Defending the Faith: 'Throne vision' motif points to Book of Mormon authenticity

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 11 2012 8:16 p.m. MST

Modern scholarship has identified a motif called a "throne vision" or "throne theophany" — the word "theophany" simply means a "manifestation of God" — that repeatedly occurs in ancient stories of prophetic calls.

Such visions, which are recorded in Isaiah 6, the apocryphal "Ascension of Isaiah," 4 Ezra, Ezekiel 1, Revelation 4, the Ethiopic and Slavonic books of Enoch, and many other texts, take their name from their description of God sitting upon his throne (sometimes, technically, in a "throne chariot").

As one careful student of the topic summarized it, the motif features "a righteous individual who, concerned for the wickedness of his people, prays and weeps on their behalf until physically overcome by the spirit of revelation" and who is thereupon "carried away in a vision." There, he sees "God on his throne attended by the heavenly council." He also "receives a heavenly book which explains the secrets of the universe and the impending disaster of his people. The vision is completed with a call or commission extended from the heavenly council to warn his people about their inevitable destruction; however, he is also forewarned that his people will reject him."

Many years ago, I presented a paper to an academic conference in Boston in which I argued that the earliest version of Muhammad's prophetic call represented another such story, and, in support of my claim, I circulated a comparative chart of several ancient throne theophany accounts. Without comment, I included 1 Nephi 1 in my list — because it provides an unusually good example of the phenomenon:

Lehi "was carried away in a vision, even that he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God" (1 Nephi 1:8).

In these accounts, a "historical prologue" typically provides the background for the theophany, and place, time and surrounding events play a significant role.

"Despite the overwhelming glory of the sacred locale," one scholar writes about Isaiah 6, "the historical moment is just as important to the prophet's proclamation. The year was a year of transition, crisis and import; it was the year of the king's death."

Nephi describes the religious turmoil in Jerusalem that preceded Lehi's throne theophany: "For it came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, … and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed" (1 Nephi 1:4).

In the "throne theophany" described in Isaiah 6, a divine commission to "go and say to this people, hear …" completes Isaiah's vision. Nephi's account relates that "After the Lord had shown so many marvelous things unto my father, Lehi, yea, concerning the destruction, behold he went forth among the people, and began to prophesy and to declare unto them concerning the things which he had both seen and heard … and also the things which he read in the book" (1 Nephi 1:18-19).

The recipient of the vision is typically described as overcome with awe (or perplexity) at what he has witnessed. Isaiah was overpowered by the glory of his heavenly vision, exclaiming, "Woe is me! For I am undone" (Isaiah 6:5). Ezekiel fell upon his face after his experience with God (see Ezekiel 1:28). Enoch, who beheld lightning and saw flaming cherubim who spoke with fiery tongues, reported, "I quaked and trembled, I fell upon my face." So also in the "Apocalypse of Abraham": Following an encounter with the glorious angel Jaoel, Abraham said, "There was no breath of man, and my spirit was affrighted, and my soul fled me, and I became like a stone, and I fell upon the earth, for I had no more strength to stand." Muhammad was so overwhelmed that he had to be covered with a cloak. Likewise, Lehi "did quake and tremble exceedingly. … And he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the spirit and the things which he had seen" (1 Nephi 1:6-7).

In this small but significant regard, as in others, the Book of Mormon fits its claimed place and time of origin.

(For more details and further references on this subject, see Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, "The Throne Theophany/Prophetic Call of Muhammad.")

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org

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