Category Archives: The Christ Center

Surprises in Nephi’s Tree of Life Vision, Part I: The Virgin Mary as the Tree of Life

What does the Virgin Mary have to do with the Tree of Life?

She is the Tree of Life (at least for a moment), according to the Book of Mormon!

If you missed that in your reading of the Book of Mormon, it’s OK. It’s easy to miss (unless, perhaps, if you’re Catholic).

After his famous dream, Lehi tells his children of a tree with fruit that is “white, to exceed all the whiteness” and that is “desirable above all other fruit” (1 Nephi 8). After hearing his father tell about the dream, Nephi sees the same tree in a vision of his own (1 Nephi 11-14). Since a fruit tree is known by and valued for its fruit, Nephi uses the same type of language to describe the tree itself (1 Nephi 11), which he says was “precious above all,” and “the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.“ Nephi calls this beautiful tree the “tree of life.”

From Nephi’s record, we eventually learn that the tree symbolizes the “love of God” (1 Nephi 11:25) and that its precious fruit is the “greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:36). But when Nephi first sees the tree and asks for the “interpretation thereof,” the Spirit doesn’t answer in words; he provides the interpretation through visual images. So what does the “love of God” look like? What Nephi is immediately shown is “a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white” and “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.” It is interesting that Nephi uses nearly the same language to describe the Virgin Mary as he uses to describe the Tree of Life—they are both exceedingly white and beautiful above all. It’s unlikely that the actual Mary was particularly white or that she was the most beautiful woman who ever existed. The Bible says nothing to that effect, and, indeed, the Savior himself had “no form nor comeliness; and…no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Mary’s whiteness and beauty could, of course, be merely symbolic, representing her purity and preciousness, but Nephi could have just as well used different words, or just said that she was “pure” and “precious.” The particular words and phrases he uses suggest that he is describing Mary in this way as a reference to the Tree of Life. Her connection with the tree which “bore the fruit” that was so precious (1 Nephi 11:7; 15:36) is reinforced when she vanishes and then reappears “bearing a child” in her arms (1 Nephi 11:20). She is, for the moment, the Tree of Life, and her fruit is Christ, the most precious of all the gifts of God (John 3:16) and the perfect manifestation of his love.

Perhaps due to our Protestant tendencies, we Mormons don’t tend to notice this connection that Nephi makes between the Tree of Life and the Virgin Mary. Catholics, on the other hand, would be more appreciative of Nephi’s imagery. (Whoever produced the language of Nephi’s vision must not have shared the anti-Catholicism that was prevalent in 19th century America.) Nephi’s imagery would have also probably been familiar to many early Christians and appeared logical to ancient Hebrews (see links and notes at bottom). In any case, when we get past whatever sectarian discomfort we may have, Nephi’s imagery is beautiful and worthy of inclusion in our discussions of Nephi’s Tree of Life vision. It’s also fascinating how Nephi doesn’t just say, “Mary is like the Tree of Life,” but instead uses similar phrases (call them “phrasal allusions”) to say the same thing in a more subtle, playful way.

NOTES

A Coptic version of a record called the Apocalypse of Paul, probably from about the mid-third century, relates a vision that, in some details at least, resembles the vision of Nephi: “And he [the angel] showed me the Tree of Life, and by it was a revolving red-hot sword. And a Virgin appeared by the tree, and three angels who hymned her, and the angel told me that she was Mary, the Mother of Christ.” [see Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi & His Asherah,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies , FARMS, Vol. 9, Num. 2, 2000, pp. 16-18]. In his vision, Nephi also saw a flaming fire (1 Nephi 15:30)  and a “sword of the justice of the eternal God” (1 Nephi 12:18, Royal Skousen, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text) that together restricted access to the tree.

The Tree of Life as Mother, Son, and Love of God in 1 Nephi and The Tree of Life as Nurturing Mother, both by David Larsen

Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: The tree of life and the Book of Mormon (Deseret News)

Mary and the Tree of Life by John A. Tvedtnes (BYU)

The Centrality of Christ in Mormonism and the Mystery of Salvation by Grace after “All We Can Do”

In contrast to the Old World Hebrews who rejected their prophets and scriptures, the believing Nephites were given additional spiritual knowledge, particularly about the Christ who would come bringing salvation.

A principal purpose of the Book of Mormon is to teach the descendants of the apostate Hebrews about the Christ. There are many passages in the Book of Mormon that attempt to do this, often by using Hebrew literary devices such as Biblical allusions and chiasms. Christ is often placed at the center of these chiasms to show his prime importance. Nephi’s “we rejoice in Christ” message in 2 Nephi 25:23-29 is an interesting example. Here Nephi uses a chiasm to show his fellow Hebrews how their entire system of religious law, the Law of Moses, points to Christ. Read as English prose, Nephi’s message seems repetitive and somewhat foreign:

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. And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins. Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away. And now behold, my people, ye are a stiffnecked people; wherefore, I have spoken plainly unto you, that ye cannot misunderstand. And the words which I have spoken shall stand as a testimony against you; for they are sufficient to teach any man the right way; for the right way is to believe in Christ and deny him not; for by denying him ye also deny the prophets and the law. And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out. 

But the repetitiveness has a purpose — to create a chiasm that is built around and centered on Christ. To the classical Hebrew reader, this chiasm would have served to emphasize Nephi’s message that the Law of Moses is likewise built around and centered on Christ. Here is Nephi’s message in chiastic form, with parallel elements shown in color for each level.

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.

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies,

that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ,

and know for what end the law was given.

And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him

 when the law ought to be done away.

And now behold, my people, ye are a stiffnecked people; wherefore, I have spoken plainly unto you, that ye cannot misunderstand. And the words which I have spoken shall stand as a testimony against you; for they are sufficient to teach any man the right way; for the right way is to believe in Christ and deny him not; for by denying him ye also deny the prophets and the law. And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.

Nephi has effectively highlighted the important elements of his message — belief in Christ, keeping the law, the fulfillment of the law, the purpose (end) of the law, the deadness of the law, and the prime importance of Christ — by repeating them all in reverse order! And that forms a chiasm.

An interesting thing about genuine chiasms is that they usually have a logical turning point that coincides with the physical turning point at the center. In this chiasm, the turning point is the change in subject from “we” (Nephi and his fellow preachers) to “they” (Nephi’s children) and “you” (Nephi’s brethren).  Everything before the center point is what Nephi and his fellow preachers do, and everything after the center point is what he hopes his children and unbelieving brethren will do. Speaking for himself and his fellow preachers, Nephi says that “we” believe in Christ” and “we” keep the law ” and “we” are made alive in Christ and “we” preach of Christ SO THAT “our children” may know Christ and so “they” can look forward to life in Christ and so “they” won’t harden their hearts, etc.

The arrangement of text in chiastic form draws the reader’s attention to the center, and that’s  where the focal point of the message is usually placed. In this case, the focus is squarely on Christ as Nephi rejoices in him and hopes that his children will also.  The word Christ appears 14 times throughout the message but is repeated most densely at the center, with “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophecy of Christ.”

There is another fascinating thing about Nephi’s chiasm. Much is made in Mormonism of the phrase, “it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do,” at the beginning of Nephi’s message. Nephi is apparently saying that  we are ultimately saved by grace through Christ, but we must also “do” something for that to happen. What is less clear is what exactly we must do. The parallel structure of the chiasm can help us figure out what Nephi is talking about. “All we can do” at the beginning of the chiasm is echoed by “ye do” at the end. “Ye do” in turn refers to “believe in Christ” and “bow down before him and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength” (see also Moroni 10:32). Thus,  what is required of us is to believe in and worship God in Christ. This interpretation of the chiasm is verified by Moroni’s statement that, “if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you…in Christ” (Moroni 10:32). So what is required of us in order for God’s grace to be sufficient? We must stop sinning and give our hearts to him.

This belief in and worship of Christ doesn’t actually save us, however, any more than keeping “the law” does. We are saved solely “by grace”; or, in other words “salvation is free” (2 Nephi 2:4-6). That’s what “grace” means. We can’t earn salvation any more than a poor student earns a government grant for college — you can’t earn a gift. But the poor student can qualify for the free money, which at least involves having a need, making some commitments, and filling out some paperwork. Similarly, we can qualify for salvation, which is the “greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:36). Our belief in and devotion to Christ is the living faith of which James spoke (James 2) that qualifies us for that gift.

Easter is a celebration of Christ’s return to life after breaking the bands of death. An Easter egg is a symbol not only of his return to life but also of our rebirth as we escape the bands of sin and find new life in him. In 2 Nephi 25:23-29, Nephi creates an Easter egg in a classical Hebrew manner by putting Christ at the center of a chiasm that teaches how we may be “made alive in Christ.”

See also “The Gift of Grace” by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf