Details of Christ’s Life

Details of Christ’s Life in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon has prophets giving details of Jesus’ life long before he was born, such as his name, his mother’s name, his baptism by John, and many other details. In the Bible, such details were unknown until New Testament times and Old Testament prophecies of Christ were generally vague.

Isaiah MormonCritics point out that while the Old Testament includes prophecies of Christ, none of them name him or his mother, as does the Book of Mormon, nor can one glean from the Old Testament alone a full appreciation of Christ’s divinity or his role as Savior. They argue that, for the Book of Mormon to be an authentic ancient text, the portion describing events purporting to predate Christ’s post-resurrection visit cannot include teachings about the Savior known from the New Testament but not known in the Old Testament.

Such views are rather normal in the philosophy that drives modern thinking, but they do not reflect the views of the earliest Christians. A number of early Church Fathers of the first centuries AD claimed that Christ’s name and details of his mortal ministry (including the name of his mother) were known long before his birth and some early Christian texts indicate that this information had been revealed to Adam in the very beginning.

We have, for example, the testimony of two second-century AD Church Fathers, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Writing of Christ’s preaching to the dead while his body lay in the tomb, each of them attributed to Jeremiah (a contemporary of the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi) a prophecy not found in the biblical account, in which the prophet wrote that the Lord would descend to preach salvation to the dead. Justin Martyr wrote:

“And again, from the sayings of the same Jeremiah these have been cut out [by the Jews]: ‘The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation'” (Dialogue with Trypho 72).[1] Irenaeus, half a century later, cited the same passage in Against Heresies 3:20.4; 4:22.1; see also 4.27.2; 4.33.1, 12; 5:31.1).[2] The Book of the Bee, written in the Syriac language in the thirteenth century by the Nestorian bishop Solomon, has preserved an earlier tradition of another non-biblical prophecy of Jeremiah, declaring that “This (prophet) during his life said to the Egyptians, “a child shall be born-that is the Messiah-of a virgin, and He shall be laid in a crib, and He will shake and cast down the idols.” From that time and until Christ was born, the Egyptians used to set a virgin and a baby in a crib, and to worship him, because of what Jeremiah said to them, that He should be born in a crib” (Book of the Bee 32).

The story is drawn from The Lives of the Prophets 2:8-10, a text that a number of scholars have suggested was originally written in Hebrew by Egyptian Jews during the lifetime of Jesus himself.[4] It is also known from an Armenian text that recounts how Jeremiah “gave a sign to the Egyptians-the shaking of their idols and the falling down and breaking into pieces at the hand of a certain infant which would be born of a virgin, (at the hand) of the Saviour of Israel.”[5] Another Armenian text, The Names, Works and Deaths of the Holy Prophets, notes that Jeremiah, while in Egypt, “prophesied, saying, that the temples of the idols of their time would fall to the ground, when a virgin gave birth. On account of which, secretly, in the temple building, the priests worshipped a picture of a virgin, who held a child in her bosom. Seeing this, Jeremiah [said] . . . that by worshipping the picture of the virgin they were not performing idolatry. He rebuked them, the people of God. And the same Jeremiah, for this reason, was stoned by the people.”[6]

Many more examples could be given from early Christian writings, but these should suffice to demonstrate that details of Christ’s life could easily have been known to prophets in pre-Christian times.

[1] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:235.

[2] Ibid., 1:451, 493-4, 499, 506, 510, 560. In one place, Irenaeus attributes the passage to Isaiah, in others to Jeremiah, agreeing with Justin.

[3] Ernest A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Bee (Oxford: Clarendon, 1886), 72. The term “crib”originally denoted a feeding-trough for animals (i.e., a manger, from the French word meaning “to eat”), and was later employed in reference to a baby’s bed, perhaps in imitation of the resting-place of the newborn Christ.

[4] For an English translation of the Jeremiah passage, see James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985), 2:387-88.  Both The Lives of the Prophets and Book of the Bee include prophecies of Christ attributed to other Old Testament prophets but not found in the Bible version of their books.

[5] Michael E. Stone, Selected Studies in Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 79.

[6] Michael E. Stone, Armenian Apocrypha Relating to the Patriarchs and Prophets (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1982), 161-3.