Sunday, September 16, 2018

The doctrine of translation

“The Three Nephites and Other Translated Beings” is a book by Bruce E Dana, a Mormon author. It deals with a number of Biblical or extra-Biblical characters who the Mormons believe have attained immortality.

The Mormons (officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) claim to be Christians, but recognize several sacred scriptures in addition to the Bible. These scriptures, including the notorious Book of Mormon, were supposedly discovered by (or revealed to) Joseph Smith from the 1820's to his death in 1844. Smith was the founder of the Mormon Church and is considered to have been a “prophet, seer and revelator”. The Book of Mormon claims that the American continent used to be inhabited by peoples related to the Lost Tribes of Israel. One of these peoples, the Nephites, were visited by Jesus Christ! Just as in Palestine, Jesus selected twelve disciples or apostles to spread his gospel. Centuries later the Nephites (who by this time had apostasized) were exterminated by the Lamanites, ancestors of the American Indians. A curios twist of the story is that three of the Nephite apostles were made immortal by Jesus and remained on Earth after the other apostles had died. The Mormon Church believes that the Three Nephites (as they are usually called) are still around, and many Mormons claim to have encountered them in various contexts.

In Mormon theology, the Three Nephites are “translated” rather than “resurrected”. Other translated humans include Enoch, Moses, Elijah and the apostle John. It's interesting to note that while the Gospel of John in the Bible denies that John is immortal, the Mormon scriptures affirm it. The so-called Book of Moses, a new version of the Biblical Book of Genesis revealed to Joseph Smith, claims that an entire pre-deluge city, known as the City of Enoch, was translated and lifted up to heaven! Finally, there is Cain, the first Biblical villain and murderer, who plays a central role in the Book of Moses as the leader of a Satanist secret society. Mormons believe that Cain is still alive, wandering the Earth in order to corrupt the souls of men…

Dana attempts to explain the difference between being “translated” and being “resurrected”. The difference isn't entirely clear, since he never explains the exact nature of the resurrection body. The “translated” body is, on the one hand, physical and in this sense resembles mortal bodies. However, being translated means to be immortal. It also means that the body has acquired certain supernatural abilities. Thus, the Three Nephites can make themselves invisible and travel with supernatural speed. Since different Mormon eye witnesses describe them differently, I suppose the Nephite apostles can change their physical appearances, too! At one point, Dana claims that translated beings have gotten their blood removed and replaced by a spiritual fluid. If Dana had studied occult philosophy, he would probably have described the translated body as an “etheric” body. The strange combination of physicality and more ethereal qualities is typical of paranormal beings.

Some of the miracle stories related by Dana are very hard to believe, such as the claims that the Arab armies during Israel's War of Independence were defeated by, well, the Three Nephites. Other stories are similar in character to stories about angelic encounters, featuring mysterious strangers eager to help who then vanish without a trace. The Three Nephites often preach the Mormon message in places never reached by Church missionaries. They can also appear in dreams. Apparently, the Three Nephites will die at the second coming of Jesus Christ, but only temporarily, being resurrected with *real* resurrection bodies immediately afterwards.

“The Three Nephites” is less interesting than I expected, since most of the book doesn't deal with the eye witness accounts, but rather with more theological issues, including some that are decidedly “in house”. Only a Mormon could worry about the fact that the Nephite apostles in America were rebaptized by Jesus, since this could imply that their earlier baptism at the hands of Alma the Younger (who is described as a true Christian in the Book of Mormon, despite having lived long before Christ) wasn't valid. A skeptic would simply point out that the stories in the Mormon scriptures are all apocryphal…

Sometimes, the author goes off the deep end – some aspects of the Mormon faith are pretty peculiar. Thus, Cain is described as having a gigantic stature, a body entirely covered in hair, and a very dark skin. I'm not the only person who sees a striking similarity to Bigfoot! And what are we to make of this speculation concerning the whereabouts of the City of Enoch: “However far the Zion of Enoch may be from the earth’s appointed orbit, it is certain, according to the promise of God, that it will return again to the earth at the second coming of Christ. We can hardly believe that this city was taken away beyond the limits of the Solar system; for if it had been carried with a velocity of one mile per minute, it would have required upwards of five thousand years to have gone as far as the planet Neptune: and with that velocity it would have required over ten thousand years to go there and return. As an immortal body has the power of rendering itself invisible, it is reasonable to infer that a city wrought upon by the power of God, and changed in its nature, could be rendered invisible, and still be within our immediate vicinity”(Kindle Locations 1054-1060). Admittedly, this isn't Dana but a 19th century Mormon elder, but still…

As already indicated, I had hoped for a more folkloristic approach than the theological one actually given, but since this little book might be of some interest to Mormon-watchers (and, I suppose, Mormons) I will nevertheless give it three stars.

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