In other essays on this website, we have argued that Mormonism’s teachings were in error in teaching that the only true church had to be run by high priests holding the priesthood of Melchizedek, in that this doctrine is completely at odds with Bible and Book of Mormon teachings. Some of those essays can be read here, here, and here. We have also argued that the priesthood held by the descendants of Aaron was solely a relic of the Law of Moses, and that when Jesus fulfilled and brought to an end the Mosaic law following his resurrection and appearance to the Nephites, the priesthood of Aaron also ceased to exist and was not to be revived. See, e.g., The Righteous Offering of the Sons of Levi–2000 Years Ago elsewhere on this website. This essay will focus, not on the doctrinal problems of Mormonism’s belief in the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods in our time, but on whether the historical evidence demonstrates the authority of the Aaronic and Melchizedek “priesthoods”, as Mormons called them, were restored by resurrected heavenly messengers to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. In other words, does purely historical analysis show that these events actually occurred, or not?
Note: The following essay was authored by Scott S. Mitchell, a principle 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 (as well as its appearance in Doctrin and Covenant section 124:39). Other essays address the authority to baptize generally, as well as the historical evidence relating to whether John the Baptist indeed appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and restored the Aaronic Priesthood. See Why the “Lines of Priesthood Authority” Concept is Missing from the Book of Mormon, and How Authority was Obtained to Found the First Known Church of Christ and The Restoration of the Priesthoods: True or Revisionist History? , elsewhere on this website.
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. 11:1-14 and 17:10-13; Mark 1:1-8 and 9:11-13; Luke 7:19-27.) 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 in Malachi 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 Levites had originally been the only tribe who voluntarily rallied to the Lord’s cause when Moses returned 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 male descendants of the Israelite tribe of Levi were the only people who could become priests or high priests, and even then it was also required that they be descended from Aaron. Those who could assist these priests or high priests also had to be descended from Levi in the worship system of the nation of Israel. The priests officiated in the temple rituals wherein atonement was made for the Israelite’s sins, while the rest of the Levite men who weren’t 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 might not have been 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 the words God spoke to Malachi, Israel had been sliding into unrighteousness, apparently to a significant extent because of their leaders’ failure to exemplify true devotion to God and man. This is the problem Jesus would come to rectify. He said,
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.)
Who Were the Righteous Sons of Levi in Jesus’ Time?
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, which if true, would have been the ultimate righteous sacrifice. 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 actually correct name of Jehoida because he confused one previous Zechariah from centuries earlier with another more famous and more recent Zechariah from centuries earlier. Indeed, this view is bolstered by the fact that unlike Matthew’s version, 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. It is also bolstered by the obvious fact that no New Testament writer contemporaneously recorded such a noteworthy event as having occurred at all.
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 that of 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 the story’s early emergence. Early Christian scholars who believed Jesus was referring to John the Baptist’s father as the 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 appears 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, which was 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, for there had never been any prophet greater than he.
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 Barnabas 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 who was 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 that cause 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 some enormously important facts, however. First, Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses, and pointedly ended its existence. (See III Nephi 15:2-8.) The role of the sons of Levi was strictly a creation of the Law of Moses; they had no role or purpose in Christ’s church. All were equal in Jesus’ new church, regardless of heredity. 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 any future role whatsoever in his church. For this reason, in Christ’s new church in the Old World and in the Americas, there were no burnt offerings, or animal sacrifices, collectors of donations, temples, hereditary priesthood of Aaron, or Levites.
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. Whether this casts doubt on the veracity of Joseph’s claim that John the Baptist spoke the words to him currently found in D&C 13, the reader will judge for herself.
Why Jesus Quoted Malachi’s Words Concerning future Levites to the Nephites
Nevertheless, an important question remains, and requires discussion here. In speaking to the Nephites, Jesus quoted the same last two chapters of Malachi as are found in the Old Testament. That means the words of Malachi 3:3, which are quoted at the beginning of this essay prophesying that the Lord would “purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” were said to the Nephites after Jesus’s resurrection. The question thus naturally arises, whether these words portend some post-Christ emergence of the sons of Levi to make righteous offerings unto the Lord as they did under the pre-Christ law of Moses.
In studying this question, it’s helpful to understand that it wasn’t unusual for Jesus to elucidate previous prophecies in a way they wouldn’t be understood without his help. He had done so in Palestine, proclaiming to the Jews in the synagogue that he himself was the fulfillment of the famous prophecy of the Messiah’s mission found in Isaiah 61:1-2. (See Luke 4:16-21.) He had rehearsed and expounded upon all the prophecies concerning his own crucifixion and resurrection to the two men on the road to Emmaus, and to his eleven apostles, even though the prophecies were already fulfilled. (See Luke 24:25-47.) To the Nephites, he had explained his own participation in giving the law of Moses to the Israelites, and that he himself was the man Moses said would come later and lead the people as Moses had. (See 3 Nephi 15:3-5 and 20:23.) And, in an instance very analogous to his reciting to them an already-fulfilled prophecy in Malachi which they’d never heard before, he said he had spoken of them to the Jews, informing them that he had other sheep which were not of the Jews’ fold, and they too would hear his voice and be gathered into the same fold as the Jews. (See 3 Nephi 15:16-24.) Clearly, Jesus commonly quoted already-fulfilled prophecies to his people on both continents, and to the Nephites, two of those prophecies were unknown to them.
In understanding the presence of Malachi 3 and 4 in 3 Nephi, it’s also helpful to remember what has already been demonstrated above in the first part of this essay. We’ve seen that Jesus fulfilled and brought to an end the Law of Moses in his church on both sides of the ocean, and had not retained within it any mention of, or duties for, high priests, priests or Levites under from the former system. There were priests in Christ’s new church, but their duties were only to teach, baptize and bless the sacrament, none of which they did under the law of Moses. Indeed, the whole idea of a select genealogical line of men performing ritual propitiation for the collective Saints had been discarded in Christ’s church in favor of all men and women becoming individually responsible for availing themselves of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Believers were to give to the poor, or to the church, not because a group of men from one tribe came collecting, but because they, of their own initiative, felt moved to do so.
It’s also vital to remember that Jesus had declared during his ministry in Palestine that the last words of the Malachi prophecy he quoted to the Nephites had already been fulfilled. The coming of Elijah (“Elias” in the New Testament) before the great and dreadful day of the Lord had come to pass within the last few years. When asked by Peter, James and John during his ministry why the scribes taught that Elias was to come before the Lord, Jesus had responded:
Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought. . .
But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.
Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
(The foregoing quotation combines Mark 9:12 with Matthew 17:12-13, as the verses from both accounts pertain to the same incident.)
This was the second time Jesus had declared John the Baptist to be the fulfillment of the Malachi prophecy regarding the coming of Elijah-Elias: Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had resolved what was to scriptorians of his day a scriptural mystery, explaining this about John the Baptist:
For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before they face, which sell prepare they way before thee.
Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least is the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and violent take it by force.
For all the prophets and law prophesied until John.
And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
(See Matt. 11:10-15, italics added.) The words of Jesus in the last two verses of this quote, which I have placed in italics, indicate that he perceived the interpretation of the Elijah prophecy would be surprising to his audience. What they considered a famous but yet-unfulfilled prediction had already come to pass without their knowledge. They had no way of knowing that a prophecy foretelling the return of Elijah would be fulfilled by someone known by the name of John, just like we, today, would not be able to immediately understand Malachi’s words about Levites, spoken centuries before Christ, to indicate there would be no Levites in our own latter-day time. (Interestingly, however, a comparison of the lives lived by Elijah and John reveals they were remarkably similar–unmarried, living alone in the desert, eating unconventional food, wearing rough clothing, ever calling Israel to repentance and offending the monarchy. Whether they were actually two iterations of the same being, made possible by the fact that Elijah had been taken into heaven without tasting death, we have insufficient information to determine.) In today’s language, Jesus was essentially saying, “And if you have faith enough in my words to accept as true what I’m telling you, John the Baptist is the prophesied Elijah. He who seeks enlightenment on this matter, pay attention to my explanation.”
Therefore, the prophecy in Malachi quoted by Jesus to the Nephites, wherein a future righteous offering by the sons of Levi was foretold, was part of a larger prophecy that Jesus, while in Palestine, had twice indicated was already fulfilled. But why would Jesus quote an already-fulfilled prophecy to the Nephites, especially when he knew we in the last days would read that prophecy and possibly misapprehend its significance?
As I see it, there are three interrelated answers. First, as 3 Nephi 26:2-5 demonstrates, Jesus wanted “future generations” to read those words and be reassured that all his prophecies would eventually be fulfilled in due time,
even unto the great and last day, when all people, and all kindreds, and all nations and tongues shall stand before God, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil–
If they be good, to the resurrection of everlasting life; and if they evil, to the resurrection of damnation . . .
Indeed, that was the overall message of Malachi 3 and 4. Originally, it was directed to the Fifth Century B.C. Jews who were losing patience waiting for His prophecies to be fulfilled. They had even complained that wicked people had prospered, and had received no visible sign of God’s displeasure. Evildoers had found wickedness profitable, and it now seemed useless to stay faithful while the corrupt continued to thrive (see Malachi 3:14-15 and 3 Nephi 24:14-15). But the Lord’s overall message through Malachi, five centuries before Christ, was timeless; it applied not only to the Jews and the Nephites, but to all future generations. The Lord’s people should continue observing the tenets of their current religion, and He would remember their faithfulness and in some future day reward them while destroying the wicked:
And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of Host, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.
Then shall ye return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.
For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
But unto you that fear my name, shall the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth and grow up as calves in the stall.
And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of Hosts.
(See Malachi 3:17-4:3 and 3 Nephi 24:17-25:3, italics added.) The overall message had nothing to do with how long into the future the sons of Levi would operate in Israel, and we should not let ourselves be unduly distracted by an allusion made to the sons of Levi in one verse, or an allusion to more tithes being needed to fill up the storehouse in another. It was an admonition to all generations to not lose patience with the Lord’s timetable.
However, Jesus’ purposes in reciting the Malachi verses to the Nephites are even better understood by scrutinizing the words I have placed in italics in the above excerpt. These words had a particularly pointed significance for the Nephites (and, as we shall see, for the observant latter-day reader). They spoke specifically of the Lord destroying the wicked by fire, then arising and appearing to the righteous with healing in his wings, and the righteous being protected from evil thereafter. In the last 33 years, the faithful Nephites had had their own trust in the Lord’s promises tested severely, to the point of endangering their own lives. They had been threatened with death if the sign of Jesus’ birth didn’t occur by a certain date. They had then had to fight against the fearsome Gadianton robbers, who had previously successfully prevailed against all who got in their way. Then, class distinctions had arisen in the church, crime had become rampant, their government had been taken over by antichrists and split apart, and their prophets had been slain. But after his followers had continued faithful through these perils, the Lord had intervened. He began by destroying all of the wicked. He literally burned most of them up, as Malachi had prophesied, destroying their cities by fire, and those not burned were drowned or crushed in earthquakes. Not one of them remained. Thereafter, the risen Lord had come to them from the heavens, and with “healing in his wings” had healed all their sick. He had ushered in a new era in which those who had remained faithful would now be protected, like “calves in the stall.” When Jesus repeated the ancient words from Malachi to the Nephites, he was telling them, “These words were addressed to God’s followers in all times. You yourselves are witnesses that God was mindful of you, despite your separation from the Jews, and that he protected the righteous from the wicked, whom he burned by fire.”
Regarding future generations reading Malachi’s words in the latter days, these verses are just as precisely tailored to our time as they were to the Nephites. It is specifically prophesied that in the last days in which we now live, the Lord will protect the righteous and destroy the wicked by fire. Note the correspondence of words from this prophecy by the first Nephi, and those quoted above from Malachi:
For the time cometh speedily that Satan shall have no more power over the hearts of the children of men; for the day soon cometh that all the proud and they who do wickedly shall be as stubble; and the cometh that they must be burned.
For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.
Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire.
(See 1 Nephi 22:15-17.)
We therefore conclude that teachings from LDS Church history and the Doctrine and Covenants suggesting the sons of Levi will at some future point resume their ancient practice of making offerings are in error. But the prophecy was fulfilled, whether everyone recognized its fulfillment or not. At least three sons of Levi righteously dedicated their lives to Christ in Jesus’ day. Those who witnessed the lives of Zacharias, John the Baptist, Joses Barnabas and perhaps others we don’t know of, were inspired by those righteous men, and emulated them.
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, also 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.
Many have wondered and speculated how exactly the first Alma received the power and authority to form the church of Christ on earth. Because of our LDS background, we tend to search out lines of authority, wanting to know who gave a man his priesthood, and who gave that man his priesthood, and trace the whole “line of authority” back to its original source. But it doesn’t appear to have worked that way among the Nephites. The Nephites had no descendants of Levi among them, and Levites were the only tribe among the Israelites allowed to hold the priesthood. (Mormons assume that all Old Testament, New Testament and Book of Mormon prophets such as Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, Nephi, Jacob and Abinadi held priesthood authority, but this notion finds no support in the Bible or Book of Mormon.) So, the practice among Nephites was for kings to appoint their priests and high priests without respect to lineage. Zeniff had appointed his own priests, and Noah had replaced those priests with a group of men whom he “consecrated” to be priests and high priests, the latter receiving elevated golden seats in the temple on which to sit. These priests are described as having been “lifted up in the pride of their hearts,” and given to many wicked practices, Mosiah 11: 4-11. These passages describing their evil, as we will show, necessarily meant that by definition, they could possess none of God’s authority.
Alma appears to have been one of those wicked priests, but as is argued in this essay, it is inconceivable that he received power and authority to later found the church of Christ from being consecrated by evil Noah, who had never had the endorsement of the Lord because of his evil designs. It would be the same if Adolf Hitler, upon assuming control over Germany, had appointed himself the leader of all Christians living within his domain. His appointment of men to lead Christianity, regardless of whether it were just LDS Christians or all Christians, would not receive heavenly endorsement.
Later in his life, after the events discussed herein, when Alma had brought his people to Zarahemla, King Mosiah had given him authority to organize the newly-introduced church as he saw fit, which church was now being introduced by Alma into the Nephite nation as a whole. Mosiah 25: 19; 26: 7,8. However, Alma had already become high priest over the church earlier when he’d founded it at the waters of Mormon. Mosiah 23:16. So how did he get the “power and authority” to assume this great honor?
It’s our hypothesis that he received it right before he baptized Helam in the waters of Mormon. At that moment, he cried, “O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.” He was specifically seeking that holiness of heart that the wicked priests of King Noah had not possessed. Because of Alma’s singlemindedly pure intent, which God recognized, “when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God . . .” Mosiah 18: 12,13. Before that moment, Alma had never claimed to have received God’s authority. It appears the holiness of heart he prayed for, if recognized by God, was what would allow God to confer authority–in other words, divine approbation and endorsement–on the baptisms he was about to perform.
Yes, that’s what we’re saying. We believe Alma received power and authority to found the church of Christ, and be its first high priest, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and moved him to proceed. He had heard God’s voice calling him through Abinadi, and had manifested that crucial ability to repent that had always been required of all high priests. In olden times, men had been ordained as high priests “on account of their exceeding faith and repentance, and their righteousness before God, they choosing to repent and work righteousness rather than to perish; Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb.” Alma 13: 10-11. Alma had completed this process, and was now imbued with power and authority to begin the great work with God’s endorsement.
Contrary to the idea promoted in the Book of Abraham (which we have argued in a separate essay on this website was not divinely revealed to Joseph Smith) that the High Priesthood was hereditary, and passed down from father to son (see Abraham 1:2-4, and the same notion propounded in Doctrine and Covenants 84: 6-16 and 107: 40-52), the Book of Mormon makes clear in the passages quoted above that the authority of high priests came to them based on their “exceeding faith and repentance.” Thus, the LDS concept of a “line of authority” being a prerequisite to holding the office of high priest is not only uncorroborated by the Book of Mormon, but contradicted by it.
This raises a point that seems paradoxical to orthodox Mormons: While Alma was repenting of his sins and founding the church of Christ in the land of Nephi, the main body of Nephites in Zarahemla were being led, spiritually and civilly, by a very rare man who is not described in the Book of Mormon as possessing priesthood authority or leading God’s “church.” Yet, the text demonstrates he was indisputably a great spiritual leader. This man, King Mosiah, son of righteous King Benjamin, met the scriptural definition of a prophet, seer and revelator, which is to say that he actually possessed the interpreters, which gave him the ability to access knowledge that no one else could access. Possession of these interpreters was deemed the greatest gift God could give to man. Mosiah 8:15. Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon makes clear that Mosiah’s people, though they had been taught of Christ and many had accepted him, still didn’t have among them the formally-organized church of Christ, and their great spiritual leader Mosiah was not recognized as any kind of priest. However, it is also easily inferred from the text that what Mosiah did as king, seer, prophet and revelator was done with God’s approval and inspiration.
By contrast, in our latter-day era, since early 1830, Mormons haven’t required their leaders to actually possess seer stones or interpreters to qualify as a seer like Mosiah was. However, LDS people nevertheless believe that a seer, who in Book of Mormon times was also a considered a prophet and a revelator (see Mosiah 8: 15-16), could not have possibly existed anciently, and cannot exist now, without the church of Christ existing with him and him presiding over it. They also don’t believe it possible such a prophet, seer and revelator could possibly not hold “priesthood authority.” But the LDS Church’s modern organizational structure, and its notion of indispensable “priesthood” authority, was unfamiliar to the Nephites, both before and after Christ. The notion that seers, prophet and revelators were necessarily priests is completely absent from the Bible or Book of Mormon.
A friend of ours, who is himself a devoted, lifelong student of the Book of Mormon and an orthodox member of the LDS Church, disagrees with the conclusions we reach here. He has argued that Nephite leaders held priesthood authority, even though the text doesn’t say so. He has speculated why it is that Ammon (the first Ammon mentioned in the Book of Mormon, not the son of Mosiah) didn’t actually baptize anyone when Limhi and his people wanted to be baptized but were separated from the followers of Alma. Our friend argues that Ammon must have held the priesthood, but didn’t feel worthy to perform the baptism, and thus declined. He also opines that if Ammon hadn’t held the priesthood, he would have said that he couldn’t baptize because he didn’t hold the priesthood. Regarding this, our point, as explained above, is that the Book of Mormon indicates that no “priesthood”, as we think of it in Mormonism, was necessary to do a baptism. For this reason, Ammon didn’t mention not having the priesthood because that wasn’t required anyway; it was a concept he would have been completely unfamiliar with.
The related idea that someone had to have someone else give them “priesthood” in order to baptize also wasn’t, and isn’t, a concept found in the ancient scriptures. Compare Matthew 21: 24-32, where Jesus, in telling the Pharisees by what authority John the Baptist baptized, didn’t cite to his “priesthood authority”, but to his “righteousness,” which meant he had heavenly endorsement. If the mechanical act of having someone confer the priesthood upon you were the determiner of whether or not you were authorized by God to do baptisms, Jesus’ description of John’s greatness wouldn’t have made sense. Jesus was suggesting the Pharisees judge John’s baptisms on the spiritual merit of his message and intentions, just as Alma’s baptisms were judged. We contend that Ammon didn’t feel worthy because he knew he hadn’t had the Spirit of the Lord come upon him in such a way as to make him an appropriate representative of God. The scriptures describing Ammon’s feelings of having insufficient authorization seem to bear this conclusion out: From Mosiah 21 we read:
32 And now since the coming of Ammon, king Limhi had also entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people, to serve him and keep his commandments.
33 And it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant [i.e., one who hadn’t had the type of spiritual authorization Alma had received].
34 Therefore they did not at that time form themselves into a church, waiting upon the Spirit of the Lord. [Compare Mosiah 18:13 for the same phraseology used to describe the process whereby Alma received authority.] Now they were desirous to become even as Alma and his brethren, who had fled into the wilderness.
35 They were desirous to be baptized as a witness and a testimony that they were willing to serve God with all their hearts; nevertheless they did prolong the time; and an account of their baptism shall be given hereafter.
It’s interesting to note Jesus’ use of the phrase, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” in Luke 4: 18, quoting Isaiah 61: 1. Jesus said these words to bear witness to his own authority as the anointed one, the prophesied Messiah about whom Isaiah had written. These words seem to signify divine authorization, as Isaiah, Jesus and Mormon all use this phrase in the same way.
In conclusion, the Book of Mormon teaches that authority to lead the Church of Christ was not based on a receiving priesthood through a line of authority. Authority was conferred through living in such a way as to merit the conferral of the Spirit of God. Moreover, seers, prophets and revelators were not required to hold the priesthood to be the spiritual leaders of the Nephites during periods before the church was formally organized among them.
(Note: For further information on the conflict between LDS doctrine on Melchizedek Priesthood Authority and the teachings in the Bible and Book of Mormon, see the essay “Erroneous LDS Teachings concerning Melchizedek Priesthood Authority” on this same website, or using the search term “Melchizedek Priesthood.” The subject of the absence of high priests among the Nephites after Christ is soon to be treated in a separate essay on this website.)