“All Are Alike Unto God, Both Jew and Gentile”

Brant Gardner

Verse 33 concludes Nephi’s interpolation. The next verse returns to his prophecy of the future. As his conclusion, Nephi emphasizes the doctrinal necessity of inclusion—the unrestricted invitation to all to “come unto him [Christ] and partake of his goodness.” This language again echoes the language and concerns of Paul in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This unstated tension between the covenant of Israel and the gospel of the Gentiles, with which Paul dealt in his apostleship, is also an undercurrent in some of Nephi’s writings and perhaps for the same reason: Nephi’s need to integrate a Gentile population into the people of the covenant. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 26:30.) Nephi’s problem is completely parallel to that of first-century Christian Jews.

The early Jewish Christian movement would not have seen a decisive division between the Torah and Jesus’s teachings. Alan F. Segal observes: “As different as Judaism and Christianity might appear to us today, they appeared similar to first-century gentiles; indeed, they were often indistinguishable. Gentile motivations for converting to either Judaism or Christianity would also have been similar. The same people tempted to convert to Judaism would have been tempted to convert to Christianity as well.” Nephi’s Judaism is six hundred years before the situation Segal describes, but there is no reason to assume that Nephi would have seen his belief in the Messiah as requiring any separation from his past. Nevertheless, he does note a change with implications for his ultimate Jewishness. In an earlier part of this discourse, Nephi had stated:

For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments. (2 Ne. 25:23–25)

Nephi shows some interesting parallels with Paul. Both were dealing with the problem of integrating Gentiles into the covenant people, and both had to understand the relationship of the law to Jesus’s gospel. Both Paul and Nephi struggled successfully to find a solution, but those solutions were different. Paul’s solution was to create an inclusive gospel that embraced the Gentile and made him exempt from Judaism’s specific laws. In contrast, Nephi also sees an inclusive gospel but sees a need for maintaining the law. These different solutions may reflect the periods in which both men lived. Paul preached his gospel of inclusion after Jesus fulfilled the law (Matt. 5:17–18). Nephi lived before that fulfillment. Thus, understanding that the law will be fulfilled (2 Ne. 25:24), he sees it as instructive and beneficial until the fulfillment.

Further evidence of Nephi’s concern over forming a unified community comes from the fact that he, but not Paul, includes “black and white” and “Jew and Gentile” in his list of those included in Christ’s gospel. Nephi is not making a distinction between good and evil people; if he were, we would expect him to use the light/dark metaphor that he has used earlier. Second, the rest of the verse so clearly speaks of people (male/female, Jew/Gentile, bond/free) that, for literary consistency, we must also read black/white as people. Finally, “black/white” does not reflect actual skin colors in any known population of the ancient New World. Even taking “white” as associated with the Lehites, a stretch in color value distinctions, “black” does not fit what is commonly called the “red” man. What we have, then, are colors—but not skin colors—attached to people. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 5:21 for a more detailed discussion.) What might Nephi mean?

I argue that the best explanation is that Joseph Smith’s vocabulary appears in this verse. It is impossible to see this verse as a literal, word-for-word translation of the text on the plates that owes nothing to Galatians. The close correspondence of vocabulary is evidence that Joseph’s knowledge of Galatians has shaped his translation at this point. Consequently, the “black/white” phrase is Joseph’s contribution. Rather than describing skin color, however, he uses the terms to denote “race.” As Joseph understands Nephi’s meaning, this passage is not describing skin color, but a separation of races.

This passage thus provides evidence that Nephi’s community has struggled with the question of integrating, not simply Gentiles, but Gentiles of another race. Nephi’s plea for inclusion involves race, rather than only gender (male/female), religion (Jew/Gentile), or social status (bond/free).

Text: The chapter does not end here in the 1830 edition.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2