The Allegory of the Olive Tree and the Conversion of the Jews: Jacob 5 as a Response to Romans 11 #BOM2016

Jacob 5

The text of Jacob 5 introduces several new elements into the Book of Mormon, among them: a new genre (extended allegory) and a new narrative voice (Zenos). It is difficult to see how this prophecy relates to Jacob’s original audience, but it is easy to see how it relates to Latter-day readers, as it comments on, and partially revises, a passage from the Letters of Paul that has structured the relationship between Christians and Jews for more than a thousand years.

The passage I refer to comes from the 11th chapter of Romans, which I quote at some length here because it is really important:

 13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: 14 If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. 15 For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? 16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.17 And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;

 18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. 19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear:  21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.  22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.  23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.

 24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? 25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. 26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:

Those familiar with Jacob 5 will recognize a lot of the elements in Paul’s much briefer text. Both compare the House of Israel to a decaying olive tree that can be saved only by grafting in branches from other trees. Paul address the gentiles directly and tells them that they will, as Christians grafted into the Tree of Israel, become eligible for all of the blessings promised to the Chosen People. But they shouldn’t get cocky about it because the Jews are still God’s people, and their cutoffedness is only temporary. God’s plan is for the favor granted the gentiles to spur the Jews to repentance so that “all Israel shall be saved.”

Historically, these verses are at the heart of the Christian prophesy of “the Conversion of the Jews”—or the belief that, at some point in the future, most or all of the Jews in the world will convert en masse to Christianity. This belief was especially strong among English Calvinists, who believed that this conversion would have to occur before the Second Coming of Christ. It was on the strength of this prophecy that Oliver Cromwell permitted the Jews to return to England in 1656.

When the Puritans immigrated to the New World, they brought this belief with them, and it was a major part of the rhetorical environment in which the Book of Mormon was first read. “Nothing is more certainly foretold,” thundered the famous American cleric Jonathan Edwards, “than this national conversion of the Jews in Romans 11.” And this was largely the environment into which Joseph Smith was born, and in which he published the Book of Mormon.

If we read the Allegory of the Olive Tree carefully, though, we will see that it expands Paul’s allegory in significant ways–namely, it adds the people of the Book of Mormon itself into the allegorical mix. The person presented as the original author of the allegory was the Prophet Zenos, a contemporary of Isaiah who lived before the Babylonian exile and who, therefore, saw “the House of Israel” as something more inclusive than “the Jews.” And in the process of expanding on Paul’s metaphor, the Book of Mormon reconfigures the classical Christian concept of “the Conversion of the Jews” and turns it into the more familiar and distinctive Latter-day Saint concept of “the Gathering of Israel.”

Let us pause to recall that the Book of Mormon presents the Lehites as Israelites but not as Jews. Lehi and his family claim descent from Manasseh, not Judah, and this fact becomes crucial to our understanding of the difference between Jacob 5 and Romans 11. In its very basic form (and I know I am stripping out a lot of important detail here, but this is already way too long for a blog post) the allegory of the Olive Tree presents four series of events that represent, allegorically, the four key time periods in the Book of Mormon’s narrative of sacred history.

Jacob 5: The Allegory of the Olive Tree

 Allegorical Action Time Frame Interpretation and Commentary
The Master has his servant prune the original tree heavily and then transplants branches to other places in the garden. (Jacob 5:8) Before the Babylonian Captivity, at the time that Lehi and his family leave Jerusalem This is an element of the story that does not occur in Romans, and it completely changes the nature of the allegory. Paul speaks of two kinds of branches, the original branches, which represent the Jews and the new branches, which represent the gentiles. Jacob’s allegory uses both of these categories exactly as Paul does, but adds a third: the transplanted original branches, which represent transplanted Israelites who are not Jews (i.e., the Book of Mormon people).
The Master grafts wild branches into the decaying olive tree (5:10), and, for a while, they produce good fruit (5:18). The New Testament / Christ and Paul This portion of the allegory is very similar to Paul’s parable in Romans 11. The decaying olive tree represents Israel, which, after the Babylonian captivity is represented primarily by the Jewish people. According to both Zenos and Paul, the gentiles, or non-Jewish Christians, are grafted onto the tree, becoming fully vested members of the House of Israel.
The Master notices that the original tree is once again bearing bad fruit (5:30-32), and, when he checks the transplanted branches, he finds that they too are bearing bad fruit (5:38-40). The Restoration / Joseph Smith Here we see a clear example of the apostasy narrative that has already been worked by Nephi. The original tree, which represents the various Christian Churches, has fallen away from God. This is a clear departure from Christian orthodoxy, though it is definitely presented as a possibility in the original Pauline text, which states, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.” (11:22) But the descendants of Lehi—which the original text of the Book of Mormon clearly presents as the American Indians—are not doing much better, as they are also in apostasy and unbelief.   
The Master decides to restore the original branches to the original tree by working in both directions: grafting branches from the transplant back into the original tree, and grafting branches from the original tree back into the transplants. (5: 60-67) The Last Days The conclusion of the allegory (well, except for the very end, when everything gets burned) invokes the “restoration of all things” and unfolds the wise plan of the Master from the very beginning. The original House of Israel has been divided for millennia, but it will be literally reunited—including both the Jews and the descendants of Lehi—as part of the Restoration of the last days. The allegory thus invokes the literal gathering of Israel found in the 10th Article of Faith.

Whatever one believes about the origins of the Book of Mormon, the Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob 5 is an extraordinarily complex work of literature. It is a narratologically complex text that introduces several embedded narrators (i.e. Mormon, Jacob, and Zenos) operating at different times and with different purposes to produce a single sustained allegory. It is a rhetorically complex argument that both supports and subverts an important biblical passage well-known to Joseph Smith’s contemporaries. And it is a theologically complex passage that builds and extends the apostasy-and-restoration narrative that the Book of Mormon itself presents itself as a part of.

And it is yet another example for Latter-day Saints of the richness and beauty that our most distinguishing book of scripture yields when we approach it by study, and also by faith.


  1. Freudian slip or coming out? Purported author? Purported means to be something, especially falsely. To masquerade or impersonate.

  2. I intended “purported” to be a neutral term, indicating that this is what the narrative claims, but taking no position on the validity of that claim. But I can see the potential for confusion, so I changed it to “the person presented as the original author,” which is much bulkier, but, I suppose, less open to confusion.

  3. It might be Jacob’s attempt to make sense of Isaiah 5 for his audience.

  4. Colby Townsend says:

    Dan, the text of Jacob 5 is definitely responding to material from the NT. The passages in the NT might be using Isa. 5 or other prior authoritative texts, but Jacob 5 itself is dependent on the NT.

  5. Colby – could one of those ‘other prior authoritative texts’ perhaps be the text of Zenos? He’s quoted extensively in the Book of Mormon, so it’s strongly apparent that his teachings were included in the brass plates of Laban. Who’s to say that Paul didn’t have access to those teachings as well, either directly or through derivative texts?

  6. Colby T. says:

    As far as an intertextual study of the BM Zenos texts go they are dependent throughout on phrases that are specific to the NT. The extensive use of these phrases casts doubt on a now unknown third source, in this case Zenos, when it is apparent in a more holistic approach to the BM that the Brass Plates version of the Bible in the BM as we have it is the KJV.

  7. That’s a possible but not a necessary conclusion. I don’t think anything about Joseph Smith’s reliance on the KJV language in transmitting the Book of Mormon rules out Zenos or other material as a common third source that influenced Isaiah and Paul in addition to Jacob.

  8. Colby T. says:

    It’s not simply possible but probable. In discussions about literary dependence one can only claim a third source for so long. When the dependence on the KJV in the BM is so thorough and sustained, as all of the scriptural texts that JS produced are, the more likely explanation for the Zenos texts is that they are dependent on the NT, not that Jacob 5 and Romans (or other NT texts) are dependent on an unknown source independently of one another.

  9. Colby T. says:

    Risto Nurmela has explained why the third source argument is problematic in a book looking at inner-biblical allusion in Second and Third Isaiah:

    “One reason why scholars advise restraint in assuming literary interdependence is the possibility of a third unknown source, which might explain the similarity. But since these sources are unknown, this explanation remains even more hypothetical than literary interdependence. Indeed it can not be ruled out, but when used repeatedly, this argument becomes invalid.”

    Nurmela, The Mouth of the Lord Has Spoken: Inner-Biblical Allusions in Second and Third Isaiah (Lanham: University Press of America, 2006), iii.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Colby, does anyone think Paul’s allegory in Romans 11 is itself not dependent upon other sources? Especially considering the similarities to other preserved texts like John 15 or Jeremiah 11? Also the quote you give is much more about an argument to best data given the data. I understand why that is a principle simply because continually populating hidden texts lets one explain away anything. But, as your quote notes, this is only a problem “when used repeatedly.” After all higher criticism quite regularly postulates missing texts such as Q.

    So I think you’re misusing thing a bit here. Also, for an apologist who explicitly isn’t going to best explanation given the data the move is a bit pointless. After all fundamentally preference to the best explanation given the data presupposes that ones explanations are epistemologically weak given the paucity of data. All the apologist is trying to say is that one can rationally believe the other interpretation given other data the non-Mormon scholar isn’t apt to accept. (Unless you are making the stronger and pretty indefensible position that one should only believe the argument to ‘best’ explanation and to do otherwise is irrational)

    The problem ultimately is of course that compared to say the hard sciences these Biblical textual arguments are ultimately extremely weak and hard to present in a testable fashion. Given that even in the hard sciences one is lucky to find 20% of strong arguments confirmed, it seems reasonable to assume that “best explanation” among the textualists is far lower than that. Implying that most of what is postulated is wrong even if they are best explanations.

  11. Clark, forgive me if I misunderstand any of your response. I’ll do my best to offer some ideas from your thoughtful comment.
    First, the kind of study I am discussing and that Michael briefly mentions in this post (which isn’t the main topic of the post by the way, sorry Michael) is actually based on data. The BM utilizes a large quantity of word-for-word quotations, allusions, and echoes from the KJV that it is not simply weak or “hard to present in a testable fashion.” To the contrary, one can submit one’s findings to other scholars (as I and several others have done) and have them test the data. I once spent two hours in Paul Hoskisson’s office explaining to him my findings of Malachi’s influence on the BM. He wasn’t convinced of almost any of them at first, but after we went through the data he would nod his head in agreement and we would go to the next BM passage.
    Second, I said that there were sources that went in to Romans but that discussion is not the one we are having here, nor is Q. What we are talking about is the quantity of verbal parallels between the BM text and the KJV, particularly when you look at the passages that are assigned to Zenos. These texts share a preponderance of verbal connections with the NT. This is a basic fact on the textual level, nothing more, nothing less. What implications that has for how one is to understand the text of the BM is up to the individual themselves, not me. I like Michael’s approach to understanding the text.
    Third, I would hope that for all of us wanting to understand important scriptural texts that we can realize that there are basic historical issues that need to be grappled with first, while, if one is an apologist, it is possible for those historical issues to not alter one’s theological perspective. Not every Mormon rejects the “data” that an apologist accepts, but rather views that information differently than a given apologist. In this case it is quite clear that the NT has influenced the BM. What is left is for an exhaustive picture to be given about the kind of influence the KJV had on the BM and for scholars and interested lay readers to discuss the details.
    For the record, I am not misusing the literature that discusses the pitfalls of arguing for a third source. The problem with arguing that there is a source, similar to the Zenos quotations, behind Romans 11 or any other NT text that shares common verbs or phrases with the BM, is that you have to make that argument over and over again to the point where you have hundreds (maybe even thousands) of separate hypothetical source-texts that are behind both the BM Brass Plates and the NT. Those sources have been translated almost exactly as they are found in the KJV of the NT, or reflect common paraphrasing of those NT texts in the 18th and 19th centuries. They more often than not influenced the BM text on the compositional level, and are integral to the message of the given pericope. In that sense they cannot be disentangled from an older source (see Blake Ostler’s 1987 paper) without doing major damage to the text. You would also be proposing these hundreds of new hypothetical sources that reflect a theology that simply fits no historical period in centuries in Israel before the common era. There is simply too much evidence against the viewpoint for it to be likely.
    Also, I would note, that no one has to agree with me. I will state the evidence and data and offer my opinion, but as I argued in my paper on Malachi in the BM, we must try our best to find those places of the text of the BM that are dependent on the KJV and work within our own worldviews in how to answer the presence of those books in the text.

  12. Doug Murray says:

    This narrative also goes along with the Isaiah 11 + 29 narrative concerning Joseph Smith being the servant and Book of Mormon Book of Mormon coming forth. Nephi and Jacob have a complete understanding of the scriptures and how they relate to them and to the Future. You can see Nephi’s purpose in including the Isaiah chapters as Nephi understands the roll his plates will have in helping the branches produce good fruit.

  13. I don’t approach this from a very intellectual point of view, but if you’re into looking at scripture for personal applications and insights into God’s grace, I think you might like this.

  14. Randall: thanks, bud. I incorporated some of your post into my lesson for tomorrow.

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