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The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Visit of Christ

Posted by joespencer on March 14, 2010

My previous posts on the remnant theme in the Book of Mormon have showed that after an initial period of development—the original theme being drawn in part from Isaiah and in part from Nephi’s visions—the theme seems to have gone more or less unrecognized by the Nephites for hundreds of years. What seems to have reintroduced the theme of the remnant of Israel was the visit of Christ, to which I will turn in this post. Like First Nephi and Second Nephi, Third Nephi is simply saturated with the remnant theme, and it is wonderfully complicated in a number of ways in that book. The principal figure, in Third Nephi, who opens up new possibilities with the theme is, of course, Christ Himself. So it is to Him primarily that this post will look. That said, though, there are a few mentions of the remnant that precede His actual visit, and so I’ll begin with those.

Before Christ’s Actual Appearance

In 3 Nephi 5, Mormon quite suddenly interrupts his narrative with a lengthy aside about himself. The timing is, without question, significant. He has just finished recording a series of events through which it came about that “there was not a living soul among all the people of the Nephites who did doubt in the least the words of all the holy prophets who had spoken” (3 Nephi 5:1). The first part of the chapter thus reads like a “happy ending” to a very long story, and one almost feels that the Nephites and Lamanites will stay fully righteous right up through the arrival of Christ. Interestingly, before he turns back to the almost immediate apostasy of the people again before Christ actually comes, though, Mormon steps back from his record and gives us verses 10-26, explaining his project in remarkable detail. And at the climax of this metadiscourse, Mormon takes up the theme of the remnant as it appears in the small plates, more or less without warning, and after a hiatus of so many chapters (remember that nothing of the theme in this particular sense appears in the books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman).

It should be noted, then, that 3 Nephi 5 reproduces the logic of the whole book of Third Nephi: through a massive war/destruction, only the righteous are left, and that opens onto the possibility of talking about the remnant. But, of course, both the period of righteousness and the discussion of the remnant are short here, and both almost immediate give way to the much larger destruction-and-return-to-remnant-theology that follows. It would seem, then, that 3 Nephi 5 serves as a kind of microcosmic, anticipatory introduction to what is coming. Let me quote the relevant verses.

20 I am Mormon, and a pure descendant of Lehi. I have reason to bless my God and my Savior Jesus Christ, that he brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem, (and no one knew it save it were himself and those whom he brought out of that land) and that he hath given me and my people so much knowledge unto the salvation of our souls.
21 Surely he hath blessed the house of Jacob, and hath been merciful unto the seed of Joseph.
22 And insomuch as the children of Lehi have kept his commandments he hath blessed them and prospered them according to his word.
23 Yea, and surely shall he again bring a remnant of the seed of Joseph to the knowledge of the Lord their God.
24 And as surely as the Lord liveth, will he gather in from the four quarters of the earth all the remnant of the seed of Jacob, who are scattered abroad upon all the face of the earth.
25 And as he hath covenanted with all the house of Jacob, even so shall the covenant wherewith he hath covenanted with the house of Jacob be fulfilled in his own due time, unto the restoring all the house of Jacob unto the knowledge of the covenant that he hath covenanted with them.
26 And then shall they know their Redeemer, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and then shall they be gathered in from the four quarters of the earth unto their own lands, from whence they have been dispersed; yea, as the Lord liveth so shall it be. Amen.

In large part, this is nothing more than a basic outline of what appears in First and Second Nephi. But if one looks closer at verses 23-24, one finds that there are some peculiarities here. First, Mormon employs the word “remnant” twice, once in reference to “a remnant of the seed of Joseph,” and the to “the remnant of the seed of Jacob.” Importantly, Nephi never uses either of these phrases, though the larger passage here in 3 Nephi 5 clearly echoes the kinds of things Nephi was describing. Importantly, however, this double association of the remnant—first with Joseph, and then immediately thereafter with Jacob—does appear in Alma 46, in Moroni’s discussion of the remnant. But even this is odd because, while Moroni seems to have understood the two associations to be equivalent (“we are a remnant of the seed of Jacob; yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph”), Mormon seems to draw an implicit distinction between them: it is a question on the one hand of “bring[ing] a remnant [in the indefinite singular] of the seed of Joseph to the knowledge of the Lord their God,” and it is a question on the other hand of “gather[ing] in from the four quarters of the earth all the remnant [in the definite collective] of the seed of Jacob, who are scattered.” It seems, in a word, that there are two covenantal events to take place here: a remnant of Joseph will come to know their Lord in a singular experience (the Lamanites?), while all the remnant of Jacob (a larger group, distributed among several tribes, perhaps particularly Judah?) will be gathered.

At the very least, then, it seems that Mormon has a kind of split remnant theology—as if one, much smaller and more limited remnant is to play a role in getting the other, much larger and more general remnant gathered together. The remnant of Joseph in question is to come to some kind of privileged knowledge, and that knowledge will end up playing somehow into the gathering of the larger remnant. Perhaps. But these details will be worked out over the course of Third Nephi.

Mormon returns again briefly to the theme of the remnant in 3 Nephi 10, immediately before the account of the visit of Christ. The passage:

15 Behold, I say unto you, Yea, many have testified of these things [the massive destruction] at the coming of Christ, and were slain because they testified of these things.
16 Yea, the prophet Zenos did testify of these things, and also Zenock spake concerning these things, because they testified particularly concerning us, who are the remnant of their seed.
17 Behold, our father Jacob also testified concerning a remnant of the seed of Joseph. And behold, are not we a remnant of the seed of Joseph? And these things which testify of us, are they not written upon the plates of brass which our father Lehi brought out of Jerusalem?
18 And it came to pass that in the ending of the thirty and fourth year, behold, I will show unto you that the people of Nephi who were spared, and also those who had been called Lamanites, who had been spared, did have great favors shown unto them, and great blessings poured out upon their heads, insomuch that soon after the ascension of Christ into heaven he did truly manifest himself unto them—
19 Showing his body unto them, and ministering unto them; and an account of his ministry shall be given hereafter. Therefore for this time I make an end of my sayings.

Mormon here makes reference to the fact—discoverable before this only in 1 Nephi 19—that some of the brass plates prophets spoke of the destruction at the time of Christ. To Nephi’s quotations, though, Mormon adds this important detail: all of this destruction business cannot be disentangled from the question of the remnant. Mormon says, quite surprisingly, that the Nephites/Lamanites are “the remnant of their seed,” that is, apparently, of the seed of Zenos and Zenock. It seems, then, that the prophecies of these (Northern Kingdom) prophets spoke specifically of the destruction that would come on their children. Oddly, though, it doesn’t seem that they spoke of the remnant being what survived this destruction (as in the consistent Old Testament remnant themes), but as the remnant who would be present for the destruction—who would encounter the destruction. But this mention of Zenos and Zenock speaking about the remnant allows Mormon to turn to Jacob’s testimony, this time specifically about the remnant of the seed of Joseph (one assumes that it is again the prophecy that Moroni had quoted in Alma 46 that Mormon has in mind here). Mormon doesn’t add a whole lot of detail here. Again the whole business seems primarily anticipatory, looking forward to what Christ Himself will lay out in the subsequent chapters. And thus Mormon turns immediately from these concerns to speak of what the remnant experienced in witnessing the Christ.

Christ’s Introduction of the Theme

Christ doesn’t mention the remnant until after He has already taken care of a few important preliminaries, including His self-introduction; His having everyone touch His wounds; His selection of the twelve; His discussion of baptism and the associated doctrine of the “Trinity”; His repetition of the sermon on the mount; and His brief summary concerning the relationship between the Law and the Prophets. So soon as He finishes these last remarks, He turns—significantly enough—to His disciples and says His first word about the remnant: “Ye are my disciples; and ye are a light unto this people, who are a remnant of the house of Joseph” (3 Nephi 15:12). Importantly, this is not only Christ’s first word on the remnant in Third Nephi, but it is also His first word of what will become a two-day-long discourse—the core of Third Nephi. Even though it opens with a word about discipleship, He slips in a word about the remnant. This is clearly no coincidence.

Interestingly, however, Christ doesn’t come to mention the remnant again directly until 3 Nephi 16:4. If in chapter 15, Christ simply refers to the Nephites/Lamanites as “a remnant of the house of Joseph” (and note that this is a phrase that Christ introduces to the tradition; it only appears one other time, in Ether 13:8), things become a bit more complex in 16:4. Here is the passage (note that He is still speaking to the disciples specifically):

And I command you that ye shall write these sayings after I am gone, that if it so be that my people at Jerusalem, they who have seen me and been with me in my ministry, do not ask the Father in my name, that they may receive a knowledge of you by the Holy Ghost, and also of the other tribes whom they know not of, that these sayings which ye shall write shall be kept and shall be manifested unto the Gentiles, that through the fulness of the Gentiles, the remnant of their seed, who shall be scattered forth upon the face of the earth because of their unbelief, may be brought in, or may be brought to a knowledge of me, their Redeemer.

Here the remnant seems, on the most straightforward reading, to be the remnant of the Jews. (It is possible to read the verse so that the word “remnant” has reference to “the other tribes,” but it makes more sense of the verse to take it to refer to the remnant of the Jews. Note also that verse 5 makes this clear as well.) Here, as in Nephi, it is a question of the Nephite scriptures being written so that the work of the covenant can eventually be fulfilled. But there is something quite odd about this return to Nephi: nowhere in Nephi’s discussions of the record coming to the Jews are the Jews described as a remnant. Indeed, nowhere previous to this in the Book of Mormon are the Jews described as a remnant. The remnant is always—wherever it is caught up in the larger covenantal remnant theme—a remnant of Jacob, Joseph, or the Lamanites. Why Christ would describe the Jews as a remnant is something of a mystery. References to the remnants of Jacob, Joseph, and the Lamanites clearly imply a destruction or annihilation of most of these “tribes.” Does this mean that Christ meant to imply something similar with regard to the Jews? (One could begin to play around with the possibility that Christ had reference to something like the Holocaust, but that seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.)

All in all, then, it should be noted that through His two initial mentions of the word “remnant,” Christ already displays some distance with regard to the remnant tradition that had taken shape but had also been largely dispensed with in Nephite tradition. His term “remnant of the house of Joseph” is certainly unique, and His description of the Jews receiving the Book of Mormon as a remnant is certainly unique. Should these be taken as a preliminary indication that Christ would be dealing with a remnant theology that was quite distinct from what had gone before Him? But of course, in neither of these passages does He deal with the remnant theme in any detail. These serve only as a kind of introduction, and they appear both in a discourse to the disciples on the first day of Christ’s visit. The real core of the remnant theology of Third Nephi comes the next day in a much longer and more complex sermon—one give to the whole multitude (and a much larger multitude). The real work on Third Nephi needs to be given to those passages.

Christ’s remnant sermon: 3 Nephi 20-21

The word “remnant” shows up in nine different verses in 3 Nephi 20-21, making it clear that this is the most crucial text in the Book of Mormon on the remnant. And importantly, Christ’s discussion here of the remnant relies heavily on an Old Testament text Nephi seems not to have drawn on, whether that’s because it somehow didn’t end up in the brass plates, or whether that’s because he simply wasn’t particularly interested in it. At any rate, Christ focuses quite heavily on the theme of the remnant as it appears in a few passages in the book of Micah.

So that this post doesn’t grow too long, I think I’ll postpone careful analysis of these two chapters, taking them up in a separate post. Here what I’ll do is turn instead to the mentions of the remnant in 3 Nephi 29:8 and 4 Nephi 1:49, sorting out the role of these two passages as a kind of “conclusion” to the discussion Christ offers in 3 Nephi 20-21. After that, I’ll take up Mormon’s and Moroni’s several passages dealing with the theme in a separate post. And then, finally, I’ll put together a post (or two? or three?) on 3 Nephi 20-21 as such.

Wrapping up Christ’s visit

After the much longer account of Christ’s visit, Mormon draws a few conclusions in order to draw Third Nephi to a close. One of the many exhortations—made specifically to the Gentiles—mentions the remnant: “Yea, and ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn” (3 Nephi 29:8). Interestingly, Mormon here uses the term “remnant of the house of Israel” in order to refer to any remnant that might be around still, on the one hand clearly the Jews, but on the other hand, any other similar group.

After that, no mention of the theme appears until the last verse Fourth Nephi: “And [Ammaron] did hide [the records of the Nephites] up unto the Lord, that they might come again unto the remnant of the house of Jacob, according to the prophecies and the promises of the Lord” (4 Nephi 1:49). There is clearly a “concluding” spirit about this statement: Ammaron seems to have understood—or at least is portrayed as if he understood—himself to be the last Nephite, that Nephite history was over and that it was time to bury everything so that it could come forth at a later time. Now the remnant is projected only into the future: the remnant is that group that will receive the Nephite records when they come forth.

And with that, it seems that the last word has been said. Of course, Mormon and Moroni will have more to say.

5 Responses to “The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Visit of Christ”

  1. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Visit of Christ […]

  2. Robert C. said

    I can’t wait for the rest of these posts, Joe.

    Also, you’ve got me wondering the extent to which we might read the historical books (in the BOM) as having implicit rather than explicit remnant themes. Limhi seems to be a remnant. And the sons of Helaman are a type of remnant. Might Mormon be playing with remnant themes in his redaction, even if remnant themes aren’t explicitly recognized in the accounts themselves?

  3. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Visit of Christ […]

  4. […] connect these posts back up to the whole series of posts (see here and here and here and here and here and here) on the remnant in the Book of Mormon that preceded them. My wager, throughout this […]

  5. […] of posts here at Feast on the theme of the remnant in scripture. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That crucial theme, worked out over the whole book, is […]

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