Question: Did Joseph Smith riff off of Hebrews 7 to produce the material discussing Melchizedek in Alma 12 and 13?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith riff off of Hebrews 7 to produce the material discussing Melchizedek in Alma 12 and 13?

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Introduction to Question

Critic David P. Wright argues that “Alma chapters 12-13, traditionally dated to about 82 B.C.E., depend in part on the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, dated by critical scholars to the last third of the first century C.E. The dependence of Alma 12-13 on Hebrews thus constitutes an anachronism and indiciates that the chapters are a composition of Joseph Smith. [1]

“Wright contends that Alma 13:17-19 is a reworking of Hebrews 7:1-4, noting six elements shared by the two texts and appearing in the same order in both.[2][3]

This article gives some resources on approaching a response to this criticism.

Resources that Help Respond to this Criticism in Depth

This argument is one that is long, detailed, and hard to summarize easily. The reader will simply have to be directed to resources that will help them in evaluating this criticism as they read from scholars. At another point in the future, perhaps a clearer summary can be presented up front. But, for now, we direct the reader elsewhere.

John A. Tvedtnes’ Review of Wright’s Book Chapter

John Tvedtnes was one of the first to respond to Wright’s contentions in the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon back in 1994. Tvedtnes argues that the parallels do not come from Joseph Smith reading Hebrews 7 but instead that both Hebrews 7 and Alma 13 share in thought from an earlier source discussing Melchizedek. Readers can find a link to his paper at the citation below.[4]

John W. Welch 1990 Book Chapter on the Melchizedek Material in Alma 13

Three years before Wright published on this topic, John W. Welch had written a paper on the Melchizedek material in Alma 12-13. While not giving a direct treatment of Wright’s argument nor having consciousness of it, Welch provides insightful comparisons between Alma 13, Hebrews 7, Genesis 12, and extrabiblical lore about Melchizedek to elucidate how Alma interprets Genesis and frames concepts of priesthood and thus how it differs from Hebrews 7. Readers are strongly encouraged to read Welch’s paper. Link is in the footnotes below.[5]

Book of Mormon Central KnoWhy on Alma and Melchizedek

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #120: Why Did Alma Talk about Melchizedek? (Video)

Book of Mormon Central has written an accessible distillation and analysis of the Melchizedek material in Alma 13 that readers are encouraged to visit.

Brant A. Gardner Commentary in Second Witness

Eminent Book of Mormon scholar Brant A. Gardner has written a commentary on Alma 12 and 13 with Wright’s argument and Tvedtnes response in consciousness and offers a subtle response to both. In that commentary, “[he takes] the position that the construction of Alma’s text follows a different logic and theme than that of Hebrews. [He develops] this argument in the commentary on the individual verses [of Alma 13].”[6]

Conclusion

When taking in all of the arguments of these scholars, it is the belief of the author that readers will emerge with a nuanced perspective that holds to the conviction that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text and takes into account the theological and linguistic complexities that might emerge from the type of project that Joseph Smith was engaged in: producing a translation of an ancient record for the benefit and understanding of a modern audience.

Notes

  1. David P. Wright, “’In Plain Terms That We Might Understand’: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 165–229 (166).
  2. To his list of six, Wright adds a seventh that is pure guesswork, saying that the words “there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards” (Alma 13:19) derive from the notion of no beginning of days or end of life in Hebrews 7:3. This is much too far-fetched.
  3. John A. Tvedtnes, “Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon,” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 1 (1994): 19.
  4. Tvedtnes, “Review of New Approaches,” 19–23.
  5. John W. Welch, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13-19,” in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book/Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), 2:248.
  6. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:213n2.