did.

Along these same lines we might ask if Nephites would have understood what the resurrected Jesus meant by not being able to serve both God and mammon (Matt. 6:24 3 Ne. 13:24). Would that word have communicated the same thing to the Nephites, cut off as they were for centuries from the Near-Eastern environment, as it did to the first-century audience of Matthew?

The version of the Sermon on the Mount presented in 3 Nephi closely follows the form and arrangement given in Matthew 5-7. The claim on the part of 3 Nephi to represent an independent witness to this teaching of Jesus rests on the assumption that it was Jesus who organized the material into the form in which we now find it in both the gospel of Matthew and 3 Nephi. Current scholarship on Matthew, however, indicates that this is not the case, that indeed Matthew contributed significantly to the shaping of his version of the Sermon on the Mount. If this assessment is correct, it is no longer possible to regard 3 Nephi 12-14 as a record of an actual sermon that was delivered before first-century Nephites by the resurrected Jesus, since Nephi could not have known Matthew. Rather, the 3 Nephi Sermon on the Mount was derived from Matthew (in the particular form given it by the KJV), after which certain minor changes were made with a view toward assimilating it to its New World setting.”