Note: The following essay was authored by Scott S. Mitchell, a regular contributor to this website.
Mormons believe that on May 15, 1829, John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and conferred the Aaronic Priesthood. According to Joseph Smith, the angel declared that this priesthood, which Mormons teach is the authority to act in God’s name to do such things as baptize, “shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.” (See Doctrine and Covenants 13.) The words allegedly spoken by John the Baptist allude to a prophecy concerning the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus, spoken by the last prophet in the Old Testament, Malachi. Biblical scholars believe the Malachi was written sometime after 515 B.C.:1
1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.
2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:
3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.”
(Emphasis added. See Malachi 3: 1-3. ) This essay hypothesizes that New Testament and Book of Mormon scriptures demonstrate that the above-quoted prophecy was fulfilled some 2,000 years ago during the First Century A.D., and was not a prophecy applicable to the last days in which we live. If this hypothesis is correct, it casts considerable doubt on the proposition that John the Baptist indicated to Joseph Smith in 1829 that the event was still in the future. This essay is limited to a discussion of the authenticity of “the sons of Levi” prophecy contained within the purported words of John the Baptist contained in Doctrine and Covenants 13. Current essays on this website addresses the authority to baptize generally, and a future essay will address the historical evidence relating to whether John the Baptist indeed appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and restored the Aaronic Priesthood.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke leave no doubt that the person described in Malachi 1:1 as “my messenger,” who during his mortal life would go before the Lord to prepare his way (to be distinguished from the “messenger of the covenant,” who was Christ), referred to John the Baptist. Jesus said so. See Matt. 11:10 and Luke 7:27; see also Mark 1:1-8. Also, Zacharias, filled with the Holy Ghost, said this about his infant son John on the day the latter was named and circumcised: “And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins . . .” (See Luke 1: 76-77.) John the Baptist’s then went on to spend his life preparing the Jews to hear and accept Jesus by preaching repentance and baptizing. The prophecies about his mission in life were not describing a one-minute appearance to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to pass along the authority to baptize; they were describing John’s momentous mortal life and mission. As John awaited his impending beheading in prison, Jesus said of him, “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater prophet than John the Baptist . . .” (See Matt. 11: 11 and Luke 7: 28)
In the same prophecy about the coming of John and Jesus, however, words are found about the sons of Levi being purified and offering an offering unto the Lord in righteousness. The sons of Levi prophecy is therefore placed in the same time frame as John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s earthly missions. Since the New Testament writers were always careful to show how Malachi’s prophecies were being fulfilled in their time,2 we should look to the New Testament to see what it has to say with respect to the sons of Levi being purified and offering an offering in righteousness.
In order to know where to look for this information in the New Testament, one must first understand who the sons of Levi were and what they did. The male descendants of the Israelite tribe of Levi were the only people who could become priests or high priests, if descended from Aaron, or assisted those priests in the worship system of the nation of Israel. They had originally been the only tribe who voluntarily rallied to the Lord’s cause when Moses return from talking with the Lord on Mount Sinai. (See Exodus 32: 26-28.) In the Mosaic Law that was given to Israel, the Lord selected the tribe of Levi, from which the brothers Moses and Aaron were descended, to thereafter be the intermediaries between Israel and their God, the only tribe from whom priests and their helpers would be set apart. The priests officiated in the temple rituals wherein atonement was made for the Israelite’s sins, while the rest of the Levite men not descended from Aaron were assigned duties to act as judges, scribes and musicians, and to keep the tabernacle, and later the temple, continuously operating. The sanctuary-related duties included tabernacle or temple upkeep, gathering tithes and all materials connected with the offering of sacrifices, baking shewbread, hauling wood and water, and working as gatekeepers. All priests and Levites began their service with elaborate purification and sanctification rituals, and being set apart by the laying on of hands. In short, under the Law of Moses, the men of the tribe of Levi were the religious leaders of the Israelites, and those of whom purity and righteousness were most expected.3
Whereas tithes were collected by the sons of Levi from the Jews to support the priests and Levites (see Numbers 18:21-32 and Hebrews 7:5, 9), those same tithes were also meant for the material support of the stranger (foreigner), the fatherless and the widow. Deut. 26: 12-13. The sons of Levi were not to merely look out for their own welfare, but were to affirmatively take care of the less fortunate among them. That they were not doing so in Jesus’s time is suggested by his parable of the Good Samaritan, wherein a priest and a Levite, who would be most expected to help the beaten man on the road, showed no concern for him and passed him by. (See Luke 10: 31-32.) According to Malachi, the failure of the religious leaders to exemplify true devotion to God and man is the problem Jesus would come to rectify. In the Lord’s words quoted by Malachi,
I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts.
(See Mal. 3: 5.)
The New Testament tells of three sons of Levi who were contemporaries of Jesus, who appear to have offered extremely righteous offerings to the Lord’s cause. The first was the aforementioned Zacharias, a priest in the temple and the father of John the Baptist. According to Luke 1: 6, he and his wife Elizabeth, arguably a prophetess in her own right who was also of the tribe of Levi, “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” Zacharias’s natural spirituality and concern for his people are shown by Luke’s account of his prophetic utterance wherein he recognized his people’s calling to serve God without fear “[i]n holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.” (See Luke 1: 74-75.)
It is also possible that Zacharias was martyred in the temple for his devotion to the Lord’s cause. In Matthew 23: 35 and Luke 11: 51, Jesus refers to the death of Zacharias, who was slain between the altar and the temple. Many biblical scholars, indeed, the apparent majority, have speculated that this refers to the slaying of Zechariah (the Hebrew form of Zacharias), who many centuries earlier was indeed stoned to death within the temple courtyard, between the outdoor altar of sacrifice and the inner sanctum Holy of Holies, as described in II Chronicles 24: 20-22. The physical description of that event fits perfectly the Jesus’s description. The problem with this interpretation is that this earlier Zechariah was the son of Jehoida, (see II Chr. 24: 20), not the son of Barachias that Jesus mentioned in Matt. 23: 35. There is another Zechariah in the Old Testament, whose father’s name “Berechiah” would be Barachias in Greek, and he is the prophet after whom the Book of Zechariah is named. However, the Bible contains no record of him having been martyred, and indeed, as a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah, he lived in a time when the Jewish religious leaders were rebuilding the temple under foreign protection and not endangered by anyone from without or within.
The majority of biblical scholars who have written about this issue maintain that the best explanation is that the text in Matthew is in error, and that Jesus did not actually say “son of Barachias” when identifying the Zacharias to whom he was referring. Rather, the thinking goes, Matthew mistakenly inserted the name Barachias for the accurate name of Jehoida because he confused one previous Zechariah from centuries earlier for another more famous and more recent Zechariah from centuries earlier. Indeed, this view is bolstered by the fact that Luke’s version of Jesus’s words about Zacharias’s martyrdom inside the temple perimeter in Luke 11:51 contains no reference to Zacharias’s father’s name, and by the obvious fact that no New Testament writer recorded such a noteworthy event.
The evidence that the New Testament Zacharias was the martyr Jesus was referring to consists of three different arguments: First, Zacharias’ father is not named in scripture, and therefore no reason exists to discount the possibility that he was the Barachias to whom Jesus was referring. To repeat a father-son name combination was as common among the Jews as it is now. For example, Jesus’ stepfather Joseph was the son of Jacob, see Matt. 1: 16, repeating an ancient pattern of Jacob/Israel and his son Joseph. And, the name Berechiah (Barachias in Greek) was popular among the Jews, being the name of seven different men in the Old Testament.4
Second, the context of Jesus referring to Zacharias’s martyrdom is Jesus imputing to the unrighteous scribes and Pharisees all slayings of righteous men from start to finish. He says, “. . .That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.” (Emphasis added, see Matt. 23: 35.) Thus his first example is Abel, Adam’s son, and his next, and last, example is Zacharias. Perhaps this wouldn’t make sense if he was referring to a Zacharias that had lived over seven centuries earlier, like Zechariah son of Jehoida, or five centuries earlier, like Zechariah son of Berechiah, unless the last notable religious martyrdom was seven centuries earlier.
Third, the perception that Zacharias the father of John the Baptist had been slain in the temple for failing to disclose the location of his son John during King Herod’s massacre of infant males, described in Matt. 2: 16-18, was a common notion in early Christianity. The account is found in the Protevangelium of James, an apocryphal book deemed by most modern scholars to have been written during the mid-2nd Century A.D. This account was so popular that 150 separate Greek manuscripts containing it have survived to this day. The earliest of these is a papyrus document dating to approximately 300 A.D.,5 but the story was discussed by the early Christian scholar Origen, who lived between from 184/185 to 253/254 A.D., thus demonstrating its early emergence. Early Christian scholars who believed Jesus was referring to John the Baptist’s father as slain martyr included Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Theophylact.6 Joseph Smith appears to have agreed with this view, as an unsigned editorial appearing in the Times and Seasons when he was editor teaches it as established fact, and now appears on page 261 of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.7 Whatever conclusion the reader reaches on this complicated subject, it seems indisputable that Zacharias the father of the John the Baptist was indeed a righteous son of Levi who contributed much to the Christian cause in Jesus’s time.
A second righteous son of Levi was John the Baptist himself. He spent his life alone in the desert wilderness eating coarse food and wearing uncomfortable clothing. He never drank wine or participated in celebrations. He never married. He urged moral integrity and freedom from materialism. He preached of the coming Messiah, and urged all to be baptized for the remission of sins to prepare themselves for his coming. His message was not well received by the scribes and Pharisees, who rejected his baptism and questioned his authority. He publicly denounced the adultery of King Herod, an act of enormous courage, and as a result, he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded. (See Matt. 3:1, 7-12, 4:17, 11:13-14; Mark 1:3, 6:14-29, 9:12-13, Luke 3: 2, 11-14.) As mentioned above, Jesus’s tribute to him attested to his stature among the sons of Levi.
The third righteous Levite of Jesus’s time was Joses (the Greek form of Joseph) Barnabas, who receives much less attention than he should. Acts 4:36-37 introduces him to us in this manner, after relating that the early Christians in Jerusalem had all things in common:
36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus,
37 Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Emphasis added.)
This Levite was so highly thought of by the apostles that they gave him a special surname by which he was known throughout the rest of the New Testament. His name thereafter appears 28 times, and he becomes one of early Christianity’s towering figures, recognized as a great church leader, prophet and teacher. This author believes he receives special mention in Acts 4, among those who were sharing their property in common with the other early Christians precisely because he was a Levite. He thus appears to be the first man after Christ’s resurrection descended from the line of religious leadership among the Jews, with temple duties of his own, to not only convert to Christianity, but give himself and his possessions to it with all his heart. Since the apostles concentrated so heavily on trying to convert the Jewish religious leadership to Christ, it must have been particularly gratifying and encouraging to see Malachi’s prophecy being fulfilled so spectacularly before their eyes.
Mormon apologists are likely to respond to the points above by arguing that just because some sons of Levi offered righteous offerings in Jesus’ time, doesn’t mean they won’t do so again in our own latter days, and therefore, the words reportedly spoken to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by John the Baptist remain unimpeached. This response ignores two enormously important facts, however. First, the role of the sons of Levi was strictly a creation of the Law of Moses, and had no existence in Christ’s church. For this reason, in Christ’s church in the Old World and in the New, there were no burnt offerings, or animal sacrifices, or temples, or hereditary priesthood of Aaron, or Levites. Second, Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses, and pointedly ended its existence. (See III Nephi 15:2-8. The descendants of Levi had no more importance in Christ’s church than anyone else. And Jesus never indicated in the Book of Mormon, which contains the fulness of his gospel, see III Nephi 20: 28, 30, or in the Bible that the sons of Levi, or the hereditary priesthood of Aaron, would play in role whatsoever in his church.
Thus the reported words of John the Baptist to Joseph Smith regarding the sons of Levi contemplate the future fulfillment of a prophecy that had already been fulfilled, and which could have no future fulfillment. The Law of Moses had ended, and was never to be restored. And with its end, the converted sons of Levi would only be known as Christians, like everybody else.
1. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 1351.
2. In addition to the previously cited scriptures in Matthew 11, Mark 1 and Luke 7, other New Testament writings demonstrating the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the coming of Elijah in Mal. 4: 5-6 are found in Matt. 17: 10-12, Mark 9: 11-13 and Luke 9: 19.
3. New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Ronald F. Youngblood, Gen. Ed. (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), pp 761-62, 1026-30, 1257-58.
4. Ibid., p. 174.
5. See Wikipedia article “Gospel of James.”
6. See, e.g, excerpt from Meyer’s New Testament Commentary on Matthew 23: 35 at the biblehub.com online website.
7. Lynne Hilton Wilson, “The Confusing Case of Zacharias” in Religious Educator 14, no. 2 (2013) 107-123, available online. Though Wilson attaches great weight to the fact that the authorship of the Times and Seasons article cannot be determined, and thus should not be attributed to Joseph Smith, this author does not consider the question of authorship to be dispositive of the issue even if Smith did write it. Joseph Smith was often in error, as the rest of us are when we devote insufficient time to studying and researching complicated questions of scriptural exegesis.