The King Follett Discourse in the Light of Ancient and Medieval Jewish and Christian Beliefs
by John A. Tvedtnes
Perhaps none of the prophet Joseph Smith’s sermons has been the subject of as much study and debate as the King Follett discourse, delivered 6 April 1844 in Nauvoo, less than three months before the prophet’s murder in Carthage. In this discourse, the prophet introduced a number of new ideas, all related to the creation of the earth and man’s origin and destiny.1 In this paper, I intend to build on Kevin L. Barney’s discussions of those concepts, especially dwelling on ancient and medieval Jewish and Christian beliefs.2
The Assembly of the Gods
Joseph Smith maintained that there was a council or assembly of the Gods held prior to the creation of the earth. “The head God called together the Gods and sat in grand council to bring forth the world. The grand counsellors sat at the head in yonder heavens, and contemplated the creation of the worlds which were created at that time… In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it.” (Journal of Discourses 6:5). The idea is also reflected in the creation account recorded in chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Abraham,3 and in D&C 121:32, the latter speaking of “that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was.”
The concept of a divine council can be demonstrated from the Hebrew Bible. For example, the King James version (KJV) of Psalm 82:1 reads, “God [Hebrew µyhla, 'el?h?m] standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.” The Hebrew term rendered “congregation of the mighty” is la td[ (cedat 'el), which really means "the council of God." Another Hebrew term that means "council" is dws (s?d),4 which is often translated "secret" in KJV. Passages in which it should be read as "council" are Job 15:8;5 29:4; Psalm 25:14; and Proverbs 3:32. Indeed, in some passages, KJV translates it "assembly" (Psalm 111:1; Jeremiah 6:11; 15:17; Ezekiel 13:9), while in a few others KJV renders it "counsel" (Psalm 55:14; 83:3; 89:5-7; Proverbs 15:22; Jeremiah 23:18, 22), while in Psalm 64:2, KJV renders it "secret counsel."6
The primordial assembly is also noted in Abraham 3:22-28 and Moses 4:1-4, where we learn that the premortal Christ volunteered to redeem mankind from sin, in order that they might return to the presence of God. His to become mankind's Savior is reflected in an early Christian document, the Discourse on Abbaton, folios 11b-12a, which has the resurrected Christ describing the creation of Adam to his disciples:
And He (the Father) heaved sighs over him, saying, 'If I put breath into this [man], he must suffer many pains.’ And I said unto My Father, ‘Put breath into him; I will be an advocate for him.’ And My Father said unto Me, ‘If I put breath into him, My beloved Son, Thou wilt be obliged to go down into the world, and to suffer many pains for him before Thou shalt have redeemed him, and made him to come back to his primal state.’ And I said unto My Father, ‘Put breath into him; I will be his advocate, and I will go down into the world, and will fulfil Thy command.’”7
The account may be quite old, for it is also known from a Jewish text, Pesikta Rabbati 36:1, where we read that God “under his throne of glory put away His Messiah until the time of the generation in which he will appear.” The devil asked about the light beneath the God’s throne and “God replied: Come and see him. And when he saw him, Satan was shaken, and he fell upon his face and said: Surely, this is the Messiah who will cause me and all the counterparts in heaven of the princes of the earth’s nations to be swallowed up in Gehenna.” God spoke further of “My true Messiah, who will pull himself up straight and will pull up straight his generation, and who will give light to the eyes of Israel and deliver his people.” The text then says that God will speak to the Messiah about his mission:8
There are souls that have been put away with thee under My throne, and it is their sins which will bend thee down under a yoke of iron and make thee like a calf whose eyes grow dim with suffering, and will choke thy spirit as with a yoke; because of the sins of these souls thy tongue will cleave to the roof of my mouth. Art thou willing to endure such things?
The Messiah will ask the Holy One, blessed be He: Will my suffering last many years?
The Holy One, blessed be He, will reply: Upon thy life and the life of My head, it is a period of seven years which I have decreed for thee. But if thy soul is sad at the prospect of thy suffering, I shall at this moment banish these sinful souls.
The Messiah will say: Master of the universe, with joy in my soul and gladness in my heart I take this suffering upon myself, provided that not one person in Israel perish; that not only those who are alive be saved in my days, but that also those who are dead, who died from the days of Adam up to the time of redemption; and that not only these be saved in my days, but also those who died as abortions; and that not only these be saved in my days, but all those whom Thou thoughtest to create [evidently as mortals] but were not created. Such are the things I desire, and for these I am ready to take upon myself [whatever Thou decreest].9
Joseph Smith’s concept of the divine council relies in part on his reading of Genesis 1:1 and on the meaning of the Hebrew term tyvarb (ber?’ö?t). In the King Follett discourse, he declared:
I shall comment on the very first Hebrew word in the Bible. I will make a comment on the very first sentence of the history of creation in the Bible–Berosheit. I want to analyze the word. Baith–in, by, through, and everything else. Rosh–the head. Sheit–grammatical termination. When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the Baith there. An old Jew, without any authority, added the word. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head! It read first, “The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods.” That is the true meaning of the words… Thus, the head God brought forth the Gods in the grand council” (Journal of Discourses 6:4-5).10
The idea that the Hebrew letter b (b) was a later addition was attested by some medieval Jewish commentators. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (born 1189), in his commentary on this verse, wrote, “Our scholars said that the bet in [bereshit] is superfluous.”11 Translator Michael Linetsky notes, “Apparently he refers to Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, followed by Ibn Janah (see Riqmah, p. 86, n. 3) and probably Ibn Balcam (commentary to Hos. 1:1), who rendered our verse as: The beginning of what (or the first thing) God created was the sky and the earth as though the bet had been discarded.”12
A medieval Hebrew text, the Zohar (Genesis 15a) calls the heavenly palace Elohim, the Hebrew noun meaning “gods,” but often used as if it were singular. The passage reads Genesis 1:1 as “By means of a beginning (it) created Elohim” (Zohar Genesis 15a).13 Another passage renders the text “Bereshit created Elohim,” alternately reading “by means of reshith God created” (Zohar Genesis 31b).14 Zohar Genesis 24b declares that “God created the world by means of the Torah, that is to say, in so far as it is called Reshith. By this Reshith He created the heavens and the earth.”15
Other early Jewish and Christian traditions hold that God created the world by means of “wisdom” and “the beginning,” both terms being identified with the Messiah.16 For example, Pesikta Rabbati 33.6 identifies the Messiah with the “beginning” and the “spirit” of Genesis 1:1-2, while Pesikta Rabbati 36.1 holds that the light created by God in Genesis 1:4 was the Messiah.17 Philo of Alexandria, an early first-century A.D. Jewish philosopher, noted that Moses “called that divine and heavenly wisdom by many names…for he called it the beginning” (Legum Allegoriae 1:43).18
The apostle John called Jesus both “the Word” (John 1:1; 1 John 1:1-2; 2:13-14) and “the beginning of the creation of God” (Revelation 3:14), suggesting that Jesus was not only the “word” that was “in the beginning…with God,” but also “the beginning” of Genesis 1:119 by which God created the earth. The Christian theologian Origen (185-253 A.D.) identified Christ as the “beginning” of Genesis 1:1 and the “wisdom” of Proverbs 8, through whom all was created (De Principiis 1.2.2-3, 5, 8-10;20 Commentary on John 1.22, 39; 2.30).21 Other Church Fathers who identified Christ with the “Beginning” and with the “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8 include Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 61-62, 129),22 Cyprian (Treatises 12 2.1-2),23 Athenagoras (Plea for the Christians 10),24 and Jerome (Hebrew Questions on Genesis 1:1).25 Athanasius also noted that the Son was the beginning through which God created the world (Against the Arians 2.19.47, 50; 2.22.78),26 an idea echoed by Theodotus.27 Commenting on Genesis 1:1 Theodotus wrote “that the Son is the beginning or head” (Selections from the Prophetic Scriptures IV).28 His view is not identical to that of Joseph Smith (which holds the Father to be the Head), but it is very similar, understanding the word tyvarb (ber?’ö?t, “beginning”) to contain the word var (r?’ö, “head”), which, indeed, is the root from which it derives.
Also similar to Joseph Smith’s view is that of the second-century bishop of Lyon, Irenaeus, who wrote,
Now that there was a Son of God, and that He existed not only before He appeared in the world, but also before the world was made, Moses, who was the first that prophesied [Genesis 1:1] says in Hebrew Baresith bara Elowin basan benauin samenthares. And this, translated into our language, is: “The Son in the beginning: God established then the heaven and the earth.”29
Though Irenaeus’s version is not identical to that of Joseph Smith, it is interesting that both of them read the first verse of Genesis differently from the standard interpretation and that both of them suggested that there was another God (Irenaeus) or gods (Joseph Smith) involved. J. Armitage Robinson, from whose translation I quote, included a footnote drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that St. Hillary, commenting on Psalm 2:2, wrote that the Hebrew term bereshit has three meanings: in principio (“in the beginning”), in capite (“in/by the head”) and in filio (“in/by the Son”).
In a sermon delivered on 5 January 1841 in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith, commenting on Genesis 1:2, declared that “In the translation, ‘without form and void’ it should read ‘empty and desolate.’ The word ‘created’ should be formed or organized.”30 A number of modern Bible translations support the idea. For example, Ephraim A. Speiser preferred to read Genesis 1:1-2, “When God set about to create heaven and earth, the world being then a formless waste.”31 The New English Bible reads “In the beginning of creation.”
Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitshaq, better known as Rashi (A.D. 1040-1105), one of the most respected Jewish Bible commentators, argued that the use of the construct form of the first word of the Bible, tyvr (r?’ö?t), suggests that “The text does not intend to point out the order of the acts of Creation–to state that these (heaven and earth) were created first; for if it intended to point this out, it should have written ⁄gw ?ymvh ta arb ‘hnwvarb, ‘At first God created etc.’” Referring to verse 2, he wrote, “as a matter of fact the waters were created before heaven and earth…and Scripture had not yet disclosed when the creation of the waters took place–consequently you must learn from this that the creation of the waters preceded that of the earth… Therefore you must needs admit that the text teaches nothing about the earlier or later sequence of the acts of Creation.” His preferred translation was “At the beginning of the Creation of heaven and earth when the earth was without form and void and there was darkness, God said, ‘Let there be light.’”32
A number of other early Jewish grammarians and Bible commentators came to the same conclusions.33 Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (born 1189) understood Genesis 1:1 to mean, “Before the creation of the atmosphere and the dry land, the Earth had no inhabitants because it was covered by water.”34
The first sentence of the Bible actually consists of verses 1 and 3, while verse 2 is a parenthetical insert.35 Therefore, leaving aside verse 2 for the moment, we read: “In the beginning of Elohim’s organizing of the heavens and the earth, Elohim said, ‘Let light be,’ and light was [or became].” The first noun, tyvr (r?’ö?t) is, properly speaking, in the “construct state,” with the meaning “beginning of” rather than just “beginning.”36 Its genitive is here not a noun (which would be the most common), but a sentence, “Elohim organized the heavens and the earth.”37
The Meaning of Creation
In his King Follett discourse, Joseph Smith said,
You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, “Don’t the Bible say he created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. How, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize–the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos–chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed: they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end. (Journal of Discourses 6:6)
Other Latter-day Saint scholars have thoroughly discussed Joseph Smith’s teachings about the eternity of matter, so I shall not go into that subject here.38 It is the Hebrew term rendered “created” in the KJV and “organized” by Joseph Smith in the King Follett discourse and Abraham 4:1-3. He declared that “Baurau signified to bring forth. If you do not believe it, you do not believe the learned man of God” (Journal of Discourses 6:5).
Joseph Smith’s critics claim that the Hebrew verb arb (b?r?’)39 is used only of acts of God because only God can really create something out of nothing. This verb is used in reference to God’s creative activity in nine Old Testament passages, including five instances in the Genesis account of creation.40 In nine other passages, it refers to other miracles performed by God.41 Contrary to what the critics have said, it is sometimes used in reference to the acts of human beings. See, for example, Joshua 17:15; 17:18 (where the KJV renders it “cut down,” in reference to wood, perhaps for building purposes), 1 Samuel 2:29 (KJV “make yourselves fat”), Ezekiel 21:19 (twice rendered “choose” in KJV), and Ezekiel 23:47 (KJV “dispatch”). The reading of the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 2:29 has been challenged and other readings proposed, but it is interesting that the verb here appears just before tyvarm (m?-r?’sh?t, “from the beginning of”), rendered “with the chiefest” in KJV. This is the same word that appears as tyvarb (ber?’ö?t), “in the beginning of”) in Genesis 1:1 with the root arb (b?r?’).
In a number of passages, the Hebrew verbal root arb, though used in reference to God’s work, clearly cannot mean to create out of nothing.42 Psalm 102:18 says that “the people which shall be created shall praise the Lord,” but no one understands this to mean that God would “create” these future inhabitants of the earth out of nothing.43 In Isaiah 43:1, 7, 15, we read of God as “the creator of Israel,” yet Israel was not “created” out of nothing, but out of a people God chose from among the nations (cf. Ezekiel 21:30). And though several passages indicate that God created mankind,44 we read elsewhere that the first man was shaped from the ground (Genesis 2:7) and his wife from his own body (Genesis 2:21-23), not from nonexistent matter. The Lord says that he “create[d]” Jerusalem (Isaiah 65:18), yet we know that the city was built of rock and mortar. When God will, in future, “create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17), will he use existing matter, or will he need to create more elements?
Joseph Smith’s declaration that the Hebrew word arb (b?r?’) “means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship” finds agreement among some modern scholars.45 The BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs) A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament gives its meaning as “shape, fashion, create,” and notes that the Arabic cognate means “form, fashion by cutting, shape out, pare a reed for writing, a stick for an arrow,” while the Sabaean cognate means “found, build.”46 In Epigraphic South Arabic inscriptions, it is used in reference to building a house, while one text uses the noun form to denote building materials.47 A Bible dictionary reads,
It is important that in Gn 1:1-2:4b the tendency is to separate God from the creature. Instead of direct action, the word of command is enough to call forth the creatures. In the creation of man, however, there is a significant change. In Gn 1:28 we have the technical term for constructing out of a material (bara) so that by origin man is brought into a direct relationship with God. To give theological precision to this relationship is the main point of the divine resolve in Gn. 1:26: “Let us make man in our image after our likeness.”48
God an exalted man
Perhaps the most astounding pronouncement in the King Follett discourse is about the character of God. The prophet Joseph declared,
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. That is the great secret. If the vail was rent to-day, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,–I say, if you were to see him to-day, you would see him like a man in form–like yourselves, in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image, and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked, and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another…it is necessary that we should understand the character and being of God, and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity, I will refute that idea, and will take away and do away the vail, so that you may see… It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the character of God and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did… When we begin to learn in this way, we begin to learn the only true God and what kind of a being we have got to worship. Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach him and how to ask so as to receive an answer. When we understand the character of God and know how to come to him, he begins to unfold the heavens to us and to tell us all about it. When we are ready to come to him, he is ready to come to us. (Journal of Discourses 6:3-5)
Ancient texts have much to say about the appearance of God, but very little to suggest that he was once mortal. The first account to suggest that there is a tie between men and God is the biblical story of the fall, in which the serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the tree by telling her that “God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). That this part of the serpent’s speech was the truth is clear from Genesis 3:22, where the Lord himself says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” Two medieval Armenian texts suggest that the serpent said a bit more than what is recorded in the Genesis story. The first of these texts is an account of the fall:
When Adam departed and was walking around in the garden, the serpent spoke to Eve and said, “Why do you taste of all the trees, but from this one tree which is beautiful in appearance you do not taste?” Eve said, “Because God said, ‘When you eat of that tree, you shall die.’” But the serpent said, “God has deceived you, for formerly God was man like you. When he ate of that fruit, he attained this great glory. That is why he told you not to eat, lest eating
Another translator of this text rendered the serpent’s words, “God was a man like you. When he ate of the fruit of this tree he became God of all.”50 A second Armenian text records:
The serpent said to Eve, “Why do you eat of the fruit from every tree, but you do not eat of this beautiful fruit?” Eve said, “Because the Lord God commanded not to eat of that fruit. He said, ‘When you eat it, you will die.’” The serpent said, “God wants to deceive you, for God was like you, because he had not eaten of that fruit. When he ate it, he attained the glory of divinity. That is why he told you not to eat of that fruit, because you would become equal, sharing the glory and throne of God.”51
A medieval Jewish text, Zohar Genesis 36a, has the fallen angel Samael using the serpent to tempt Eve.52 Rabbi Jose said that the serpent told Eve,
“‘With this tree God created the world; eat therefore of it, and ye shall be like God, knowing good and evil, for through this knowledge he is called God.’” Said R. Judah: “This is not the way he spoke, for had he said that God created the world through this tree, he would have spoken correctly… What he said, however, was that God ate of the tree and so built the world. ‘Therefore,’ he went on, ‘eat you of it and you shall create worlds.53 It is because God knows that He has commanded you not to eat of it, for every artisan hates his fellow of the same craft.’”54
The Jewish tradition was known to Jerahmeel, who has the serpent telling Eve, “It is only out of jealousy that God has said this, for He well knows that if you eat thereof your eyes will be opened, and you will know how to create the world just as He” (Chronicles 22:3).55 It is also attested in the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitshaq (Rashi, A.D. 1040-1105), who wrote, “Every artisan detests his fellow-artisans (‘Two of a trade never agree’). The serpent suggested to her: God ate of the tree and created the world so if you eat…YE WILL BE AS GOD.”56 One of the earliest attestations of the tradition is found in Midrash Rabbah Genesis 19:4, which has the serpent telling Eve, “Of this tree did He eat and then create the world; hence He orders you, ye shall not eat thereof, so that you may not create other worlds, for every person hates his fellow craftsmen… Now you were created after everything in order to rule over everything; make haste and eat before He creates other worlds which will rule over you”57
The second-century Christian bishop Irenaeus cited Psalm 82:6-7 as evidence that human beings are destined to become like God (Against the Heresies 4.28.4-29.3). Pointing out that humans are prone to ask why God did not immediately endow them with divinity in the beginning, he asked, “How, then, shall he be a God, who has not as yet been made a man?” (Against the Heresies 4.29.2).58 Irenaeus did not say that God had been a man, but he did go on to say that, for a human being, “it must be that thou, at the outset, shouldest hold the rank of a man, and then afterwards partake of the glory of God.”59 Consequently, his unanswered question becomes important to Latter-day Saints.
Men can become gods
The funeral of King Follett gave the prophet Joseph the opportunity to expound on the deification or divinization of man. He declared:
Here, then, is eternal life–to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you,–namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one,–from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power… How consoling to the mourners, when they are called to part with a husband, wife, father, mother, child, or dear relative, to know that, although the earthly tabernacle is laid down and dissolved, they shall rise again, to dwell in everlasting burnings in immortal glory, not to sorrow, suffer, or die any more; but they shall be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ. What is it? To inherit the same power, the same glory, and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of a God and ascend the throne of eternal power, the same as those who have gone before. (Journal of Discourses 6:4)
The prophet had introduced the concept of deification of man in February 1832 (D&C 76:58; cf. D&C 121:28, 32) and elaborated on the topic in D&C 132 (verses 17-20, 37) just nine months before the funeral of King Follett. Though relatively unknown to most of western Christianity it is widely believed in some of the eastern churches. It was a prominent doctrine in Christianity of the second through the fifth centuries. Among the early Church Fathers who taught that men were destined to become gods were Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzen, Heraclitus, Cyprian of Carthage, Novation, Maximus the Confessor, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, the Persian Aphrahat of Syria and a number of Christian pseudepigrapha. Indeed, the rather large corpus of early Christian literature on the subject is too voluminous to discuss here, but I would refer you to the growing volume of Latter-day Saint studies of the topic.60
Premortal Man and the Heavenly Council
In the King Follett discourse, Joseph Smith taught that God did not create the spirits of men, but that these spirits are as eternal as that of God.
“The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is coequal with God himself… The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end… There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal with our Father in heaven… Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement. The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.” (Journal of Discourses 6:6-7)
The same idea is found in the book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith translated in 1835 and published in 1842.
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.61 And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him. (Abraham 3:22-28)
Chapters 22-23 of the pseudepigraphic Apocalypse of Abraham, first published several decades after Joseph Smith’s death, describe Abraham’s vision of the premortal spirits of mankind assembled. When Abraham asked the meaning of the vision, God told him that some of those spirits would be born on earth as his descendants and adds, “This is my will with regard to what is in the light” (Apocalypse of Abraham 22:2).62 The translator, R. Rubinkiewicz, adds in a footnote that the word rendered “light” may actually mean “council, counsel.”63
Chapter 4 of the Book of Moses, revealed to Joseph Smith in 1830, has God telling Moses that Satan “was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying–Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me–Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:1-2; cf. D&C 76:25-28). In the funeral oration for King Follett, the prophet Joseph explained, “The contention in heaven was–Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the Devil said he could save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favour of Jesus Christ. So the Devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him” (Journal of Discourses 6:8). Elsewhere, he wrote about “the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was” (D&C 121:32) and declared that “The Father called all spirits before Him at the creation of man, and organized them” (History of the Church 3:387; cf. Moses 3:5).
This idea is also found in the early Jewish Midrash Rabbah Genesis 8:7, in which God says of the creation of Adam, “We took counsel with the souls of the righteous” and adds that “the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, sat the souls of the righteous with whom He took counsel before creating the world.”64 The same idea is repeated in Midrash Rabbah Ruth 2:3: “the souls of the righteous with whom the Holy One, blessed be He, decided to create the world… With the Almighty King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, dwelt the souls of the righteous with whom He decided to create the world.”65
One of the Gnostic Christian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 has Christ saying, “Then before the foundation of the world, when the whole multitude of the Assembly came together upon the places of the Ogdoad” (Second Treatise of the Great Seth VII,2 65.33-37).66 An earlier passage also seems to be describing the premortal council, of which Christ is quoted:
Let us gather an assembly together. Let us visit that creation of his. Let us send someone forth in it, just as he visited [the] Ennoias, the regions below. And I said these things to the whole multitude of the multitudinous assembly of the rejoicing Majesty. The whole house of the Father of Truth rejoiced that I am the one who is from them. I produced thought about the Ennoias which came out of the undefiled Spirit, about the descent upon the water, that is, the regions below. And they all had a single mind, since it is out of one. They charged me since I was willing. I came forth to reveal the glory to my kindred and my fellow spirits. (Second Treatise of the Great Seth VII,2 50.1-24)67
From scriptures restored to the prophet Joseph Smith, we learn that there were two opposing plans presented in the primordial council. While Christ accepted the Father’s plan and agreed to be the Redeemer of mankind, Satan wanted the glory for himself and his plan would have abolished our agency. From these accounts, it seems that Satan was one of the leaders in the council. This is suggested in the following statement by Lactantius (A.D. 260-330), writing about God’s activities before creating the earth:
I will therefore set forth the method of all these things, that difficult and obscure subjects may be more easily understood; and I will bring to light all these deceptions of the pretended deity, led by which men have departed very far from the way of truth. But I will retrace the matter far back from its source; that if any, unacquainted with the truth and ignorant, shall apply himself to the reading of this book, he may be instructed, and may understand what can in truth be “the source and origin of these evils;” and having received light, may perceive his own errors and those of the whole human race.
Since God was possessed of the greatest foresight for planning, and of the greatest skill for carrying out in action, before He commenced this business of the world,–inasmuch as there was in Him, and always is, the fountain of full and most complete goodness,–in order that goodness might spring as a stream from Him, and might flow forth afar, He produced a Spirit like to Himself, who might be endowed with the perfections of God the Father… Then He made another being, in whom the disposition of the divine origin did not remain. Therefore he was infected with his own envy as with poison, and passed from good to evil; and at his own will, which had been given to him by God unfettered, he acquired for himself a contrary name. From which it appears that the source of all evils is envy. For he envied his predecessor, who through his steadfastness is acceptable and dear to God the Father. This being, who from good became evil by his own act, is called by the Greeks diabolus: we call him accuser,68 because he reports to God the faults to which he himself entices us. God, therefore, when He began the fabric of the world, set over the whole work that first and greatest Son, and used Him at the same time as a counselor and artificer, in planning, arranging, and accomplishing, since He is complete both in knowledge, and judgment, and power. (Divine Institutes 2.9)69
Lactantius’s explanation rings true when one considers Abraham’s description of the premortal council, in which he wrote, “And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him” (Abraham 3:27-28).
Joseph Smith taught that “Everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth, and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth; these personages, according to Abraham’s record, are called God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the witness or Testator.”70 This covenant between the three members of the Godhead is confirmed in an early Ethiopic Christian document, the Kebra Nagast:
For the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit with good and cordial agreement together made the Heavenly Zion to be the place of habitation of their Glory. And then the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit said, “Let Us make man in Our similitude and likeness,” and with ready agreement and good will They were all of this opinion. And the Son said, “I will put on the body of Adam,” and the Holy Spirit said, “I will dwell in the heart[s] of the Prophets and the Righteous”; and this common agreement and covenant was [fulfilled] in Zion, the City of their Glory.”71
The doctrinal elements introduced or elaborated in King Follett’s discourse, while surprising and even shocking to some modern readers, find agreement in a number of ancient Jewish and Christian texts. Die-hard critics will probably see this as evidence that Joseph Smith had even more books available to him than was previously thought. As simple as that explanation seems, it does not explain how he was able to read texts that had not yet been translated into English. For me, it is far easier to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that God was the source of his revelations.
1 The published version of the discourse first appeared in Journal of Discourses 6:1-11 and was based on notes taken by Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton.
2 Kevin L. Barney, “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1,” BYU Studies 39/3 (2000), 107-24. See also his “Joseph Smith’s Emendation of Hebrew Genesis 1:1,” Dialogue 30/4 (Winter 1997): 103-135.
3 Verb tenses in some portions of the Abraham account suggest that details of the creation were discussed before the acts took place.
4 See the discussion in Frank Moore Cross, “The Council of Yahweh in Second Isaiah,” 274, n. 1; also R. Gordis, “Democratic Origins in Ancient Israel,” in Saul Libermann, ed., Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1950), 376-388.
5 Note that the term “council” (KJV “secret”) parallels “wisdom” in this verse, and see the the discussion of Christ as Wisdom in chapters 3 and 8 of this present work. Job 15:8 is best rendered, “hast thou listened in the council of God?” The question, asked by Job’s friend Eleazar, reminds one of the questions the Lord asked Job: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7).
6 For a discussion of the Hebrew term, see Raymond Brown, “The Pre-Christian Semitic Concept of ‘Mystery’,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (1958): 418-421. I discuss the heavenly council in more detail in my forthcoming book Joseph Smith and the Ancient World.
7 Ernest A. Wallis Budge, Coptic Martyrdoms (London: British Museum, 1914), 482. Also in Budge, Egyptian Tales and Romances: Pagan, Christian, and Muslim (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1935), 198. The account is also known from a Coptic text, The Enthronement of Michael in the collection donated by Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804) to the Apostolic Vatican Library in Rome.
8 Though the text places this conversation at some point in the future, Latter-day Saint belief would place it in the premortal world.
9 William G. Braude, Pesikta Rabbati, Yale Judaica Series, vol. 18 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 2:677-679. A number of other texts describe the premortal assembly, which is discussed in further detail in my forthcoming Joseph Smith and the Ancient World.
10 Joseph Smith’s transliteration of the Hebrew terms is based on the system he learned from Joshua Seixas, who taught Hebrew to Latter-day Saint leaders in Kirtland, Ohio. See Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue 3 (Summer 1968).
11 Michael Linetsky, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Commentary on the Creation (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1998), 1.
12 Ibid., note 1.
13 Harry Sperling et al., The Zohar (New York: The Rebecca Bennett Publications, 1958), 1:63.
14 Ibid., 1:119.
15 Ibid., 1:97-8.
16 It impossible to discuss all of the texts here, but they will be discussed at length in my forthcoming Joseph Smith and the Ancient World.
17 William G. Braude, transl., Pesikta Rabbati, Yale Judaica Series vol. 18 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 2:641-643, 677.
18 C.D. Yonge, The Works of Philo (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 29.
19 The message of 1 John 1:1-2 is the same as that found in John 1:1, 14, with reference to both “the beginning” and “the Word of life Ö which was with the Father.”
20 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:246-250, 291.
21 Ibid., 10:307-308, 317-318, 344-345.
22 Ibid., 1:227-228, 264.
23 Ibid., 5:515.
24 Ibid., 2:133.
25 C. T. R. Hayward, Saint Jerome’s Hebrew Questions on Genesis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 30.
26 Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (reprint, Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson, 1994), 4:374-376, 390-391.
27 Ibid., 8:43.
28 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), 8:43.
29 J. Armitage Robinson, St. Irenaeus: The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 108. Irenaeus’s transliteration is only partially correct, but he clearly understood the passage to be describing the premortal Christ. The translator notes that his rendering “our language” literally reads “the Armenian language,” denoting the language in which the text has been preserved.
30 Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 60. This statement was first published in Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, eds., A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel (3rd ed., Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1898), 287.
31 Ephraim A. Speiser, Genesis, vol. 1, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964), 3.
32 M. Rosenbaum and A.M. Silbermann, in collaboration with A. Blashki and L. Joseph, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi’s Commentary (Jerusalem: Silbermann Family, 1973), 1:2-3.
33 See the discussion in Michael Linetsky, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Commentary on the Creation, 1-6, including notes.
34 Ibid., 19-20. In note 107, Linetsky wrote that “in his Epistle of the Sabbath 3, Ibn Ezra “states that the land was null and void because it had no man or animal yet.”
35 I first discussed this in my article “Science and Genesis,” in volume 2 of Wilford M. Hess & Raymond T. Matheny (eds.), Science & Religion: Towards a New Dialogue (Geneva, Illinois: Paladin House, 1979).
36 The vocalization is ber?’ö?t, whereas “in the beginning” would be b?r?’ö?t.
37 This topic, too, will be discussed in more detail in the forthcoming Joseph Smith and the Ancient World.
38 Kevin L. Barney, “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1,” BYU Studies 39/3 (2000): 107-124; Barry R. Bickmore, section on “Creation ‘Ex Nihilo’,” in Restoring the Ancient Church (Salt Lake City: FAIR and Cornerstone, 1999), 100-105; Michael T. Griffith, “The World Was Created from Preexistent Matter, Not Ex Nihilo,” chapter 12 in Griffith, One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers as Evidences of the Restoration (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1996), 71-74; Keith Norman, “Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,” BYU Studies 17/3 (spring 1977): 291-318; Daniel C. Peterson, “Does the Qur’an Teach Creation Ex Nihilo?” in John Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also By Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1990), 584-591; Stephen D. Ricks, “The Doctrine of Creation ex Nihilo,” in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002).
39 The verb is usually transliterated b?r?’, though Joseph Smith used the transliteration baurau taught by his Hebrew instructor, Joshua Seixas.
40 Genesis 1:1, 21, 27; 2:3-4; Psalms 148:5; Isaiah 40:26, 28; 42:5; 45:7-8, 12, 18; Ezekiel 28:13, 15; Amos 4:13.
41 Exodus 34:10; Numbers 16:30; Psalms 51:10; 89:12; Isaiah 4:5; 41:20; 48:7; 57:19; Jeremiah 31:22.
42 One of the most famous of the Hebrew grammarians, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, argued that the verb does not imply ex-nihilo creation. See Michael Linetsky, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Commentary on the Creation, 3-4.
43 See also Psalm 104:30.
44 Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-2; 6:7; Deuteronomy 4:32; Ecclesiastes 12:1; Isaiah 54:16; Malachi 2:10.
45 For recent scholarly debates on the subject, see Peter Hayman, “Monotheism-A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?”, Journal of Jewish Studies 42 (1991), 1-15; Jonathan Goldstein, “The Origins of the Doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo,” Journal of Jewish Studies 35 (1984): 127-135; Jonathan Goldstein, “Creation Ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements,” Journal of Jewish Studies 38 (1987): 187-194; David Winston, “Creation Ex Nihilo Revisited: A Reply to Jonathan Goldstein,” Journal of Jewish Studies 37 (1986): 88-91. Gerhard May argues that some of the early statements that seem to support creation out of nothing really suggest that God used extant matter. E.g., he notes that Philo of Alexandria, while noting that Moses (in Genesis) and Plato both speak of a pre-existent matter, but also that God brings things “out of nothing into being” or “out of non-being.” He further noted that the Greek writer Xenophon wrote that parents “bring forth their children out of non-being,” demonstrating that this is idiomatic, denoting that the matter already existed but that the final form did not. See Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought, transl. A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 8-22.
46 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. (based on William Gesenius, as translated by Edward Robinson), A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (corrected ed., Oxford: Clarendon, 1953 and later), 155.
47 All of these languages are related to Hebrew and have a common source.
48 Gerhard Kittel, ed.; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, transl. & ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:390.
49 W. Lowndes Lipscomb, The Armenian Apocryphal Adam Literature, Armenian Texts and Studies 8 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1990), 262-264. The text goes on to have Eve presenting the fruit to Adam and saying, “This fruit is extremely sweet and tasty.” Adam responds, “I cannot taste it and become like you.” Adam hesitates for some time, then Eve says, “Eat and do not separate me from you. If we live, let us live together, and if we die, let us die together.” In the end, he is persuaded by her logic and eats the fruit. For the complete story, see ibid., 162-164.
50 Michael E. Stone, Armenian Apocrypha Relating to Adam and Eve (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 25. This statement is found in all three recensions of the text.
51 W. Lowndes Lipscomb, The Armenian Apocryphal Adam Literature, 120-121. The text goes on to have Eve say to Adam that “the fruit is very sweet. Take and you taste, and notice the sweetness of this fruit” (ibid., 121).
52 For a discussion of Satan speaking through the serpent, see the discussion in chapter 11, Satan and the Serpent
53 That the righteous will be able to create is affirmed in TB Sanhedrin 68b. Midrash Aleph Bet di Rabbi Akiba declares that “the Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future reveal to all the pious in the World to Come the Ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds.” See Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts: Jewish Legends of Three Thousand Years (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University, 1988), 251.
54 Harry Sperling et al., The Zohar (New York: Rebecca Bennet Publications, 1958), 1:134.
55 Moses Gaster, The Chronicles of Jerahmeel; or, The Hebrew Bible Historiale (reprint, New York: Ktav, 1971), 47.
56 M. Rosenbaum and A. M. Silbermann, in collaboration with A. Blashki and L. Joseph, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi’s Commentary (Jerusalem: Silbermann Family, 1973), 1:13.
57 H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah, 5 volumes (London: Socino Press, 1961), Genesis vol. 1:150-1.
58 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:522.
59 Ibid., 1:523. The concept of men becoming Gods is discussed in chapter 43, The Deification of Man.
60 See the following: Philip L. Barlow, “Unorthodox Orthodoxy: The Idea of Deification in Christian History.” Sunstone 8 (September-October 1983): 13-18; Ernst W. Benz, “Imagio Dei: Man in the Image of God,” in Truman G. Madsen, Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 201-219; K. Codell Carter, “Godhood,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992); Michael T. Griffith, “Godhood: Man’s Divine Potential,” chapter 14 in Griffith, One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Ealy Christian Fathers as Evidences of the Restoration (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1996), 80-87; Keith E. Norman, “Divinization: The Forgotten Teaching of Early Christianity,” Sunstone 1 (winter 1975): 15-19; Keith E. Norman, Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000); Keith E. Norman, “Deification, Early Christian,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992); Daniel C. Peterson, “‘Ye are Gods’: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind,” in Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, eds., The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo Utah: FARMS, 2000); Margaret McConkie Pope, “Exaltation,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, gen. ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992); D. Charles Pyle, “‘I Have Said, ‘Ye are Gods:’ Conceptions Conducive to the Early Christian Doctrine of Deification in Patristic Literature and the Underlying Strata of the Greek New Testament Text,” in Proceedings of the First Annual Mormon Apologetics Symposium (Ben Lomond, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 2000), 137-155; Jordan Vajda, “Partakers of the Divine Nature” A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization, FARMS Occasional Papers 3 (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002).
61 Joseph Smith spoke of the various prophets or dispensation leaders, each of whom “was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was. I suppose that I was ordained to this very office in that Grand Council” (History of the Church 6:364). The prophet noted that “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world” had been foreordained. Some Latter-day Saints take this to mean that everyone called to a priesthood office on earth was foreordained to his position in the premortal world. Only apostles hold keys “to minister to the inhabitants of the world” rather than to serve in a small geographical region.
62 James H. Charlesworth, , ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983), 1:700.
63 Ibid. He notes the same for Apocalypse of Abraham 23:14, ibid., 701.
64 H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah (London: Socino Press, 1961), Genesis vol. 1:59.
65 Ibid., Ruth vol., 28.
66 James M. Robinson, gen. ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (3rd rev. ed., San Francisco: Harper, 1990), 369.
67 Ibid., 363. I am grateful to Matt Roper for bringing this passage to my attention.
68 Our word “devil” derives from Greek diabolos, while “Satan” is the Hebrew term meaning “accuser.”
69 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 7:52-3.
70 Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1979), 190. The statement was recorded in the William Clayton Private Book under date of 9 Mary 1841 and was first published in Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1882), 289. See also Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University and Bookcraft, 1980), 65. Again, I am indebted to Matt Roper for bringing this statement to my attention.
71 Ernest A. Wallis Budge, The Queen of Sheba & Her Only Son Menyelek (London: Medici Society, 1922), 1.