My scriptures still have green markings in Matthew and 3 Nephi that highlight all of the differences between the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and the Sermon at the Temple (3 Ne. 12-14). I did this on my mission because I thought it was important. “Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT WHO COME UNTO ME,” says the Book of Mormon, lest we think that actual poverty is either necessary or sufficient. And don’t forget that the BOM doesn’t say “Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer. That’s because it already has. These comparisons got me through my mission, a BYU term paper, and the first two times I taught Gospel Doctrine.
It is only recently that I have begun to see what a gnat-straining, camel-swallowing approach to the texts this is. Read from one perspective, of course, the two texts are extremely similar and we can learn a lot by comparing the small differences. From another perspective, however, the texts don’t even have much in common. This other perspective is sometimes called “rhetorical criticism.”
Some background: a rhetorical interpretation assumes that meaning is produced by the combination of a text and a rhetorical context—a situation in which somebody is trying to use language to do something involving someone else. Words without rhetorical context are both meaningless and impossible. There is no such thing as no context; words are always trying to do something, teach something, or persuade somebody.
But the exact same words can shift meaning dramatically when they are placed in different contexts. If I call someone “dad,” it makes a difference if I am talking to a) my father; b) my boss; or c) an older gentleman who is taking too long in the grocery line. My relationship to the speaker, my immediate rhetorical purpose, and our shared context acts on the exact same words to produce very different meanings. This is the major reason that it makes no sense to read the scriptures as acontextual proof texts that “simply mean what the words say.” There is always a context. And it always matters.
The New Testament context for the Sermon on the Mount (and I speak here only of how it is presented in the text, not of a knowable historical situation) goes something like this: Jesus has recently been baptized by John the Baptist and completed a 40-day fast, and now he is ready to start his ministry. He has had already chosen his disciples and attracted some attention as both a teacher and a healer but the Sermon on the Mount is his first big-time gig–a make-it or break-it event that will cement his reputation as a Teacher of the Word. He does not come to the audience with any kind of institutional authority. Whatever authority he ends up with will have to come solely from the power of his words.
Compare this to the Book of Mormon context. Here, people have been talking about him by name, and arguing about his coming, for 600 years. For the last 30 years or so, they have been measuring time by the signs that they saw at his birth. And over the past few days, he has trashed the whole country. Tempests, terrible thunder, the earth divided asunder, Zarahemla burned to the ground, Moroni sunk in the ocean, Moronihah swallowed by a mountain. And then things really start to go downhill. When all of this is over, he descends on the survivors wearing a white robe and glowing in the dark. Nobody has to wonder whether or not he has power. He does not have to persuade anyone to accept his authority.
So here’s my point: given the terrible destruction that has just been visited on the people of the Book of Mormon, and the supernatural effects that accompany his visit, he simply cannot speak to the people the same way he did when he was the carpenter’s kid from Nazareth. Even if the words on the page are exactly the same, both the relationship of the speaker to the audience and the overall rhetorical context could not be more different. In the Book of Mormon, Jesus doesn’t have to display power through his words. Everybody knows that he has power. He is now a God telling his followers what he expects them to do.
So take a verse like 3 Ne 12:12 (Matthew 5:13):
Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto you to be the salt of the earth; but if the salt shall lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted? The salt shall be thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.
In the Sermon on the Mount, this has a very specific referent. Jesus is talking both to and about the Jews, who see themselves as a Chosen People—the “salt of the earth.” Jesus takes this formulation and hurls it back in their faces, saying that salt does not exist for its own sake, but to improve what it comes in contact with. Jews, in other words, should not consider themselves superior to other people because of their special relationship with God. That relationship means that they have a responsibility to improve their world and benefit others. As John the Baptist has already pointed out (Matt. 3:9), God can make Children of Abraham out of rocks.
The Book of Mormon context is very different. For one thing, there are no “chosen people”—everybody is an Israelite, so the Abrahamic covenant cannot be used to sort people into different piles. Furthermore, a good chunk of the population has already been trodden under the foot, not of man, but of God. When Jesus speaks these words, he is largely explaining something that has already happened, in effect telling the people present that they have passed the test and been judged good salt. And when he talks about troddening, he is not using a metaphor.
This is just one example, but they are throughout the text. When we look at the tremendous contextual differences between Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 12-14, we can’t come away with the idea that Jesus preached the exact same (or even nearly the same) sermon in the Book of Mormon that he preached to the people in Galilee. Nothing at all about these two sermons was the same except for the words. And words are only a small part of what we talk about when we talk about meaning.