“I, Nephi, Saw That He Was Lifted Up Upon the Cross”

Brant Gardner

While Lehi’s vision was symbolic of the Messiah, Nephi’s vision more literally depicts the Messiah. Lehi’s symbols are spelled out in Nephi’s explanations. Those explanations amplify the information available about the earthly mission of the condescending God. When Nephi reported Lehi’s vision, he described a great and spacious building filled with mocking people. In his own vision, that building is filled with people who rejected and crucified Christ. In verse 36, Nephi’s understanding of that symbol expands until it includes those throughout time whose pride will not yield to the gospel’s appeal. The fall of this building is still in our future. Nephi’s vision of its fall is not in a chronological context, but rather a revelatory one, showing Nephi that the gospel will ultimately defeat the proud.

Apologetics: Lehi’s dream describes the fate of Yahweh’s enemies—the building. In the New Testament, the literary enemies of the incipient Christian movement were the Jews rather than the Romans. Lehi’s vision contains no hint of a similar animosity toward the Jews. Of course, we would not expect Lehi to assume any great fault in his own people, but the New Testament depiction of that antagonism fed the fires of intolerance in the Old World for centuries and certainly influenced the world in which Joseph Smith lived. In other words, not ascribing blame to the Jews is authentic to Lehi but would have been unusual in Joseph Smith’s world.

History: Nephi saw the Messiah’s death by crucifixion. This instrument of death became the quintessential symbol of Christianity. Its imagery pervades the New Testament epistles. Yet in the Book of Mormon, references to the cross are minimal indeed. Until Christ himself mentions it (3 Ne. 12:30, 27:14), only Jacob 1:8 uses the term in what we might call a New Testament style: “Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world.”

Why did the image of the cross fade within perhaps the first hundred years of Nephite history? Likely it is because the Lehites had no cultural associations with crucifixion. Although some version of it was probably known in ancient Israel, it would have taken a different form than the crucifixion of Christ. Otto Betz, a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies discusses the Jewish understanding of crucifixion:

Crucifixion, though not mentioned in the list of death penalties in Jewish law (m. Sanh. 7:1), might be suggested in Deuteronomy 21:22–23, which requires that a person put to death must be hung on a tree and buried on the same day. While this is interpreted by the Mishnah (m. Sanh. 6:4) as the exposure of the corpse of a man who was stoned because of blasphemy or idolatry, the order of the verbs is reversed in the temple Scroll of Qumran: the delinquent must be hung up so that he dies (11Qtemple 64:8), which amounts to crucifixion.…
This same interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:22–23 underlies 4QpNah, which mentions “hanging men up alive [on the tree],” presumably a reference to the atrocious deed of Alexander Janneus when he crucified eight hundred of his Pharisean enemies who, in his view, had committed high treason.

Our understanding of the Hebrew form (as well as the reason for the proposal to break Jesus’s legs to prevent his being on the cross during the Sabbath) comes from Deuteronomy 21:22–23:

And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree:
His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

When Nephi sees the Savior’s crucifixion, we must presume that he saw it in its first-century Roman form. However, Nephi tells us only the fact of the crucifixion, not the method. In Jerusalem, a crucified person could not receive honorable burial because it was a criminal’s death.

None of these negative associations comes across in Nephi’s description. For Nephi, the impact of the vision lay not the Messiah’s death, but in his life, mission, and resurrection. The New Testament’s writers were much more painfully familiar with both the terrible form and awful social stigma associated with crucifixion. The theology of the New Testament had to deal with providing a context in which that physical and social horror could fit into the plan of God. In the Book of Mormon there was no such need to justify the social stigma of the mode of death.

Culture: Cross imagery is significant in several Mesoamerican cultures including the Maya, Mixtec, and later Aztecs. However, the Mesoamerican cross is a symbol of their tree of life and is never an instrument of death. If the Nephites had any Christological association between their cross symbols and the Messiah, it would have been through the association between Messiah and tree of life, not the cross as instrument of death.

Nevertheless, the desire to find Christian content in Mesoamerican art has led to an interpretation of a scene in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis as a depiction of crucifixion. Unfortunately, this interpretation has entered Latter-day Saint Book of Mormon apologetics through the best-known work of Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a lawyer with interests in archaeology who was instrumental in establishing the New World Archaeological Foundation:

With respect to certain of the ancient Aztec paintings preserved by Kingsborough in Volume 2 of his great Antiquities of Mexico, he states:
“It is extremely singular that several Mexican paintings should represent Quetzalcoatl with his side pierced with a spear and water flowing from the wound.… The paintings which represent Quetzalcoatl pierced with a spear and water issuing from the wound, occur at the sixty-first page of the Borgian manuscript [Kingsborough’s Volume 2] and at the ninth page of the Mexican painting preserved in the library of the Institute at Bologna.”

The picture Ferguson includes is found in both the Codex Rios and Telleriano-Remensis, which are both copies of the same lost original, and is reproduced here from the Codex Rios.

Although the picture has visual similarities to crucifixion, it depicts a very different ceremonial death by arrows.

While this figure, like a crucified person, has his arms horizontal, and the person is certainly being killed, it differs from a crucifixion in both the mode and meaning of the death. This is a form of human sacrifice that was celebrated during the feast called Quecholli (a type of bird). Quecholli was a festival honoring the hunter god Mixcoatl, whose prowess at throwing arrows and darts from the atlatl were his chief characteristic. At the end of the festival, a human sacrifice was tied on a raised rack, then shot with arrows and darts. The figure in the painting is clearly a Quecholli sacrifice. He is standing on a rail and tied (not nailed) to the rack, arrows (or darts) penetrating his chest and legs. These arrows, not the suffocation of crucifixion, are clearly the cause of death. As a sacrifice that uses the instruments of the hunt, he is a positive and integral part of the ceremony, not a punishment or unwelcome death as was crucifixion. It is a distortion of the native meaning of this sacrifice and its context to attempt to associate it with a very different type and reason for death from another hemisphere.

Translation/Variant: Verse 32 in both the original manuscript and the 1830 edition read “yea, the Everlasting God.” The corrected printer’s manuscript and the 1837 edition read: “yea, the son of the Everlasting God.” (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 11:18 and “Excursus: The Nephite Understanding of God,” at the end of this chapter.)

Verse 36 originally read “the great and spacious building was the pride of the world and the fall thereof was exceedingly great.” The original scribe for the text at this point is called scribe 3. The addition of “and it fell” (… the pride of the world and it fell and the fall thereof… ) was added above the line in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting. Skousen suggests:

Undoubtedly, the linguistic source for the clause is from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus refers to the fall of the house built by the foolish man:
Matthew 7:27
and the rain descended and the floods came
and the winds blew and beat upon that house
and it fell and great was the fall of it
The similarity of the Book of Mormon’s “and the fall thereof was exceeding great” with the King James Bible’s “and great was the fall of it” seems to have triggered Oliver’s desire to add the explanatory (but unnecessary) “and it fell.”

The influence of the King James Bible cannot be overstated. Even after the dictation it exerts pressure on the language of the text. In this case, it is Oliver and not Joseph who appears to change the text in a way that more closely conforms to the King James Bible model.

Text: There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1