This Holy Week I’ve been monitoring my employer’s livestreamed Roman Catholic masses and services, meaning that I (for the first time) attended a Holy Thursday mass and a Good Friday service. So it happened that, during the reading of the Gospel of John in the Good Friday service, I noticed something peculiar.
In response to Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead,
the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:47-50, NRSV)
In the KJV, for reference, that last line is rendered thus:
“It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”
I was roughly familiar with Caiaphas’s role in the Passion narrative, but I had never clued into this particular pseudo-utilitarian line of reasoning — reasoning that was, in John’s telling, effective enough to convince the Council to pursue Jesus’s execution.
This time, my mind immediately jumped to the other notable instance in scripture where this logic appears. Nephi, having returned to Jerusalem for an improvised third attempt at acquiring the brass plates from Laban, finds Laban passed out, drunk, in the street. The rationale that convinces him to draw Laban’s sword and kill him is eerily familiar:
And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me [Nephi] again: “Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Nephi 4:12-13)
Granted, there are differences: Caiaphas fears that the Roman Empire will bear down, destroying the temple and perhaps dispersing Israel more disastrously than did the Babylonians; the voice Nephi hears emphasizes the deleterious consequences of a lack of religious knowledge on a people’s faith. Nevertheless, the calculus is expressed in some of the same terms and has the same effect: convincing the hearer that to kill just one person is the moral choice.
Now, there’s a lot of context here that I can’t disentangle in a blog post, even if I had the requisite background knowledge to sufficiently explain and analyze it: for example, the attitudes of the Gospel of John and of Nephi toward Hebrew religion and leadership (not to mention the hundreds of years between the two), or the Book of Mormon’s sustained engagement with and seeming commentary on the New Testament (also seen in some Book of Mormon conversion experiences and in Moroni’s writings about gifts of the Spirit and the New Jerusalem).
But I do think that this parallel should give us pause when we analyze Nephi and his choice to kill Laban — and can give us insight into events in Christ’s life. I wish I had the time and energy to spin this out more fully, but for the moment here are several questions that I think we should consider. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
- When Nephite speaks of “the Spirit,” what if that is something distinct from “the Spirit of God/the Spirit of the Lord/the Holy Spirit”? How could we read 1 and 2 Nephi differently if we render the word “spirit” in lowercase? Might “the spirit” refer, instead of to the Holy Ghost, to things that we would call “internal monologue” or the “mind’s eye” nowadays, or something for which we don’t quite have a word (remembering that both the Hebrew and the Greek words translated as “spirit” literally means “breath”), and might sometimes but not necessarily be from God?
- It appears that the paradigmatic founding acts of Nephite civilization are the exodus from Jerusalem and the slaying of Laban. After all, Nephi performs another exodus in the land of promise (after his brothers seek to kill him) and literally duplicates the sword of Laban so that his people can defend against their erstwhile brethren — and that Nephi wields the sword of Laban itself, which is then passed down to King Benjamin and his son, Mosiah, king and founder of the reign of judges. Seen in the light of Caiaphas’s argument, what might this persistent fixation on Laban and his sword suggest about Nephite culture, morality, attitudes toward violence, and potential shortcomings?
- In what ways does drawing a parallel between Caiaphas and Nephi help us understand Nephi and Caiaphas as people?
- How can the surprising parallel between Laban and Jesus help us understand how Jesus was seen in his time?
- Several chapters later (1 Nephi 11-14), Nephi receives a vision in which he “looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; … And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.” (1 Nephi 11:32-33) If Nephi witnessed Caiaphas’s reasoning for judging Jesus, with his experience with Laban fresh in his mind, what might he have thought and felt?
- John presents Caiaphas’s reasoning as an ironic prophecy: it is true that the people would be saved by Jesus’s death, but not from the wrath of the Roman Empire: from sin and death themselves. Are there ways in which the same reasoning might be ironic (or almost prophetic) in Nephi’s case?
- In the midst of his vision of the future, mentioned above, Nephi reports Jesus’s life in Judea and Galilee and his visit to Nephi’s descendants. However, his record of this vision omits something incredibly significant: Jesus’s resurrection. As we ourselves sit between Jesus’s execution and resurrection, what can we make of this omission?