Mosiah 27/Alma 36
The Bible is full of type scenes that give a sense of narrative unity to its very diverse collection of texts. Type scenes can connect two characters within a single book, as the two “woman at the well” betrothal scenes in Genesis do. But they work their connective magic when they work across texts–and especially when they occur between the Old and New Testaments–consider the “King-Orders-the-Deaths-of-All-Male-Babies” scenes that begin both Exodus and Matthew. Such parallel scenes give a powerful boost to the argument that the Old and New Testaments testify of the same things.
Given the role that the Book of Mormon claims for itself as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” we should not be surprised to find type scenes that connect its narrative to the other two Testaments. Indeed, we should be surprised, and a bit concerned, not to find them; fortunately, they are all over the place. We have already talked about the Tree of Life, Father’s Blessing, and Olive Tree type scenes that connect the parts of the BOM to parts of the Bible–but these actually take some work to understand. We find a much more obvious example of the type scene in the conversion narratives of Saul (Acts 19 in the Bible) and Alma the Younger (Mosiah 27 in the Book of Mormon).
Both scenes are familiar enough that I don’t need to paraphrase them here. Instead, I will briefly gloss the narrative elements that establish their structural similarity.
|Saul (Acts 9)||Alma the Younger (Mosiah 27)|
|Saul is well known for “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” (9:1)||Alma TY and his companions “became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people.” (27: 9)|
|He and his companions were stopped on their way to persecute Christians, “and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven.” (9:3)||While they were persecuting the members of the Church, Alma and his companions (the Sons of Mosiah) saw an angel, who “descended as it were in a cloud.” (27:11)|
|“He fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (9:4)||The angel spoke to Alma and said, “arise and stand forth, for why persecutest thou the church of God?” (27: 13)|
|He is stricken with a physical disability and becomes unable to eat: “And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.” (9: 9)||He is stricken with a physical disability and becomes physically weak: “the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father..” (27: 19)|
|His blindness is healed, and he becomes able to eat, when he is converted to Christianity by Ananias. (9: 18-19)||His muteness is healed, and his body is strengthened, when he repents and is converted. (27:23)|
|Years later, he retells the story as a first-person narrative that is also included in the text. (Acts 22)||Years later, he retells the story as a first-person narrative that is also included in the text. (Alma 36)|
These elements are not identical—there is certainly a difference between the angel that Alma sees and the resurrected Christ that Paul sees. But they are too structurally similar enough to be the result of mere coincidence. Whatever the intentions of Alma (in telling) or Mormon (in redacting) this story, its appearance in a text published in 1830, in a Bible-saturated culture, must be read as a connection that somebody intended.
As with most stories that are mainly similar, however, it is the differences that really matter. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need them both. And there are some key structural differences between Paul’s and Alma’s conversion that we need to explore further to understand how the Book of Mormon adds value to the Bible.
|Major Difference||Saul||Alma the Younger|
|Saul and Alma the Younger occupy completely inverted positions within their cultures.||Saul is an elite member of his culture’s established church persecuting an offshoot that he believes to be heretical.||Alma the Younger, the son of the head of his culture’s established church, has become a leader in an offshoot that his father believes to be heretical.|
|The text defines “persecution” very differently||Saul’s persecution is physical. He acknowledges beating men and women in the synagogue and even persecuting them “unto death” (22: 4).||Alma’s persecution is rhetorical. He confesses to “murdering” people, but then defines that as “led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14). His form of persecution was convincing people not to believe in Christ.|
|The kind of conversion is different in both stories.||Saul was a deeply religious person who (according to the text) believed in the wrong religion. He had to change his beliefs.||Alma was a person raised in the true church who, out of wickedness, set about to destroy people’s faith. He had to change his behavior.|
|They are converted for different reasons.||Saul is converted because the Lord needs him for a very specific purpose, as He tells Ananias: “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)||Alma is converted because of the prayers of his father. The angel tells him specifically, “I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.” (Mosiah 27:14)|
So, what do we get when we combine the stories together and ask the question, “how does the Book of Mormon narrative affect the way that we read the Bible?” I would argue that, in every case where the stories differ, the Book of Mormon deepens and expands our understanding of both the possibility of conversion and of the grace of God.
Taken together, the two narratives show us how God intervenes for very different reasons to change the lives of two different kinds of people who are guilty of different kinds of sins. Despite very different starting positions, however, Alma the Younger and Saul end up having almost exactly the same conversion experience with exactly the same results. The two narratives, in this case, encourage us to universalize the possibility of conversion–to remove the possibility of context-specific interpretations and understand that real, meaningful change is ALWAYS possible for us and for those we love.
Perhaps the most important similarity between Alma the Younger and Saul, though, is that neither of them deserve the blessings they get. They did nothing to merit the miraculous divine interventions that changed them in fundamental ways. They were surprised by grace for reasons that they could never have understood or expected. This, it turns out, is how it always works.