Evidence #450 | June 5, 2024

Pre-Christian Knowledge of Christ

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Scripture Central


Centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, Book of Mormon prophets were teaching that the Messiah would be the atoning Son of God. A similar conceptual or theological framework can be found in a variety of Jewish writings that predate the New Testament.

Pre-Christian Knowledge of Jesus in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon represents Lehi, Nephi, and other pre-Christian prophets as having a foreknowledge of Jesus Christ as the atoning Son of God and the Messiah. Lehi, for example, prophesied that six hundred years after he left Jerusalem, “a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world” (1 Nephi 10:4). This Messiah would be the “Redeemer of the world” (1 Nephi 10:5) and “the Son of God” (1 Nephi 10:17). These prophecies are consistent with New Testament verses which indicate that prophets before Jesus foresaw his life and death.1

Some have questioned the feasibility of ancient, pre-exilic Israelites having an understanding of “the son of God” as being Israel’s Messiah. These commentators contend that this teaching is anachronistic and is either the result of Joseph Smith’s own prophetic “expansion” of the Nephite record or evidence that the text strictly derives from the 19th century.2 Scholarship emerging in recent decades, however, demonstrates that the conceptual framework behind the Book of Mormon’s messianic teachings was present in Israel during the early 6th century BC, when Lehi’s family fled from Jerusalem.   

The Messiah Figure in Early Israelite Religion

According to Daniel Boyarin, a leading scholar of Judaism, the New Testament’s teachings about the Messiah are rooted in the most ancient form of Israelite religion.3 As Boyarin explains it, the “Messiah-Christ existed as a Jewish idea long before the baby Jesus was born” and the “idea of a second God as viceroy to God the Father is one of the oldest theological ideas in Israel.”4 More than just a viceroy, however, the second God was also a “Redeemer figure.”5 Boyarin argues that “in the very moments that we take to be most characteristically Christian as opposed to Jewish,” we find some of the earliest conceptions of Israelite religion. These include:

[First], the notion of a dual godhead with a Father and a Son, [second] the notion of a Redeemer, who himself, will be both God and man, and [third] the notion that this Redeemer would suffer and die as part of the salvific process. 

At least some of these ideas, the Father/Son godhead and the suffering savior, for instance, have deep roots in the Hebrew Bible as well and may be among some of the most ancient ideas about God and the world the Israelites held.6

Other studies of this ancient theology have been carried out by scholars such as Alan F. Segal and Peter Schäfer. They show that a belief in “two gods” or “two powers” in heaven can be traced back centuries before Christ’s birth.7 Furthermore, these two gods had a familial relationship, with one being a divine Father, and the second being the divine Son. As explained by Schäfer:

The two Gods of ancient Judaism are not antagonistic powers fighting against each other but instead rule peacefully with and next to one another. This is of course always on the assumption that one of the two is the ancestral “first” (as a rule, older) God of higher rank, who generously makes space in heaven next to and beneath him for the second (as a rule, younger) God.8

Drawing upon the work of Margaret Barker and other biblical scholars,9 Brant Gardner has noted that ancient Israelite religion (before what are often referred to as the Deuteronomic reforms) included the understanding of a father or head deity, called El or El Elyon (“Most High God”) as well as his various sons, including Jehovah.10 Together, these deities formed what is often referred to as the “divine council.”11 Jehovah was the “preeminent God of Israel” and understood to be Israel’s Redeemer.12 “These ideas,” Gardner argues, “provide the conceptual background that allows us to understand the references to God, the Son, and the Father in the Book of Mormon.”13

The Prophet Isaiah Foretells Christ's Birth, by Harry Anderson.

The Book of Mormon presents Jehovah (the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ) as the Messiah, which Barker argues was the earliest Christian messianic understanding, reaching back into and restoring an important aspect of ancient Israelite religion.14 It would also be a natural expansion of the Old Testament ideas that the anointed king, a messiah, was God’s son (see Psalm 2:7). Kevin Christensen explains, “Of particular interest to Latter-day Saint studies is Barker’s assertion that the traditions that do account for the appropriate [Christian] messianic expectations go back to the First Temple in preexilic Israel. This roots the Book of Mormon in the key time and place.”15

Evidence from Second Temple Judaism

While the Book of Mormon begins in a pre-exilic context, textual evidence from post-exilic writings and pseudepigrapha should not be disregarded. For example, Peter Schäfer has noted that messianic themes are evident in various Jewish pseudepigrapha, including 4 Ezra, 1 Enoch, and different commentaries found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such texts show how beliefs about the Messiah survived and developed well into the early centuries AD.

One document, called the Daniel Apocryphon (ca. 100–0 BC), is of particular interest. In Daniel 7, the Son of Man is said to be enthroned in the heavens and given power and dominion over all the nations. This theme is then expounded upon in the Daniel Apocryphon, which describes the Son of Man as a Messiah who will deliver his people and usher in an age of peace:

He will be called son of God, and they will call him son of the Most High. … His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth. He will jud[ge] the earth in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease from the earth, and all the provinces will pay him homage. The great God is his strength.16

Based on this description, it is clear that the “son of God” is seen as a divine savior figure, as “the judgment at the end of days is never carried out by the people of God, but always only by God himself or his messenger, the Messiah.”17 Other texts from Qumran, such as the fragmentary Self-Glorification Hymn (ca. 100 BC–AD 100), describe the Messiah as a human who becomes divine.18 In a series of rhetorical questions, this messianic figure asks:

[Who has been] despised like [me?] … Who is like me among the gods? … Who can measure [what issues] from my lips? … [I am] friend of the king, companion of the ho[ly ones … and who] can be compared to [my glory,] for I, [with the gods is my position and my glory is with the sons of the king.19

Texts commonly viewed as pseudepigraphic also describe the Son of Man as a divine being standing next to God in authority. According to 1 Enoch (ca. 200 BC), when the Son of Man is enthroned in heaven, “all evil will vanish from his presence. And the word of that Son of Man will go forth and will prevail in the presence of the Lord of Spirits,” ultimately ushering in the Messianic age (1 Enoch 69:29). Similarly, 4 Ezra (whose original Hebrew portions are dated to the first half of the first century AD) explicitly states that the Messiah is God’s son.20

Enoch ascends to heaven by Gerard Hoet.

These ideas continued into Rabbinic Judaism, although they were “harshly rejected by others (undeniably the majority)” as the early rabbis sought to respond to what they viewed as false ideas and sects, including Christianity.21 That being said, these sources demonstrate that belief in a Messiah who was also the Son of God was at home in some strands of Jewish thought far earlier than traditionally assumed.22


According to the Book of Mormon, Nephi and other prophets ultimately derived much of their knowledge about Christ and his ministry from revelation. Because of this, it isn’t strictly necessary to trace the text’s messianic teachings back to early Israelite religious culture. Nevertheless, revelation isn’t given in a vacuum, and a meaningful theological context for the text’s messianic theology can indeed be reconstructed based on the available evidence.

Recent scholarship demonstrates that the Book of Mormon’s depiction of God and his messianic Son (who is also a god or godlike figure) is not out of place in ancient Israel. It appears that Nephite conceptions of the Messiah—as well as those of the New Testament—arose out of a pre-existing belief that the Son of God would be born as a human being and save Israel.

Nephi sees Jesus in vision. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

In contrast to the traditional assumption that Israelites would not have believed in a second, younger god to act in such a role, Peter Schäfer aptly observes, “We know today that pretty much none of this ideal picture stands up to historical review.”23 Furthermore, the work of Gardner and Christensen (drawing, in turn, from Margaret Barker and others) plausibly situates the Nephite understanding of God and the Messiah within an ancient Israelite tradition predating the Babylonian exile. That is, as Christensen concludes, “On exactly those points on which” some assert that the Book of Mormon “is irreconcilable with the Old Testament, Barker finds shifts in Israelite thought during the exile and beyond. At every point, the original picture corresponds to what we have in the Book of Mormon.”24

Book of Mormon Central, “Did Pre-Christian Prophets Know About Christ? (1 Nephi 10:17),” KnoWhy 12 (January 15, 2016).

Brant Gardner, “Excursus: The Nephite Understanding of God,” in Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, six volumes (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 1:214–222.

Kevin Christensen, “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament,” FARMS Review 16 no. 2 (2004): 59–90.

Kevin Christensen, “The Messiah in Barker’s Work and Mormon Scripture,” in Paradigms Regained, FARMS Occasional Papers 2 (2001), 51–76.

1 Nephi 10:4–5 1 Nephi 10:171 Nephi 11:24–332 Nephi 6:9Mosiah 3:5–11Mosiah 15:1–9Alma 7:7–13

1 Nephi 10:4–5

1 Nephi 10:17

1 Nephi 11:24–33

2 Nephi 6:9

Mosiah 3:5–11

Mosiah 15:1–9

Alma 7:7–13

  • 1 See, for example, Luke 24:25–27Acts 2:253:248:32–35.
  • 2 See, for example, Melodie Moench Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993), 81–114; James H. Charlesworth, “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 99–137; Blake Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 66–123, esp. 83.
  • 3 See Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York, NY: The New Press, 2012), 53–56, 72–73.
  • 4 Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 44.
  • 5 Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 46.
  • 6 Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 158.
  • 7 See Peter Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven: Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity, trans. Allison Brown (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020); Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Boston, MA: Brill, 2002).
  • 8 Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven, 135.
  • 9 See Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992); Temple Theology: An Introduction (London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2005). See also Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • 10 See Brant Gardner, “Excursus: The Nephite Understanding of God,” in Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, six vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 1:215.
  • 11 See Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 27 (2017): 155–180; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: The Divine Council,” ID# 0405, May 22, 2023.
  • 12 See Psalms 19:14Isaiah 47:448:1754:5Jeremiah 50:34.
  • 13 Gardner, “Excursus,” 1:215.
  • 14 See Gardner, “Excursus,” 217; Barker, The Great Angel, 190–212.
  • 15 Kevin Christensen, “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament,” FARMS Review 16, no. 2 (2004): 80.
  • 16 Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 495.
  • 17 Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven, 44.
  • 18 This hymn, found in the scroll 4Q471b, is generally dated “to the Herodian period” by scholars. See Israel Knohl, “The Date and Innovation of the Messianic Hymns,” Revue de Qumrân 20, no. 3 (2002): 487.
  • 19 Martínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 953, capitalization and punctuation silently added. For a discussion on this hymn, see Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven, 33–37.
  • 20 See, for example, 4 Ezra 7:28. The text of 4 Ezra dates at least the first century AD and contains some Christian additions at its beginning and end. However, scholars have noted that the passage regarding the Messiah being the Son of God are authentic to the original Jewish text, as discussed in Charlesworth, “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon,” 109.
  • 21 Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven, 66.
  • 22 It is also worth noting that various passages from Targums (Aramaic translations and expansions of the Old Testament variously dated between 200 BC—AD 200) depict the Messiah in similar terms. While they generally avoid identifying the Messiah as God’s son, they portray him as separate from God but with overlapping descriptions and attributes. For example, Targum Jonathan of Genesis 49:11 depicts the Messiah as a warrior in red clothes, imagery used in Isaiah 63:3 to describe the Lord.
  • 23 Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven, 1.
  • 24 Christensen, “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament,” 89.
Biblical History

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