3 Nephi 17:18-22 – LeGrand Baker — Blessed are ye because of your faith.

3 Nephi 17:18-22

18 And it came to pass that when Jesus had made an end of praying unto the Father, he arose; but so great was the joy of the multitude that they were overcome.
19 And it came to pass that Jesus spake unto them, and bade them arise.
20 And they arose from the earth, and he said unto them: Blessed are ye because of your faith. And now behold, my joy is full.
21 And when he had said these words, he wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.
22 And when he had done this he wept again;

Language is everything; but language is much more than words. Words say only what the listener can hear. Sometimes words are intended to convey meaning, sometimes they are used deliberately to obscure meaning. Sometimes words tell facts but entirely distort truth. Sometimes words tell truth, but obscure it by speaking only facts.

Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words? (Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 2)

In Hamlet, King Claudius answers Oscar Wilde’s question. The king mocks his own prayer by lamenting:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go (Hamlet Act 3 Scene 3).

Sometimes words tell truth only to those who know how to hear them. I have mentioned before that the Book of Mormon is written in two different languages, but both are English. The surface text is truly wonderful and can be read and appreciated by anyone who is literate. The subtext is in code. The code is the temple and anyone who knows the temple knows the code if they will pay attention. But for those who do not know, the encoded text does not exist. {1}

Some words were not originally intended to be code words. They have become code only because our contemporary English does not carry the same meaning as the words did when the author wrote them. In this short essay I wish to explain why the Savior’s words in 3 Nephi 17:20 might be understood as:

Blessed [enjoying the state of the gods] are ye because of your faith [because of the eternal and present covenants we have made together, and because you have kept those covenants]. And now behold, my joy is full. And when he had said these words, he wept.

While the scene portrayed in that verse is very moving, the words that express the Savior’s feelings do not convey to the modern reader what the writer apparently intended them to say. “Blessed” conveys very little meaning to most readers. If we stop to think about it, it asks rather than teaches us what the blessings might be.

When W. F. Albright, and C. S. Mann were translating Matthew for that volume of The Anchor Bible, and were trying to find a suitable synonym for blessed in the Beatitudes, “fortunate” was the best that they could settle upon. So in the Anchor Bible the Beatitudes read:

3 Fortunate are the humble in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Fortunate are those who mourn, for they shall be consoled. 5 Fortunate are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall he satisfied. 7 Fortunate are the merciful, [and so on].

Their use of “fortunate” is even more perplexing because they knew what the original Greek word meant, but they did not believe that meaning would be appropriate in their translation. In a footnote, they explain why they chose the word fortunate:

3. Fortunate. The word in Greek was used in classical times [to mean] of the state of the gods in contrast to men. The usual English “blessed” has more and more come to have liturgical or ecclesiastical overtones, and we have chosen “fortunate” as being the best translation available to us. ( W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, The Anchor Bible, Matthew ]Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971], 45.)

When Stephen Ricks and I were writing Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, we cited the footnote when we were discussing the Beatitudes in 3 Nephi. However, Stephen, who is a Greek scholar in his own right, enlarged the phrase to read “enjoying the state of the gods.”

If the Savior used the same Nephite word in 3 Nephi 17:20 where it is translated “blessed,”as he used in the Beatitudes where that is translated “blessed,” then our verse might read, “Enjoying the state of the gods are ye because of your faith.”
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In modern English “faith” is as ambiguous as is “blessed.”

The distinguished Biblical scholar David Noel Freedman, in his article on “faith” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, points out that the Christian concept of faith “distinguishes faith from fidelity.” He wrote:

Faith is a peculiarly Christian concept. While other religious traditions have aspects of what the churches have come to name “faith,” none has the specific quality of intellectual assent that distinguishes faith from fidelity. The problem of faith and the central discussion of it arises in the context of the medieval attempts to codify and integrate the Christian experience into the emerging philosophical language of the scholastics. (“Faith,” article by David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary [New York, Doubleday, 1992], 2: 744-745.)

Some Mormons have sought to solve the problem of the lack of fidelity by attaching the necessity of “works” to the meaning of faith in order to give the word a more concrete substance. This avoids the typical Christian dilemma of “faith” meaning “belief without evidence” but it still leaves faith as essentially undefined. In New Testament times that was not a problem. There, as in the Book of Mormon, the Savior’s word “faith” stands alone, having substance in itself.

Once again, the understanding of the scriptures hangs on the meaning of “faith.” So once again, let me quickly say that it was not until the Christian apostasy of about 100 or 150 A.D. that “faith” came to mean unsubstantiated belief— believing without sure evidence. During New Testament times the word translated as faith meant exactly the opposite of that. It meant trust based on adherence to the terms of a contract or covenant The Greek word in the New Testament is pistis and its nearest synonym in modern day English is probably “contract.” It means making and keeping the terms and conditions of the “covenant.”{2}

Code words in the scriptures are intended to instruct the learner and enlighten the initiated. Faith is a code word that was not intended to be such, but because the meaning has changed over time, it now acts like other code words. That is, in the surface text it has one meaning but in the subtext it has the same meaning it had when the New Testament was written.

“Faith” in the Book of Mormon now has the same double meaning as “faith” has in the New Testament.

The congregation that surrounded Jesus described in 1 Nephi 12:10 was extraordinary. The people—even the children and the teenagers— somehow had qualified in the previous life and in this one to be where the Savior was. For example, 600 years before they were born Nephi was told,

10 And these twelve ministers whom thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And, behold, they are [present tense] righteous forever [very future]; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are [present tense] made white in his blood (1 Nephi 12:10).

Nephi understood those men as the Savior did in sacred time. There is no question about whether those twelve had their agency, but this clearly says that they had always and would always exercise that agency in righteousness (zedek) —that they had done so before they came to this world, they would while they were here, and would always hereafter— which is the attribute that qualifies one to be in the presence of God. God knew them in sacred time, and gave them earthly assignments accordingly. That may have been true of the others who were present as well.

When our verse is read that way:

Blessed [enjoying the state of the gods] are ye because of your faith [because of the eternal and present covenants we have made together, and because you have kept your part]. And n ow behold, my joy is full. And when he had said these words, he wept.

The testimony of the Savior’s words is that Jesus recognized these people as his friends who had kept their premortal covenants, are keeping their present day covenants, and will always do so. In other words he sees them as his friends in sacred time—knowing them as they were and as they are, and knowing that they will always be true to that friendship—hesed. In that light, it is little wonder that the beauty of the moment evoked his tears of joy

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FOOTNOTE

{1} See “code words” in the index of Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord.

{2} In Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, see the chapter called “Meaning of ‘Faith’ — pistis” (p. 1007 first edition, or p. 697 second edition) The second edition has larger and therefore fewer pages than the first.

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