Evidence #436 | February 13, 2024

Relationship between Spirit and Body

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Scripture Central

Abstract

In the book of Ether, the pre-mortal Jesus Christ explained the relationship between spiritual and physical bodies. A similar discussion is found in a Jewish text known as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which was written before the time of Christ.

In his visionary encounter with the pre-mortal Jesus Christ, the brother of Jared learned some notable truths about the nature of spirits and physical bodies. Jesus explained,

Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image. Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh. … And now, as I, Moroni, said I could not make a full account of these things which are written, therefore it sufficeth me to say that Jesus showed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites. (Ether 3:15–17)1

An interesting correspondence to these statements can be found in an ancient Jewish text known as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. A portion of this document contains the “Testament of Naphtali,” which states the following,

For just as a potter knows the pot, how much it holds, and brings clay for it accordingly, so also the Lord forms the body in correspondence to the spirit, and instills the spirit corresponding to the power of the body. And from one to the other there is no discrepancy, not so much as a third of a hair, for all the creation of the Most High was according to height, measure, and standard. And just as the potter knows the use of each vessel and to what it is suited, so also the Lord knows the body to what extent it will persist in goodness, and when it will be dominated by evil. For there is no form or conception which the Lord does not know since he created every human being according to his own image.2

These two texts appear to contain at least three parallel ideas:

1. The Lord created all men in his own image.

2. A physical human body is patterned after the form of the spirit that will inhabit it.

3. There is a strong or nearly identical correspondence between the form of the spirit and the form of the body.

Of course, the first parallel on this list isn’t particularly remarkable, considering that it is also famously taught in Genesis 1:26–27. The second and third parallels, however, are more intriguing. The specific idea that God uses a pre-existing spirit body as a template for creating a physical body is notable, both because it supposes that spiritual bodies precede physical bodies (consistent with the Latter-day Saint conception of a pre-mortal existence3) and also because it lacks any direct support in the Bible itself. The added notion that a person’s spiritual and physical body look essentially the same is also fascinating.4

Conclusion

Could these similarities arise due to mere happenstance? That is certainly possible, especially since all three parallel ideas are conceptually related. On the other hand, these shared ideas could point to an authentic doctrinal truth that was revealed at different times and places.5

As for the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, it appears to have been written in the second century BC by a “hellenized Jew.”6 While that may be the most likely context for the production of the text itself, tracing the origin of this particular doctrinal concept is a different matter altogether. It could date from the same time period as the text, or it might just as easily derive from an authentic religious tradition of unknown provenance dating to hundreds or thousands of years earlier.7

The Blessing of Jacob's Children. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

What can be said with confidence is that a fairly distinctive teaching in the Book of Mormon has a close correspondence with an idea expressed in an ancient Jewish document written before the time of Christ.8 This is just one of several examples in which the content of the Book of Mormon is surprisingly congruent with extra-biblical concepts from relevant ancient contexts.9

John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Last Will and Testament: A Legal Approach,” in Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 61–82.

James H. Charlesworth, “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon,” in Reflections on Mormonism; Judeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978).

Footnotes
  • 1 Note that when read in context, the idea that all men were created in the image of Christ seems to be fairly generic (Ether 3:15; Genesis 1:26–27). In other words, the bodies of all men and women have a general correspondence with the spirit body of Christ. In contrast, when speaking of the specific relationship between Christ’s pre-mortal spirit body and the physical body that he would eventually take upon himself, it seems like the resemblance is more specifically similar.
  • 2 H. C. Kee, trans., “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 811.
  • 3 See, for instance, the pattern of spiritual and physical creation presented in Moses 3:5–7.
  • 4 Naturally, there would have to be some sort of qualification here, since human bodies look differently at different stages of life (as infants, toddlers, adolescents, young adults, elderly adults, etc.). Although a specific age can’t be deduced from the scriptures, it can reasonably be assumed that Jesus’ premortal spirit corresponded closely with the form of his adult mortal body.
  • 5 One might consider, for example, the similar visions that were shown at very different times and locations to both Nephi and John the Revelator (1 Nephi 14:24–27).
  • 6 Kee, “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” 777–778.
  • 7 See Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and Ryan Dahle, “Could Joseph Smith Have Drawn on Ancient Manuscripts When He Translated the Story of Enoch?: Recent Updates on a Persistent Question,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 320–323. For other explorations of final testaments or farewell addresses in the Book of Mormon, see John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Last Will and Testament: A Legal Approach,” in Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 61–82; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Testament of Lehi,” Evidence# 0068, September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Ancient Farewell Pattern,” Evidence# 0357, July 12, 2022, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 8 Assuming this doctrine is true, it would be understandable for it to have been revealed anciently among the Jews and also to the brother of Jared, since it was the same divine being (the pre-mortal Jesus Christ) who was guiding both nations. According to Nephi’s prophecy, the Lord has declared, “For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them” (2 Nephi 29:11). The underlying assumption here is that the Lord is going to give the same or similar fundamental teachings to different nations and that their separate records will function something like corroborating testimonies in a religious-legal context. See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Law of Witnesses,” Evidence 0434, January 31, 2024, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 9 See Evidence Central, “Culture” and “Literary Features” (Main Categories), online at evidencecentral.org.
Culture
Traditions
Relationship between Body and Spirit

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