Nephi’s 3 Witnesses—Part 1: 4 Ways Context Enhances Jacob’s Testimony of Christ

Image of Christ, with over 100 Names and Titles Overlaid. Created by Jasmin G. Rappleye

One way to understand 2 Nephi—and the whole Book of Mormon, really—is as a series of witnesses of Jesus Christ. They come one right after another, like a parade of testimonies. First, there is Lehi (especially 2 Nephi 2), but powerful as his testimony is, his is really just the prelude. Nephi invoked himself, Isaiah, and Jacob as the three key witnesses of Christ in his record (2 Nephi 11:1–3). As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland eloquently explained, “The testimonies of Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah have been given as the three great early witnesses who stand at the gateway to the Book of Mormon, declaring their testimony of Christ.”[1]

“Standing like sentinels at the gate of the book,” Elder Holland added, “Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah admit us into the scriptural presence of the Lord.”[2] The first of these sentinels that we must pass by in 2 Nephi is Jacob, who himself draws on Isaiah to reinforce his testimony (2 Nephi 6–10). Jacob’s testimony of Christ is powerful all by itself, but learning a bit about the ancient context and background can help us get just a little more out of his words. So here are 4 examples that illustrate how context enhances Jacob’s testimony of Jesus Christ.

1. The Timing of Jacob’s Speech

In ancient Israel, there were two major “festival seasons”—one in the spring and the other in the fall. The fall festival season began with Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year), followed by the Feast of Tabernacles, and culminated with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). John S. Thompson, an expert on the ancient Near East, studied Jacob’s speech in 2 Nephi 6–10, and found that he covers all the major themes and patterns important during this festival season, and thus concluded that Jacob was probably speaking around that time.

This means that he chose to teach his people about Jesus Christ at a time when they would be either performing or preparing for ritual sacrifices of atonement meant to cleanse their community and renew their covenants with the Lord. Atonement would have been on the people’s minds and would have prepared them to receive his testimony of Christ’s ultimate atoning sacrifice.

2. The Symbolism of Jacob’s Speech

Metaphor and symbolism can be a powerful way to teach, but the imagery used in such cases is often bound up in a cultural context that makes the most sense to the people being taught. For example, today Church leaders often use analogies from sports such as football and basketball to teach gospel principles, but such examples would be unintelligible to an audience unfamiliar with those sports.
In the ancient Near East, one common motif was to compare deities to Divine Warriors, who could conquer the “monster” of chaos and restore cosmic order. This was a common way to understand the creation of the world, among other things. Daniel Belnap, another scholar of the ancient Near East, noticed that this same imagery shows up in Jacob’s speech (e.g., 2 Nephi 6:17; 9:10).

Jacob used this imagery to teach the people about how Jesus Christ would conquer the chaos and decay of the “monsters” sin and death and restore to us a life that is ordered and eternal. What is interesting, however, is how in some ways the Atonement reverses the symbolism of the Divine Warrior—Christ would defeat death and hell (sheol in Hebrew—the place of all the dead, not just the wicked) by first submitting to them—that is, by dying and descending to the world of spirits. But unlike all others before him, he would not remain there. He would be resurrected, thus overcoming death and hell and providing the way for all others to likewise overcome both physical and spiritual death.

3. The Warnings of Jacob’s Speech

While Jacob gives sublime praise to God and his plan throughout his speech, there is a section full of strong warnings against sin, where Jacob issues ten “woes” against liars, murderers, idol worshippers, and others who transgress the laws of God (2 Nephi 9:27–38). This sudden shift to listing transgressions—and their rather harsh sounding punishments—can be jarring to modern readers. But as noted, the occasion was likely during the Israelite Autumn festivals, when the people would have been making or renewing covenants with the Lord.

Ancient covenants were patterned after promises vassals would make to their overlords in ancient Near Eastern treaties. These would include a list of stipulations and obligations the vassal was committed to keep, along with the curses and punishments pronounced upon them if they failed to live up to their obligations. Jacob’s “woes”—like the ten commandments in Israel’s original covenant with God—seem to fulfill that role here.

Thus, using a pattern familiar to his people Jacob made sure to teach that it is through the making and keeping of covenants that Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice cleanses us of our sins—and that while God’s plan is merciful and allows us to repent, there are covenantal obligations and commitments that we must strive to keep.

4. The Names of Christ Used by Jacob

Jacob and Joseph were the first ordained priests of the Nephite people (2 Nephi 5:26). As the older of the two, Jacob was likely the “high priest” of the Nephite temple, and would be the one performing the rituals associated with the Israelite festivals the people were celebrating at the time. This role and function may have influenced the names/titles Jacob preferred to use when talking about Jesus.
For example, throughout 2 Nephi 9, Jacob uses the title “Holy One of Israel.” In fact, according to John W. Welch, one of the leading Book of Mormon scholars today, Jacob uses this title more often than any other Book of Mormon prophet. This strongly reflects the concerns of an Israelite priest, whose primary function was to preserve the holiness of the people and the temple.

Likewise, Jacob’s role during the Day of Atonement rituals can help us understand why an angel revealed to him the name “Christ” (2 Nephi 10:3). As many have pointed out, Christ is simply derived from the Greek word for Messiah, both meaning “Anointed One.” The difference in Christ vs. Messiah in the Book of Mormon it probably most often a reflection of the translation rather than any real underlying difference in the original text.

But then why would an angel need to reveal the name/title “Anointed One” to Jacob, since his father Lehi and brother Nephi had both already used the title Messiah to refer to Jesus? According to ancient Jewish sources, on the Day of Atonement the high priest would reveal the name of the Lord to the people and engrave it on his headplate. Typically, this would be the sacred name of Jehovah. But Jacob, knowing many different names and titles for the Lord, may have been seeking guidance on which name to use for this ritual. Instead of using Jehovah (a name believed to be too sacred to speak in ancient Judaism), an angel told him to use “Anointed One”—probably Messiah in Jacob’s language, but translated into English as Christ—the title by which Jesus is best known today.

Concluding Remarks

As always, ever more examples could be provided. Elder Holland referred to Jacob’s speech in 2 Nephi 6–10 as “one of the most definitive sermons on the Atonement recorded in any scripture” that is “wonderfully explicit” and “one of the clearest of Book of Mormon contributions” on Christ’s Atonement.[3] Even as definitive, explicit, and clear as it is, however, understanding some of the background and context behind Jacob’s teachings yields new insights and enhances further our understanding of this masterful testimony of Jesus Christ.

[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1997), 95.
[2] Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 36.
[3] Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 67, 69, 70.