The Chicago Bears have a rookie running back who has had a sensational beginning to his young career, named Tarik Cohen. (The above picture shows Tarik catching two footballs while doing a backflip.) A lot of people were trying to figure out whether he was Jewish, because Cohen is a prominent surname among Jews. He is not in fact Jewish. But there is an unusual Mormon connection to this question.

The reason people were wondering whether Tarik was Jewish had to do with his surname, Cohen, which is a common name (along with lots of variants, such as Kohn) in Jewish tradition that marks someone who is descended from a priestly lineage. (Cohen comes from the Hebrew word for priest, kohen, plural kohanim.) In theory modern Jewish kohanim are direct patrilineal descendants of Aaron.  Here‘s a good article that describes this understanding and tradition from a Jewish perspective.

My late senior partner, which whom I worked for 30 years and who died a couple of years ago, did not have the surname but was himself a kohen. I forget in what context this came up, but I only learned it very late in his life. He was a thoroughly secular Jew, but he still had that particular status.  He told me that basically it meant he wasn’t supposed to go into cemeteries (due to the priestly concern with ritual purity over contact with the dead.)

So what is the Mormon angle to this? Consider these verses from D&C 68:

14 There remain hereafter, in the due time of the Lord, other bishops to be set apart unto the church, to minister even according to the first;

15 Wherefore they shall be high priests who are worthy, and they shall be appointed by the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood, except they be literal descendants of Aaron.

16 And if they be literal descendants of Aaron they have a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the firstborn among the sons of Aaron;

17 For the firstborn holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same.

18 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron.

19 But, as a high priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood has authority to officiate in all the lesser offices he may officiate in the office of bishop when no literal descendant of Aaron can be found, provided he is called and set apart and ordained unto this power, under the hands of the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood.

20 And a literal descendant of Aaron, also, must be designated by this Presidency, and found worthy, and anointed, and ordained under the hands of this Presidency, otherwise they are not legally authorized to officiate in their priesthood.

21 But, by virtue of the decree concerning their right of the priesthood descending from father to son, they may claim their anointing if at any time they can prove their lineage, or do ascertain it by revelation from the Lord under the hands of the above named Presidency.

I’ve always been fascinated by this nod to the concept of kohanim. So far as I can tell, however, this provision has been entirely theoretical; I’m unaware of anyone becoming a bishop specifically under these provisions (if you know of examples, please share the details in the comments). But as the article on kohanim I link to above points out, modern DNA science actually supports the claim for a common ancestry among Jews who identify as Cohens. Therefore, there is now a possible way to implement this obscure provision from our canon that was not understood when this section was dictated.

I’m curious about any thoughts you may have concerning this bit of Hebrew Bible legislation making an appearance in our modern scripture. It has long seemed just an historical oddity, but with advances in DNA science being able to identify those with the Y chromosome Cohen Modal Haplotype, can you see this possibly becoming a living part of our priestly practice? Or is this just an obscure historical example of Mormon Philo-Judaism run amok?




  1. I just figured Kohanim was etymologically related to Kokaubeam, which certainly would raise some very interesting theological questions.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    That makes them stars!

  3. My (half-Jewish) kids are kohanim–not by surname but by lineage. This passage of scripture has always suggested to me that my oldest son is the rightful bishop of any ward we’re in.

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    I don’t know anything about this, but I HAVE long suspected that I deserve to lead the Church, and that I shouldn’t have to move up through traditional channels — bishop, stake president, area authority, general authority, apostle — in order to do so. If anyone knows anything about my name or ancestry that warrants my immediate receipt of the Prophetic mantle, please let me know ASAP.

    Aaron B

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Well, your actual freakin’ name is AARON! So I think that nails it, case closed. When you take office, please shorten General Conference to one day only, that’d be great…

  6. It’s a two-pronged thing, though: literal descendant of Aaron, AND firstborn among the sons of Aaron. The first part sounds like a tighter qualification than being descended from a priestly line (which might mean tribe of Levi rather than exclusively from the line of Aaron); I’m not certain what that last part means (it sounds like more than being the oldest son in a family), but it’s an AND which means there is more of a requirement than a “priestly gene” could meet.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve seen people assume that means firstborn in a family, but like you I’m not so sure about that. I’m not really sure what that requirement is supposed to mean.

  8. Speaking of Mormon philo-Judaism run amok, I’ve recently learned that BYU Religious Ed. have arranged to have a mock-up of the Tabernacle set up on campus, to be staffed by faculty and students in priestly robes while it is open for tours.

    If we wouldn’t be okay with people of another faith wearing LDS temple robes in order to facilitate a kind of religious tourism, we shouldn’t be okay with this.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Cough religious appropriation cough…

  10. I’ve always thought this is one of the coolest and quirky things about Mormonism, since my dad told me about it when I was a kid. Was really hoping that someone can come up with it with an example where it has actually happened.

  11. QBCC conscience bgt ghk says:

    We had the Tabernacle at our stake… Strangely, the local rabbi who came to speak wasn’t offended… Guess bcc don’t gust know our religion better than the prophets,b they also know the Jewish religion better than the rabbis….
    Thank Lucifer for bcc, where would we be without them to set the church alright….

  12. I think we speculated about kohanim and D&C 68 one time in one HP group meeting. I figured that was an appropriate place and my lifetime quota. But now . . .

    I do wonder whether it’s ever come up in practice. Section 68 is hedged enough that the Church could easily handle the situation. Almost like someone heard the “legal right to the bishopric” phrase coming out and said “oh no, I’d better qualify this carefully!” (Not meant to be lighthearted. I really do picture Joseph Smith puzzling things out rather than being dictated to, and however he came to the “legal right” line still puzzling about what that means. Just as we do today.)

    You make no reference to the heading treating this as a “Presiding Bishop” topic. However that came about, it does remind one that 1831 was very early for structure and labels. I don’t believe there was any settled understanding of “bishop” at the time. That a “bishop” was something to think about comes from Paul’s epistles, and other Christian traditions that Joseph Smith might well have known about. But what a Mormon bishop does and is responsible for was years in the future.

  13. Aussie Mormon says:

    Don’t forget vs76.

    “76 But a literal descendant of Aaron has a legal right to the presidency of this priesthood, to the keys of this ministry, to act in the office of bishop independently, without counselors, except in a case where a President of the High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, is tried, to sit as a judge in Israel.”

    I always find the no counsellors bit interesting.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Christian and Aussie, thanks for the added nuances. I didn’t look at the heading and so missed the Presiding Bishop wishful thinking. And I remembered the no counselors thing, but was puzzled that it wasn’t actually part of that text; I didn’t realize it was just later in the section. Yeah, I’ve always wondered why not having counselors was perceived to be a good thing(!)

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    QBCC, it’s one thing to have a building used for meetings called a “tabernacle” (such as the old Provo Tabernacle that burned down). Tabernacle isn’t even a Hebrew word, it comes from Latin tabernaculum (diminutive of taberna; cf. English tavern), and means simply tent, and in particular the tent of an augur. In the 14th century that word began to be used for the Jewish temple, but in the 17th century it also began to be used generically for a house of worship. There is no reason for a rabbi to be offended by the mere use of the name tabernacle.

    Replicating physically the ancient tabernacle, dressing up in holy vestments, and modeling ancient temple rites is another kettle of fish entirely. If we would be upset with others doing that WRT out temple rites, and we certainly would be, how is it that we can’t see the problem with doing this publicly for ancient Jewish temple rites? There’s a failure of empathy and common sense there.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ll tell you a story as to why I’m sensitive to this tabernacle issue. When I was a freshman at BYU, there was an article in the Universe about Passover, and in particular talking about a Seder put on by Victor Ludlow, a professor of religion there who had attended Brandeis. The article talked about the symbolism of the Seder, given with distinctively Mormon twists; I recall something was supposed to represent the Mormon understanding of the Godhead (= Father, Son and Holy Ghost). I remember feeling How cool is that! I wish I could have attended.

    Shortly after that a letter to the editor appeared in the Universe, written by a female student at BYU who was Jewish. She was very upset that a BYU professor was Mormonizing a sacred rite of her faith. And you know it simply had not occurred to me before, but as I read her letter I could see this from her point of view. I didn’t have the vocabulary back then to call this religious appropriation, but that’s what it was.

  17. Kevin, Not just “later in the section”, but in a different section entirely (107 instead of 68). Was not having counselors perceived to be a good thing, or was it merely perceived as unnecessary to such a qualified bishop who by virtue of mere lineage and birth order is somehow able to be a rightful, righteous, and always right judge in Israel? Was there behind this thinking some obsession with a legalistic right to rule? As I have been unable to make sense of the descendancy and birth order qualifications or even the notion of “legal right” to be the boss and the judge without counselors, my personal tentative resolution has been to think the qualifications sufficiently vague and unlikely that the real message is that none has such a legal right or such an ability to serve without counselors. I cannot believe that the inspiration/revelation to lead or judge in righteousness comes as a matter of legal right.

    Incidentally, though it likely did not occur to Joseph, D&C 107:68 does not by its language exclude a female descendant of Aaron from having a right to the presidency of “this priesthood”! :)

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    QBCC, perhaps I misunderstood you, did you mean you had a replica of the ancient tabernacle at your stake, with people dressed up as priests and going through the motions of performing the ancient rites there? And a local rabbi was perfectly fine with that? Please flesh out the details of your experience, because I can’t imagine a rabbi being ok with what my imagination of this demonstration is, but maybe the demonstration is not what I’m imagining.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for your further comment, JR (I saw 107 and was thinking verse, not section, so I appreciate the correction).

  20. Aussie Mormon says:

    Performing the rites, I agree. Unless it’s someone who has a legitimate claim to perform them (assuming they still exist), I don’t think it’s the best idea.

    For example: I’d be ok watching pacific islanders do their traditional dance/rituals as a way of showing different cultures what theirs is. I wouldn’t be ok with 10th generation Australian on all sides Farmer Dan doing them.
    Now if the group for whom the rites/performances “belonged” to no longer existed (such as if we discovered records from some kind of actual Atlantis), then I’d be ok with an attempt to replicate it.

  21. Aussie Mormon says:

    “Kevin, Not just “later in the section”, but in a different section entirely (107 instead of 68). ”

    Yes. Apologies for that. I was skimming too quickly.

  22. Aussie Mormon: I don’t think that they will be performing any rites. But it is my understanding that the students and faculty leading tours will be dressed in priestly robes (I’d love to be corrected on this point by someone with more direct knowledge.)
    But the group behind the replica and tours does Christianize the tabernacle pretty explicitly. I have a hard time believing that a rabbi would sign off on that. http://www.capobeachchurch.com/tabernacle-experience/

    In other words, it’s not even neutral education about Jewish practice.

  23. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    As teenagers (males), we used to speculate that perhaps one of us would receive our Patriarchal Blessing which would reveal that we were descended directly from Aaron and could claim the Bishopric. Now there’s a DNA test for that. Maybe ancestry.com will begin to replace that portion of the Patriarchal Blessing.

  24. There is a lot of great background on the role of the Bishop, the early priesthood revelations, the Aaronic Priesthood, and many connected issues by BBC’s own WVS at https://boaporg.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/presiding-bishopric-i/

  25. That is BCC’s

  26. QBCC conscience bgt ghk says:

    I’m not sure how byu will carry out the replica. But neither does the the bomb lober….

    A group in California created a recreation, which can be setup in a day. Was setup in my stake not in California. Life size replica of Tabernacle, table, incense, menorah, ark…
    No rites per say we’re performed, but there was a mannequin of the high priest, which was created using input from both Jewish scholars and rabbis. Video describing rites in gym, some mormonization of rites.

    Each display is stake specific, our stake used the opportunity to do a whole interfaith event, invited a rabbi and a Muslim cleric to speak… Made displays of Jewish and Muslim works, local synagogue brought “fake” Torah, and several other artifacts. Several Jewish people stayed “unofficially” to talk with people in the Tabernacle, fir three days, tours were lead by youth in church clothes…

    To be clear, bcc is letting an idiot fan the flames by spreading fake news…

    I would send Kevin Barney photos, but as I’ve stated repeatedly, I think he’s an apostate, and won’t associate with them. Just ask Paul McNapb…

  27. If the docents are in regular church clothes, and not in priestly robes as I took my source to be saying, then my major objection to this goes away. I still don’t like Christianizing/Mormonizing the interpretation of the tabernacle, but Christians have been doing that at least since the Epistle to the Hebrews, so I realize that I’m swimming a bit upstream on that one. I’m glad that there was enough charity all around to make an interfaith event out of it.

  28. Several years ago they changed the opening scene to the Hill Cumorah Pageant in a way that sort of parallels this. The scene used to be Lehi preaching to the citizens of Jerusalem. Very simple. The didn’t change the script at all, but added, in the background, a sort of simplified Temple set, with priests in robes, including one wearing the breastplate. During the narrator’s voiceover, they mock-sacrifice a lamb on the altar, and then Lehi shows up.

    I get the point of trying to do something to show that this was Jerusalem instead of just a generic prophet preaching to a city setpiece, but I’ve never been comfortable with this change. I think it could be read as mockery or anti-Semitism at worst, and at best, I think it’s a bit disrespectful. I also don’t think it adds anything essential or scriptural to Lehi’s story.

  29. Yeah, I’m uncomfortable with that, too, JKC.

    Thinking more about BCC conscience’s latest comment, I think that I’m actually happier to know that there were rabbis on hand to provide a Jewish interpretation alongside the Christianizing/Mormonizing reading. That seems like an honest way of trying to honor both histories of interpreting the tabernacle. The line between education and religious appropriation can get a little thin, and I hope that BYU treads it responsibly.

  30. I attended the seder with Dr. Ludlow in 2001. In no way was it represented as a true seder experience. He constantly stopped and started as he explained various elements and taught us, very much like being in a laboratory. It was an educational experience, not religious appropriation or even a facsimile of a seder.

    In fact, in attending, I became much more aware of the Jewish religion and culture and feel much closer to those than I did before attending.

    Assuming the tabernacle exhibit is set up in a similar way, I don’t have an issue with it. That said, if any element of what’s on display is considered inappropriate for public view, that would be incredibly insensitive and hypocritical for us to do.

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks m, that’s good to know. It sounds like the Universe article truncated the nature of the teaching that went on there (not at all hard to imagine!)

  32. QBCC conscience bgt ghk says:
%d bloggers like this: