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What Might Jesus Have Taught His Apostles for Forty Days?

KnoWhy #678 | April 18, 2024

“To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”

Acts 1:3

The Know

At the beginning of Acts, Luke mentions how Jesus Christ “shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs” to His eleven remaining Apostles, “being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Yet, the conclusion to Luke’s Gospel limits Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances to just a single day (see Luke 24:13, 34, 36), and John 21 mentions only a brief encounter. Because of the fleeting reference to the forty-day ministry in Acts 1, readers of the Bible have wondered what that ministry may have entailed.

Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley was one of the first to seriously investigate this extended period of instruction, which was expanded upon in apocryphal texts written by early Christians. Many of these writings, Nibley observes, became a great discomfort for the Christian Church as it moved into the fourth century and beyond. “The large literature of the forty-day mission of the Lord,” Nibley explains, “was early lost from sight by the Christian world because it was never very popular,” and early writers since “Clement and Origen have employed all the rhetoric and logic to avoid [the] crass literalism” of Acts 1:3.1

What could have led to this discomfort surrounding the mentions of Jesus’s forty-day ministry? In all the texts that Hugh Nibley studied, four themes emerged regarding this ministry that would have naturally led to these texts being so unpopular among many of the early Christians.

1. Prophecies of the Apostasy

First, many of these texts assert that the Apostles “are to be rejected by all men and take their violent exit from the world, what time corrupters and false shepherds will appear within the church, where a growing faction of the worldly-minded will soon overcome and annihilate what remains of the faithful saints.”2 This grim picture of an upcoming apostasy is eventually “confirmed by the Apostolic Fathers, who are convinced that they are beholding the fulfilment of these very prophecies” in the early second century AD as they drew on the earlier New Testament writings, which warned the Apostles that “wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).3 Because Jesus had warned His Apostles of an apostasy during His mortal ministry,4 one would expect such an important teaching to be reinforced during this critical time before the Apostles traveled abroad to share the Gospel message. The various journeys of each Apostle would likewise yield experiences that would become the basis for common themes in early Christian writings, offering apocryphal accounts of how the Apostles fulfilled their commission following the Lord’s forty-day instructions by using miracles and secret teachings.5

2. Performance of Sacred Ordinances

Second, those teachings embedded in the forty-day literature are described as being given to a “closed cult group.” This included the performance of various rites and ordinances of the priesthood that included “rites of washing and anointing,” followed by the reception of a “symbolic but real and tangible garment.” Other texts focus on the nature of marriage, one of the most sacred of ordinances that needed to be kept secret.6 S. Kent Brown and C. Wilfred Griggs likewise note that some of these texts (such as the Gospel of Philip) place marriage as “a requirement for those who would achieve the highest of the three heavens.”7

Other ordinances found in these texts include a prayer circle as well as a ritual retelling of the premortal councils in heaven, the fall of Lucifer, the Creation and Fall, and finally the reception of covenants preparatory to the Lord’s return.8 Those who were faithful to these covenants, John Gee has noted, are promised to be able to “return to the glory of God.” Furthermore, “these accounts, usually called secret … are often connected somehow to the temple, or compared to the Mount of Transfiguration,” 9 another temple experience recorded in the New Testament.10 Such ordinances were found in the early years of Christianity but ultimately were lost and corrupted by opposing groups. Nonetheless, Nibley observes that these ordinances “all look to the temple and belong to the instruction of the 40 days.”11

3. Salvation for the Dead

Third, Jesus Christ taught His Apostles about His descent to the realms of the dead. This is often called the kerygma, or “the preaching,” in these texts. These texts portray Jesus not only as leading the righteous Saints to their heavenly home but also as organizing work for those who had not been able to accept the gospel in this life. This preaching included Jesus declaring that even these spirits would require a seal of baptism and other ordinances, which would be performed in proxy for the dead.12 Only after these ordinances are performed and accepted by the individual spirits are these spirits allowed to “follow him [Jesus] out of darkness up into his kingdom.”13

4. Resurrection of the Dead

Fourth, Jesus taught about the resurrection of the dead, including His own Resurrection, which allowed Him to continue to minister to His Apostles in “a series of real appearances continuing the personal tutelage and supervision of the 40 days.” Jesus’s visitations to His righteous Saints would not just be made to His Apostles, however; according to these texts, He would make “other appearances, notably to a few ‘righteous and pure souls and faithful,’ preparatory to the ultimate and glorious” Second Coming.14

The Why

While the apocryphal accounts surrounding Jesus Christ’s forty-day ministry are not accepted or used as scripture, they appear to contain multiple teachings that coincide with restored truths of the gospel—suggesting that they may very well preserve authentic teachings of the resurrected Lord. As such, the instructions the Lord gave regarding the Apocrypha in Doctrine and Covenants 91 could be rightfully expanded to these writings as well:

There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; there are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. … Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; and whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; and whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited.15

Many of the teachings cited above have neat parallels with Restoration scripture, including passages in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. For example, Hugh Nibley has found that these four key themes prominent in the forty-day literature likewise parallel Christ’s post-Resurrection ministry as recorded in 3 Nephi 11–28.

One apocryphal account known as the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, discovered in 1904, mirrors the account of 3 Nephi in close detail. Some of these similarities include the Lord eating a sacred meal with His disciples and sharing versions of the sacramental prayers, giving the injunction to make His disciples unified with Him, and expressing the desire for His disciples to seek for higher gifts and be encouraged in their pursuit of holy gifts.16 These similarities have rightly led Hugh Nibley to conclude that these writings “belong to the earliest stratum of Christian writing.”17

Like the authors of the forty-day literature, Latter-day Saints also value sacred ordinances performed in temples. Marriage, one of the ordinances prominent in these writings, is especially seen as a sacred and eternal ordinance in the restored gospel for our admission to the highest degree of celestial glory (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:1–4; 132).

Other ordinances performed by proxy for ancestors who have passed away before us are found in the Restoration, as are accounts of the premortal councils in heaven, the Creation, the Fall, and the reception of sacred covenants to bring Adam and Eve back to the presence of the Lord—like those found in the forty-day literature.18 These themes are especially prominent in the temple, where we learn more about the Atonement of Jesus Christ through the covenants made there. Finally, the post-mortal ministry of Jesus Christ to the spirit world as well as His appearances to His chosen prophets as a glorious, resurrected being are maintained by modern prophets to be very real events.19

Though the teachings and ordinances described in these texts were lost or corrupted in the early Church, they been restored through a living prophet. While many aspects of these texts may be later interpretations and additions, they can shed a light on these important truths of the gospel as they were taught and understood by the early Christian Church. They can likewise help deepen our appreciation for the Restoration of the gospel and its ordinances, which truly have been restored for our benefit in the latter days.

Further Reading

Hugh Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum: The Forty-Day Mission of Christ—The Forgotten Heritage,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS]; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 10–44, first published in Vigilae Christianae 20 (1966): 1–24.

Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 4: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988–1990 (Provo, UT: FARMS; American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2004), 69–80, 115–126.

Hugh Nibley, “Christ among the Ruins,” in The Prophetic Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1989), 407–434.

John Gee, “Jesus Christ: Forty-Day Ministry and Other Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Christ,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 2:734–736.

S. Kent Brown and C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Postresurrection Ministry,” in Studies in Scripture: Acts to Revelation, vol. 6 of 8, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 12–23.

 

  • 1. Hugh Nibley, “Christ among the Ruins,” in The Prophetic Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancienct Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS]; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1989), 409; Hugh Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum: The Forty-Day Mission of Christ—The Forgotten Heritage,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 10.
  • 2. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” 13. See also S. Kent Brown and C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Postresurrection Ministry,” in Studies in Scripture: Acts to Revelation, vol. 6 of 8, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 21–22; John Gee, “Jesus Christ: Forty-Day Ministry and Other Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Christ,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 2:735.
  • 3. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” 13–14. For a list of all New Testament scriptures that prophesy of an apostasy in the early Church, see Noel B. Reynolds, “New Testament Evidences and Prophecies of Apostasy in the First-Century Church,” in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 355–370.
  • 4. See, for example, Matthew 7:15; 13:24–30; and 24:5, 24. See also Book of Mormon Central, “What Does the Parable of the Wheat and Tares Teach about the Apostasy? (Matthew 13:24–25),” KnoWhy 660 (February 28, 2023); Reynolds, “New Testament Evidences,” 358.
  • 5. See Brown and Griggs, “The Postresurrection Ministry,” 16–19. Some of the texts Brown and Griggs cite include Acts of Andrew, Acts of John, Acts of Peter, Acts of Philip, and Acts of Thomas. All these texts share the common theme of detailing an Apostle’s missionary journey with either an explicit or implicit reference to the secret teachings they had received during Jesus’s forty-day ministry.
  • 6. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” 14, 17. See also Brown and Griggs, “The Postresurrection Ministry,” 20–21.
  • 7. Brown and Griggs, “The Postresurrection Ministry,” 21. For more on temple themes in the Gospel of Philip, see Gay Strathearn, “Reading the Gospel of Philip as a Temple Text,” in By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in Scripture, History, and Practice, ed. Daniel L. Belnap (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2013), 173–205.
  • 8. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” 16–17. See also Brown and Griggs, “The Postresurrection Ministry,” 19–20; Gee, “Jesus Christ: Forty-Day Ministry,” 2:735.
  • 9. Gee, “Jesus Christ: Forty-Day Ministry,” 2:735.
  • 10. For instance, Heber C. Kimball once taught that “Jesus took Peter, James, and John into a high mountain, and there gave them their [temple] endowment, and placed upon them authority to lead the Church of God in all the world, to ordain men to the Priesthood, to set in order the Church and send forth the Elders of Israel to preach to a perishing world.” Heber C. Kimball, “Proclamation of the Gospel to the Dead,” in Journal of Discourses, 26vols. (London, UK: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–1886), 9:327. According to Doctrine and Covenants 63:21, Peter, James, and John also saw the glorious future of the earth, and we “have not yet received” the fullness of their account on the mount. For a thorough analysis of this event, see Rebecca L. Sybrowsky, “The Mount of Transfiguration,” Studia Antiqua 2, no. 2 (2003): 55–86.
  • 11. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” 17.
  • 12. See Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” 15–17; Nibley, “Christ among the Ruins,” 412–413, 428–431; Gee, “Jesus Christ: Forty-Day Ministry,” 2:735.
  • 13. Nibley, “Christ among the Ruins,” 413.
  • 14. Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum,” 17–18.
  • 15. Doctrine and Covenants 91:1–2, 4–6. See also Book of Mormon Central, “Why Study Ancient Apocryphal Literature? (Doctrine and Covenants 91:1, 4–5),” KnoWhy 613 (August 10, 2021).
  • 16. This list is derived from a comparison between 3 Nephi and the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles that is included in Nibley, “Christ among the Ruins,” 416–428. For more comparisons between 3 Nephi and early Christian Gospels (both canonical and noncanonical), see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Is 3 Nephi Sometimes Called the “Fifth Gospel”? (3 Nephi 27:21),” KnoWhy 222 (November 2, 2016); and Gee, “Jesus Christ: Forty-Day Ministry,” 2:736.
  • 17. Nibley, “Christ among the Ruins,” 416. The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles was discovered seventy-four years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, so it is impossible for Joseph Smith to have been aware of any such text.
  • 18. Compare the accounts in the books of Moses and Abraham, both of which offer additional insights to these sacred events in history.
  • 19. See, for example, Doctrine and Covenants 110; 128; 138; Joseph Smith—History 1:15–20.
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