Not a lot of time today, so here’s a short post, on Nephi’s non-contextual application of the Isaiah chapters to his people.
A note on 2 Nephi 26:29, wherein Nephi defines “priestcraft”-
priestcrafts are that men 1) preach and 2) set themselves up for a light unto the world, that 3) they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.
Nephi’s translated definition dovetails well with Webster’s 1828, which says “The stratagems and frauds of priests; fraud or imposition in religious concerns; management of selfish and ambitious priests to gain wealth and power, or to impose on the credulity of others. ” (My italics.)
Alma 1:16 echoes this as well, “this did not put an end to the spreading of priestcraft through the land; for there were many who loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching afalse doctrines; and this they did for the sake of briches and honor.”
LDS, on the other hand, have a tendency to define priestcraft as “preaching the gospel for money,” thereby casting aspersions on professional clergy of other religions. Note that this is not Nephi’s definition. It is not simply being paid in return for preaching the gospel, but one’s motive in doing so. Is it for money and praise, not for building up the kingdom?
Is it for building up the kingdom? That’s not priestcraft. (In my experience the vast majority of non-lds priests, pastors, and rabbis are not engaged in priestcraft, and there are definitely some advantages to a professional clergy.)
When I taught Book of Mormon at BYU, one of the questions I put on the midterm (#15) was, “Brother Spackman is getting paid to teach the gospel. How is this not priestcraft?” Students were expected to know Nephi’s definition and talk about motive. Motive is rarely transparent, however, and our motives are often mixed and opaque, even to ourselves. Nevertheless, as President Benson once said, “Our motives for the things we do are where the sin is manifest.” -“Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 5.
Now, there’s another problem with the common definition of priestcraft, namely, it’s inconsistent both with current and past LDS practice, as well as the New Testament. The fifteen Apostles (as well as some others) receive a living stipend from the Church and other support. Morever, in the 19th century, Bishops also received some remuneration. It is more accurate to describe the LDS Church as having a non-professional clergy (in the sense that one does not choose it as a profession) than an unpaid clergy. When it comes to the New Testament, Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 9:6 onwards that those who preach the gospel have a right to make their living through that preaching. He argues from the Torah to that extent and then quotes Jesus in 1Co 9:14. The KJV misleads a bit here; it’s certainly true that those who preach the gospel should live and embody the gospel, but it’s quite clear the passage means more than that; “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
In his Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford Press) Grant Hardy spends a good bit of time on Nephi and the Isaiah chapters, and it’s not the usual kind of thing, either. He points out how Nephi has carefully woven Isaiah in and out of his material before and after the lengthy Isaiah quotation, as one aspect of presenting
a new prophecy about the relationships of the Jews, the Gentiles, and the descendants of Lehi in the last days. One of his major concerns is the visionary book – the Book of Mormon – and how it will be received (as we have seen, Isaiah 29 plays an integral role in this discussion). At the same time, key terms from Joseph’s Brass Plates prophecies are reintroduced into these chapters:
2 Nephi 3
The seer shall do a work… which shall be of great worth unto them (7)
unto him will I give power to bring forth my word unto the seed of thy loins (11)
the fruit of thy loins shall write, and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write (12)
unto the confounding of false doctrines (12)
bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers (12)
when my work shall commence among all my people, unto the restoring thee, O House of Israel (13)
their words shall proceed forth out of my mouth (21)
the weakness of their words will I make strong (21)
2 Nephi 25-33
I know that they shall be of great worth unto them in the last days (25:8 +28:2, 33:3)
I bring forth my word unto the children of men (29:7 +25:18)
I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it (29:12)
all those who preach false doctrines (28:15 +28:9, 12)
they shall be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers (30:5)
the Lord God shall commence his work among all nations … to bring about the restoration of his people (30:8)
the words of your seed should proceed forth out of my mouth (29:2, 33:14)
the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong (33:4)
These do not seem to be random hits, nor are they simply the result of the pervasive biblical diction in the Book of Mormon. For the most part, these phrases are clustered in these two sections of Second Nephi. For instance, outside of these chapters, “false doctrine(s)” appears only once (at Alma 1:16), and both “bring forth my word” and “knowledge of their fathers” never occur anywhere else. In addition, in at least one passage (focusing on his own writings), Nephi tells us explicitly that he has Joseph’s prophecy in mind: “the Lord God promised unto me that these things which I write shall be kept and preserved, and handed down unto my seed, from generation to generation, that the promise may be fulfilled unto Joseph, that his seed should never perish” (2 Ne. 25:21), which is a reference to 2 Nephi 3:16 (“the Lord hath said unto me, ‘I will preserve thy seed forever’”).
All this indicates that Nephi’s concluding discourse in 2 Nephi 25–33 is not simply an academic commentary on Isaiah 2–14. Rather, it represents a deliberate, creative synthesis of his own revelations, the writings of Isaiah, and the prophecy of Joseph. In this case, the form of Nephi’s writing reflects his theology.
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