Joseph Smith as Found in Ancient Manuscripts

Joseph Fielding McConkie

Joseph F. McConkie, “Joseph Smith as Found in Ancient Manuscripts,” in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 11–31.

This paper may be mistitled. Rather than “Joseph Smith as Found in Ancient Manuscripts,” it ought to be “Joseph Smith as Lost in Ancient Manuscripts.” Certainly the scriptures have proved themselves an excellent hiding place for things in which we express an interest but really lack the zeal to pursue. For most of us, this is particularly true of things in the Old Testament. My brief excursions into this ancient record leave me convinced that many of its greatest treasures rest undisturbed. A distinguished explorer in the mid-nineteenth century carried out a trial dig at the site of Jericho, and missed—by only a few yards—an ancient city wall which made headlines when discovered by another archaeologist a hundred years later. How often, in our own study of the scriptures and in our efforts to teach them, have we in like manner dug “dry holes” while piling our diggings on top of the very treasures we have sought?

If we as Latter-day Saints are to be successful in our search for the hidden treasures of the ancient scriptures, we must first succeed in finding the treasures of our modern scriptures. It is in the revelations of the Restoration that we obtain familiarity with principles of truth which, in turn, enhance our ability to recognize those same truths as they have been hidden in the succinct, spare, and often cryptic style of the Bible. The key to the revelations of the past is the revelations of the present, simply because the principles are eternal.

The basic thesis of this paper is that the ancients saw our day and knew of our prophets just as well as we can see their day and know of their prophets. As we know of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, so they knew of Joseph Smith. As we are blessed by a knowledge of the past, so they were blessed by a knowledge of the future. It was by revelation that they understood the future, and it is by scripture that we understand the past. We know by modern revelation that certain of the ancient prophets knew of the Prophet Joseph Smith and described his future labors. This paper will seek to expand our known list of those who enjoyed such foreknowledge and to introduce some interesting legends and traditions of antiquity about a latter-day prophet to be named Joseph. They are in surprising harmony with restored prophecies and events of our day.

The Restoration of All Things Spoken by All the Prophets

In identifying the time of the Second Coming, Peter said that it would follow the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21). What is difficult to determine in this passage is whether Peter is saying that all that was spoken by the prophets about the last days will be restored before Christ comes, or that all the holy prophets knew that there would be a restoration of all things before the Second Coming. My preference is for the second interpretation, that all the holy prophets knew that there was to be a restoration of all things. This is not to say that all the prophets had the same degree of understanding. Abinadi illustrated this principle when he said “all the prophets” who had “prophesied ever since the world began” had spoken “more or less” concerning the coming of Christ (Mosiah 13:33). I would argue in like manner that all the holy prophets knew “more or less” of the universal restoration that was to precede the return of Christ, and that thus all the prophets knew “more or less” of the role of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

In so asserting, I find myself in good company. Wilford Woodruff said there was “not one” of the ancient prophets who did not see and prophesy “about the great Zion of God in the latter days.” Further he said:

And when we say this of them, we say it of every Apostle and Prophet who ever lived upon the earth. Their revelations and prophecies all point to our day and that great kingdom of God which was spoken of by Daniel, that great Zion of God spoken of by Isaiah and Jeremiah, and that great gathering of the house of Israel spoken of by Ezekiel and Malachi and many of the ancient Patriarchs and Prophets. [1]

From the days of father Adam to the last prophet of dispensations past has come a “mighty flood of prophecy” which, like a “strong band,” has surrounded the Prophet Joseph Smith, dictating the great work that he would do. Such decrees had to be fulfilled to the very letter, and so it has been. “These mighty prophecies,” Elder Woodruff avowed, were like a “band of iron [which] governed and controlled Joseph Smith in his labors.” [2]

The Testimony of Adam and Enoch

In the great conference of the Church at Adam-ondi-Ahman, father Adam “stood up in the midst of the congregation; and . . . predicted whatsoever should befall his posterity unto the latest generation” (D&C 107:56). These prophecies were preserved in the book of Enoch, which book we do not now have but will yet. Joseph Smith did restore for us an extract of the record kept by Enoch. Among other things it contains a brief but clear description of the latter-day restoration of the gospel, including the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the spreading of the gospel throughout the earth, the gathering of the elect, and the building of a “New Jerusalem” (Moses 7:62). Enoch, it will be recalled, was a contemporary of Adam’s, having been ordained by him, and he was personally present when Adam made his remarkable prophecies (see D&C 107:48, 53). Yet Enoch’s knowledge of these things was independent of his hearing them from father Adam, for “the Lord showed Enoch all things, even unto the end of the world” (Moses 7:67).

Although this gets us a little ahead of our story, it could be noted at this point that the apocryphal Hebrew Book of Enoch, also called Third Enoch, mentions a latter-day prophet who is to be involved in all these events. He is even named. As one would anticipate, his name is Joseph. He is referred to as the Messiah ben Joseph, Messiah meaning “anointed one” and ben meaning “son of.’’ So what we have here in our first introduction to this tradition is a prophet son of Joseph of Egypt coming on the scene to play a dominant role in these latter-day events. In this work Enoch, seeing in vision the end of time, says, “I saw Messiah, son of Joseph, and his generation and their works and their doings that they will do against the nations of the world” (Hebrew Book of Enoch 45:5). Hugo Odeberg, who translated this work, observes that “the end of the course of the present world is marked by the appearance of Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David, in whose times there will be wars between Israel and ‘Gog and Magog’; the final consummation will then, so it seems, be brought about by the Holy One Himself.” [3] A passage in another Enoch book is also linked to this tradition. Again, the context is a depiction of world history, this time with animals used to symbolize men. Enoch narrates:

And I saw that a white bull was born, with large horns, and all the beasts of the field and birds of the air feared him and made petition to him continually. And I saw till all their kinds were transformed, and they all became white cattle. And the foremost among them was the buffalo, and that buffalo was a great animal, and had great black horns on its head. And the Lord of the sheep rejoiced over them, and over all the cattle. [4]

All interpreters agree that the white bull represents the David Messiah, while the buffalo (wild ox) immediately brings to mind the blessing given to Joseph in Deuteronomy 33:13–17. The great horns with which the bullock is to push Israel together are “the emblem of Messiah ben Joseph” according to The Jewish Encyclopedia. [5] Of this Enoch passage Charles Torrey writes:

It thus seems assured, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the “great animal” of Enoch 90:38, destined to appear in the very last days, is the Messiah ben Joseph. It is not by accident that the words with which he is introduced, “and the foremost among them (the cattle) was the buffalo,” repeat the beginning of Deut. 33:17: “The firstling of his herd, . . . his horns are the horns of the wild-ox.” The author of Enoch, who knew the Jewish tradition, intended by his “buffalo” the divine-human scion of Joseph’s house. With the buffalo, yet above him, stood the white bull, the Anointed One of David’s line; “and the Lord of the sheep rejoiced over them both.” [6]

Joseph of Egypt Names Joseph Smith

Sensing the nearness of death, Joseph, following the pattern of his father, Jacob, gathered his family around him. “I die,” said Joseph to his assembled posterity. It is at this point in the story that the Joseph Smith Translation provides a marvelous restoration of text, completing the quotation of Joseph: “I die, and go unto my fathers; and I go down to my grave with joy” (JST, Genesis 50:24; emphasis added). Then this restored text goes on to give us an abbreviated account of Joseph’s great prophecy of the destiny of his family and their role in the events of the last days, including the naming and describing of his son many generations removed, the Prophet Joseph Smith.

As Joseph, now an aged patriarch, prophetically unfolded the events that lay in the immediate future for Israel, he told his family how these events were but the pattern or foretelling of events of the last days. Seeing Israel’s more immediate bondage to the Egyptians and their deliverance by a prophet of God as a parallel to their bondage to darkness in the last days and their deliverance once again by a heaven-sent servant, he wove the two stories together as one. The cycle of events common to both stories included Israel’s prophesied bondage and the coming of a prophet who was to gather, liberate, and lead them. These liberator-prophets were not to be confused with the Messiah, Joseph cautioned, for they would be his servants. They were to be seers, revelators of gospel law, each foreknown by name. Each would write the words of the Lord and declare them with the aid of a spokesman.

Joseph identified the prophet of the Egyptian deliverance as Moses, and his spokesman as Aaron. He then rejoiced in the promise of a prophet to his own seed in the last days. To Joseph of Egypt, the Lord said:

I will remember you from generation to generation; and his name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father; and he shall be like unto you; for the thing which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand shall bring my people unto salvation. (JST, Genesis 50:33.)

This latter-day Joseph, then, according to the ancient prophecy, was to be like Moses and Joseph of Egypt. Thus again we see Joseph’s sense of history repeating itself in his telling of the story. There would be much in the life of the latter-day Joseph that would parallel his own. Indeed, the points of similarity are remarkable. For the present moment we note only that both were seers, both did a great labor for their families, both confounded their enemies, and as the ancient Joseph had become a temporal savior to the house of Israel, so the latter-day Joseph would become the source of spiritual salvation to Israel in the last days. Both were revelators and brought forth the word of the Lord, and both testified to having seen the Lord (see JST, Genesis 50:24).

At what point the knowledge of this prophecy was lost to Israel we do not know, but that it existed down through the days of Isaiah and even to the time of Jeremiah is certain, because it was from this time period that Lehi and his family obtained the brass plates from Laban which contained this prophecy. Lehi repeated much of the prophecy to his son Joseph. Of that Nephi said: “And the prophecies which he [Joseph of Egypt] wrote, there are not many greater. And he prophesied concerning us, and our future generations; and they are written upon the plates of brass” (2 Nephi 4:2). This statement is in harmony with the JST account of Joseph’s prophecy, which concludes, “And Joseph confirmed many other things unto his brethren” (JST, Genesis 50:37). It is evident that, in both the old world and the new, much more was known about the events of the last days and the role of the Prophet Joseph Smith than has been preserved for us.

The Name Joseph and Its Ancient Meaning

The prophecy of Jacob’s son Joseph that the latter-day seer would bear his name, and that it would also be the name of his father, is commonly known in the Church. What is not generally understood is the need for the Prophet to bear a particular name—and if a particular name, why the name Joseph?

In patriarchal times personal names were considered to be of the greatest importance. Conscious effort was made to assure identity between the name and its bearer. Given names often constituted a miniature biography of the bearer. Names were used as reminders of significant events, to connote character, to identify position, and in some instances to foreshadow the bearer’s destiny or that of his posterity; that is, as memorials, as symbols, and as prophecies. Among righteous people, names were used to identify and testify of great truths or great events, thus keeping such things constantly in the consciousness of the people.

The etymology of the name Joseph is usually given as ‘‘the Lord addeth” or “increaser.” Though appropriate, such renderings have veiled a richer meaning associated with the name. In Genesis 30:24, where Rachel names her infant son Joseph, the Hebrew text reads “Asaph,” which means “he who gathers,” “he who causes to return,” or perhaps most appropriately “God gathereth.” Thus the great prophet of the Restoration was given the name that most appropriately describes his divine calling.

Having learned of the special meaning associated with the Prophet’s name, I was especially interested when I discovered the following in the patriarchal blessing of the Prophet’s older brother Hyrum. “Behold thou art Hyrum, the Lord hath called thee by that name, and by that name He has blessed thee.” [7] It then dawned on me that Hyrum is also a Hebrew name which means “my brother is exalted.” What more appropriate name could have been given to the man who was destined to go with Joseph to Carthage and seal his testimony with his blood? So the testimony of the Restoration has been sealed on this dispensation with the blood of two prophets who, according to the ancient tradition, bore the right names.

Joseph Smith as Known to Isaiah

No Bible prophet has had more to say about the restoration of the gospel and the gathering of Israel in our dispensation than Isaiah. In chapter 11 Isaiah speaks of the gathering of both Ephraim (typifying the northern kingdom) and Judah (representing the southern kingdom), and of the eventual peace that will exist between them. The story is told in prophetic imagery using a “stem,” a “rod,” and a “root” to represent key figures. In a revelation to Joseph Smith (D&C 113) the “stem of Jesse” is identified as Jesus Christ. The imagery is most excellent—the “slender twig shooting out from the trunk of an old tree, cut down, lopped to the very root, and decayed; which tender plant, so weak in appearance, should nevertheless become fruitful and prosper.” [8] So Isaiah affirms for us that the Messiah was to come of the house of Jesse, as a shoot or branch which would bear good fruit. Our explanatory modern revelation identifies the “rod” in the prophecy as “a servant in the hands of Christ, who is partly a descendant of Jesse as well as of Ephraim, or of the house of Joseph, on whom there is laid much power” (D&C 113:4). No further explanation is given. It has always been our understanding in the Church that the passage applies to Joseph Smith, this being one of the reasons it was quoted to him by Moroni in September 1823. By way of explanation as to who the “root” is, the revelation declares: “It is a descendant of Jesse, as well as of Joseph, unto whom rightly belongs the priesthood, and the keys of the kingdom, for an ensign, and for the gathering of my people in the last days” (D&C 113:6). There can be no question that this is describing the Prophet Joseph Smith. By revelation he was told that he held the right to the priesthood (see D&C 86:8–9). That the keys of the kingdom had been given to him is a matter of record; that his labors were to stand as an “ensign” to which the nations of the earth will gather is also a matter of scriptural promise (D&C 29:4, 7–8; 35:25; 38:33; 39:11; 45:9, 28).

Isaiah 29 contains what was, as originally recorded, an amazingly detailed account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and its translation at the hands of an “unlearned” prophet. Only a fragment of the original prophecy has survived, but even this is sufficient for the reader to know that in a period of universal apostasy, a time when men are spiritually asleep, having no prophets or seers, the words of a book would be taken to a “learned” man to read and he would say “I cannot; for it is sealed.” Then the book is given “to him that is not learned,” and through his labors the words of the book go forth so that the spiritually blind can “see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.” Thus among a people thinking themselves learned would the Lord accomplish “a marvellous work and a wonder” which would cause the wisdom of their wise men to perish (Isaiah 29:9–22).

A more meaningful and detailed account of Isaiah’s prophecy has been preserved for us in 2 Nephi 27. Here Nephi clearly identifies the context of this prophecy as “the last days,” or “the days of the Gentiles,” a time when men upon “all the lands of the earth” would be “drunken with iniquity and all manner of abominations.” It would be a time, Nephi tells us, when men would have deliberately “closed [their] eyes” to truth and would have rejected the teachings of “the prophets.” At such a time the unlearned prophet would bring forth a book containing the testimony of those who “have slumbered.” This book, which would contain “a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof,’’ would remain partially sealed because of the wickedness of men. Yet in the due time of the Lord even that portion of the book that is sealed will be brought forth, and the secret acts of all men will be revealed.

That Isaiah 11 and 29 contain direct references to Joseph Smith is generally known to Latter-day Saints. Building upon that knowledge, I would like to suggest that Isaiah 49, one of the “suffering servant” prophecies, also described Joseph Smith and his role as the great prophet of the latter-day restoration. In Judaism this prophecy is viewed as describing the suffering of the nation of the Jews. Among the so-called Christian world, it has traditionally been interpreted as a description of the life and ministry of Christ. While Latter-day Saints accept the traditional Christian interpretation, let us now consider the possibility that this prophecy may have still another application.

The Book of Mormon translation of this chapter contains some helpful additions to the standard Bible text. We will freely draw on them in our brief summary of the chapter. The introductory verse is effectually a warning voice to Israel, which is scattered among every nation, kindred, and tongue—they are told to give heed to the voice of the Lord as he speaks through the mouth of his servant. The servant is to declare that “the Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.” So we look for a prophet, one declaring his own foreordination, with the added claim that his name was known to Israel even before his birth. Could we assume that, as Israel knew the name of the prophet who was to liberate them from their Egyptian bondage, they also knew the name of the prophet who would “bring them out of darkness into light; out of hidden darkness, and out of captivity unto freedom” (JST, Genesis 50:25) in that day when they were scattered among all the nations of the earth? Could it be that this was the prophet who was to be like unto Moses? (See JST, Genesis 50:29.)

Surely it is more than coincidence that Doctrine and Covenants section 1, the revelation given by the Lord to introduce the compilation of revelations declaring authority to gather Israel, would use the very language of Isaiah to introduce Joseph Smith and the Restoration (see D&C 1:1; cf. Isaiah 49:1). Joseph Smith had already given to the world a restoration of the prophecy by Joseph of Egypt that his name was once known to Israel (see 2 Nephi 3:15), and he later declared that he was “ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end, or bad, as you may choose to call it” (D&C 127:2).

Isaiah then gives us the words with which this messenger to scattered Israel is to characterize himself: “And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword,” he is to say, and “in the shadow of his hand he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me.”

We look for a servant who will come as one having authority, who will speak in the name of God, as did the Prophet Joseph Smith, saying, “Give heed unto my word, which is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow; therefore give heed unto my words” (D&C 6:2). Joseph Smith declared himself to be a literal descendant of Joseph of Egypt. Of his lineage, the Lord said he had been “hid from the world with Christ in God” (D&C 86:9). And of himself Joseph Smith said the following:

I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty, who will give me dominion over all and every one of them, when their refuge of lies shall fail, and their hiding place shall be destroyed, while these smooth-polished stones with which I come in contact become marred. [9]

Isaiah 49:3 refers to this prophet in terms of a composite person—one who typifies or represents all of faithful Israel. It naturally follows that if there is a prophet of destiny there must of necessity be a people of destiny. Both prophet and people are servants of the Lord. In the collective body of the people are found the attributes of their leader, his life, works, and character constituting a profile of his people. Isaiah delineates the chosen servant’s mission and office thus: (1) he was called of God (49:1); (2) he was prepared from before the foundations of the earth (49:1); (3) he was known by name even before his birth (49:1); (4) he was the one who would restore Israel (49:5–6); (5) he would teach true religion to all nations (49:6); (6) he would be the embodiment of the new covenant (49:8); and (7) his labors, like those of the Master, would be accomplished in humiliation and suffering (50:4–7; 52:13–15). As it was with the prophet, so it would be with his people. They too must have been called of God, ordained to their earthly mission even before birth, destined to be of Israel and of the house of Joseph, and willing, despite humiliation and suffering, to go to the ends of the earth to declare the message of salvation and gather Israel once more to new and everlasting covenants.

In verses 4 and 5 of Isaiah 49 our prophet character assumes the profile of a suffering servant, lamenting to the heavens that he has labored in vain, then receives the promise of the Lord that he will yet come off triumphant. One need only read the pleas to the Lord written by Joseph Smith while a prisoner in the Liberty Jail to see how perfectly these passages describe both his circumstances and his feelings.

In these verses we have returned to the description of an individual servant, yet the individual is still the personification of what Israel is to be collectively. As he has been endowed with power from on high, so Israel when restored to her ancient priesthood and covenants will be endowed with heavenly power; as their leader triumphs over humiliation, so they as a nation will ultimately triumph.

I will not attempt to detail the prophecy from this point. Let it suffice that it speaks of the servant-prophet’s role in gathering Israel and taking the gospel to the Gentiles—both of which accomplishments, we might note, went beyond the role of the earthly ministry of the Savior. It speaks of our prophet as being despised and abhorred by the great and noble of the earth, and yet of a time when such will humbly seek after his message. This prophecy even extends the teaching of the gospel to those on the other side of the veil, indicating that the prophet’s authority will reach even to them. It speaks of the gathering of Israel in great numbers to the mountains of the Lord and to the lands of their inheritance.

To those who would argue that Isaiah 49 has nothing to do with the Prophet Joseph Smith, I must concede they may be right. Yet I would feel a bit like the rabbi who, when confronted with the archaeologist’s arguments that there was no Moses, agreed that Moses may not have existed, but that if he did not, he undoubtedly had a cousin called Moses who did everything Moses was said to have done. If Isaiah 49 is not a description of Joseph Smith, then I anxiously wait for another to appear on the scene and do exactly what Joseph Smith did.

Jeremiah’s Prophecy of an Ephraimite Prophet

Leaving Isaiah, may I now suggest that Jeremiah described both Joseph Smith and the First Vision. I take no credit for seeing what others have not seen; I got the idea from an old Jewish writer who, after reading a passage from Jeremiah, announced, “Certainly we could not blame any Jew who should see in these words a Messiah ben Joseph.” [10] He then added that the passage was to be fulfilled in the last days. After careful examination I decided my old Jewish friend was right; Jeremiah was not one whit behind Isaiah and others of the ancient prophets in his ability to see and describe events of our day and in his knowledge of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The passage is Jeremiah 30:21, which in the King James Bible reads thus: “And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from the midst of them; and I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto me: for who is this that engaged his heart to approach unto me? saith the Lord.”

How is such a conclusion drawn from this passage? First, we must look to the context from which it comes. Jeremiah chapters 30 and 31 deal with the latter-day restoration of Israel. They form a unit and should be read together. By tradition they are known as the Book of Consolation, because of the solace they extended to Israel when the prospects of the nation were at their lowest. The testimony of these chapters is that there would again be a day when Israel would return to their lands and former glory, with prophets at their head and the favor of God resting upon them. To this they are to look, and in this they are to believe. That Jeremiah’s prophecy was not fulfilled in their return from the Babylonian captivity is evident from the prominent role he ascribes to Ephraim in these chapters. He clearly identifies Ephraim as the tribe of the birthright and as the moving force behind the gathering. This certainly has not been the case in any instance before our day. Ephraim is described as “the watchmen upon the mount,” the tribe designated to raise the warning voice, to gather Israel, and to declare the word of the Lord. Ephraim repented and was instructed in the principles of salvation (see Jeremiah 31:19). The prophetic promise was that of a returning to the true and living God, of a restoration of ancient truths, and of “a new covenant,” for the Lord said, “This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days . . . I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

In that setting we return our attention to the passage in question. The old Jewish commentator quoted it thus: “His Mighty One shall proceed from himself and his Ruler come forth from his own midst.” [11] Thus he is changing the plural “nobles” of the King James translation to the singular “Mighty One.” This is in harmony with our more recent Bible translations.

For instance, the Jerusalem Bible reads:

Their prince will be one of their own, their ruler come from their own people. I will let him come freely into my presence and he can come close to me; who else, indeed, would risk his life by coming close to me?—it is Yahweh who speaks.

The New English Bible reads:

A ruler shall appear, one of themselves, a governor shall arise from their own number. I will myself bring him near and so he shall approach me; for no one ventures of himself to approach me, says the Lord.”

Other possible renditions could be “their Glorious One” or “Leader.” [12]

The passage promises a single “leader” from Ephraim who will be brought into the presence of the Lord Jehovah and then assume the presiding role in the latter-day gathering of Israel.

Messiah ben Joseph

As we have referred to the ancient tradition of a latter-day prophet—the Messiah ben Joseph, or ben Ephraim, as he is variously called—let us now consider that tradition and its origins. Old Testament prophecies dealing with the coming of Christ naturally divide themselves into those speaking of his earthly ministry and those describing his second coming. In the literature of the Jews it is not uncommon to find reference to the Messiah ben Joseph associated with the passages dealing with the earthly ministry of Christ. These are often referred to as the “suffering servant” passages. The nation longed for a triumphant king, one who would free them from bondage and return them to the glory of David’s day. They could talk endlessly about those passages dealing with their triumphant liberator. The passages dealing with Christ’s rejection, his being despised, bruised, and afflicted, and his being “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7) caused them considerably more difficulty, especially when the messianic flavor of such passages was too obvious to be denied. (We are obviously talking here about many of Isaiah’s prophecies.) In an attempt to resolve this difficulty, a well-established Jewish dogma of a second messiah is cited—one destined to be a suffering messiah, a martyr messiah, but not to be confused with their triumphant king. “The doctrine of two Messiahs holds an important place in Jewish theology,” writes a Yale theologian, Charles Torrey, “more important and more widely attested than is now generally recognized. It is not a theory imperfectly formulated or only temporarily held, but a standard article of faith, early and firmly established and universally accepted.” [13] Briefly stated, the doctrine is this: “According to a talmudic statement the Jews believed in two Messiahs, one of the tribe of Joseph, or rather who was an Ephraimite, and the other a scion of David.” [14] The Messiah ben Joseph, according to this tradition, is to be killed, following which the Messiah ben David is to make his triumphant appearance. So then the suffering servant passages could be handled by simply being applied to the Messiah ben Joseph.

Excepting Samaritan sources, virtually every reference to the Messiah ben Joseph notes his violent death. Since the Samaritans believed themselves to be Ephraimites, they refused to admit the possibility that their prophet-hero could be killed. The general agreement, however, is that he was to die at the hands of the enemies of Israel. Since he was to appear on the scene in the last days, his death is most often associated with the battle of Armageddon, when the forces of Gog and Magog march against the gathered host of Israel. Though this is the generally accepted tradition in later literature, it traces to secondary sources. The earliest of sources that have survived to our day—these would be the references to the Messiah ben Joseph in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds—affirm his martyr’s death, but do not mention the nature of it.

I would suggest that the best explanation of the manner of his death is to be found in the Testament of Benjamin, the younger brother of Joseph, in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Benjamin recounts the manner in which Joseph

besought his father to seek the Lord’s forgiveness in behalf of his brothers for their transgression against him, and how Jacob in turn announced his knowledge of the special promise made to Joseph’s seed. Benjamin says Joseph besought our father that he would pray for his brethren, that the Lord would not impute to them as sin whatever evil they had done unto him. And thus Jacob cried out: My good child, thou has prevailed over the bowels of thy father Jacob. And he embraced him, and kissed him for two hours, saying: In thee shall be fulfilled the prophecy of heaven which says “that a blameless one shall be delivered up for lawless men, and a sinless one shall die for ungodly men.” [15]

After quoting this passage, H. J. Schonfield observed that “The Patriarch Joseph does not really qualify as fulfiller of such a prophecy; but he was regarded as the antetype of a righteous man killed by the godless, a veritable suffering Ben Joseph.” [16] Whether the phrases “blameless” and “sinless” both have reference to Messiah ben Joseph is open to question. It seems to me that the “sinless” prophet who was to die “for ungodly men” could be none other than Jesus Christ. The “blameless one” who was to die at the hands of the “lawless men” is the Messiah ben Joseph. In either case, the prophecy is a remarkable description of the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was murdered by a “lawless” mob on June 27, 1844.

A number of interesting traditions surround the death of the Messiah ben Joseph. One holds that after having restored temple worship he would be killed. “Then the time of the last extreme suffering and persecution for Israel will begin, from which escape will be sought by flight into the wilderness.” [17]

These events are closely associated with the return of Elijah, who is to restore the Messiah ben Joseph to life and join the righteous in their flight into the desert, where they are to remain until joined by the Messiah, who will then begin his redemptive work. [18]

Joseph’s role in destroying the kingdoms of wickedness is also emphasized in a Jewish tradition about the blessings given by Jacob to his sons. Louis Ginzberg records that Jacob “called Benjamin a wolf, Judah a lion, and Joseph a bull” in order to

point to the three kingdoms known as wolf, lion, and bull, and the doom of which was and will be sealed by the descendants of his three sons: Babylon, the kingdom of the lion, fell through the hands of Daniel of the tribe of Judah; Media, the wolf, found its master in the Benjamite Mordecai; and the bull Joseph will subdue the horned beast, the kingdom of wickedness, before the Messianic time. [19]

There is also a very old Jewish tradition that Edom or Idumea, meaning the powers of the world, can fall only at the hands of Joseph. One Jewish writer stated that it was the “province of the Messiah son of Joseph to conquer Israel’s enemies.” [20] These threads of tradition come from whole cloth. Doctrine and Covenants section 1, which, as we have already seen, introduces Joseph Smith in the language of Isaiah, picks up that language again to announce the imminent return of Christ: “Prepare ye, prepare ye for that which is to come, for the Lord is nigh; and the anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and it shall fall upon the inhabitants of the earth” (D&C 1:12–13). Isaiah’s exact language was: “For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment” (Isaiah 34:5). The modern revelation continues (and we are paraphrasing Isaiah and Moses here):

And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people;

For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;

They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall. (D&C 1:14–16)

The revelation then announces that Joseph Smith has been given the power “to lay the foundation” of the Church, “to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness,” and to send forth to all men the message of repentance, for “the Lord shall have power over his saints, and shall reign in their midst, and shall come down in judgment upon Idumea, or the world” (vss. 30–36).

In summarizing the Messiah ben Joseph tradition, it should be said that his role centers in—in fact, he seems to be the focal point of—the latter-day gathering of Israel. In this role he is to restore true temple worship, return Judah to Palestine, rebuild the city of Jerusalem, build the temple there anew, and bring to pass the restoration of the ten tribes. All of this is destined to happen before the coming of the Messiah ben David. The Messiah ben Joseph tradition is always closely associated with the return of Elijah, who is also to be a forerunner of the Messiah. Elijah, according to such traditions, is “charged with the mission of ordering the coming time aright and restoring the tribes of Jacob.” [21] It is believed that when Elijah comes he must adjust “all matters of law and Biblical interpretation” and correct “all genealogical records.” He is to destroy the power of Satan and to be “instrumental in bringing Israel to genuine repentance,” establishing peace, and turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers. [22] “Elijah’s chief activity,” it is stated, “will consist in restoring the purity of the family.” [23]

The traditions also include a prophecy by Joseph’s mother Rachel “that Joseph would be the ancestor of the (Ephraimitic) Messiah, who would arise at the end of days,” [24] along with an interesting variation on the dreams of his youth. According to such accounts “Joseph dreamed a dream, and he could not refrain from telling it to his brethren.” In this dream he and his brothers were gathering fruit. “Your fruit rotted, but mine remained sound,” Joseph explained. “Your seed will set up dumb images of idols, but they will vanish at the appearance of my descendant, the Messiah of Joseph.” [25]

Origins of the Tradition

Perhaps as interesting as anything else in relationship to the Messiah ben Joseph traditions is the fact that no one seems to know where they came from. No passage in today’s canon fits. Arguments have attempted to tie these traditions to Jacob’s patriarchal blessing to Joseph, to the blessing given by Moses to the tribe of Joseph, to Isaiah’s suffering servant passages, and, as we have seen, to Jeremiah’s reference to an Ephraimite prophet. Other arguments have involved Ezekiel’s prophecy about the stick of Joseph, Daniel’s reference to “Messiah the Prince,” and passages in Joel and Hosea which have been linked to the Teacher of Righteousness of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who has also been associated with the Messiah ben Joseph. Also, attempts have been made to associate the tradition with Obadiah’s references to the leading role of the tribe of Joseph in the events of the last days; Habakkuk’s reference to a prophet who would do a work that would cause men to “wonder marvelously,” a work which most would not believe (which passage is especially interesting because Christ applied it to Joseph Smith in 3 Nephi 21); and Micah and Zechariah. The marvelous thing is that none of them fit. None of them speak of a prophet named Joseph who would be a son of Joseph of Egypt called to gather Israel in the last days.

To the Latter-day Saint the answer is simple. We have read it in the text that Joseph Smith restored to chapter 50 of Genesis in his translation and in 2 Nephi 3, where Lehi gives a patriarchal blessing to his son Joseph. But the scholars continue to be puzzled. Professor Torrey writes:

Some biblical passage or picture, indeed, is to be looked for as the source of this remarkable feature of Jewish eschatology. It would seem to be beyond question that a tenet of such importance, well established in Talmud, Targum, and Midrash, must have its proof texts in canonical Hebrew scripture. [26]

In speaking of the idea of the two Messiahs, ben Joseph and ben David, he says:

Here are two divinely anointed beings, each connected in the closest way with the fate of both Israel and the nations of the world. It is hardly possible to believe that the Rabbis could have adopted and given out this very significant article of faith merely on the basis of speculation, without definite prophetic authority. [27]

What of It All

I will borrow for my conclusion the words I wrote in the book His Name Shall Be Joseph, which contains a more detailed discussion of the tradition of a Messiah ben Joseph and the knowledge had by the ancients of the Prophet Joseph Smith:

Only the light of the restored gospel can dispel the shadows of time and bring the tapestry of legend and tradition into full view. Only as we stand in that heavenly light that surrounded the youthful Joseph Smith as Moroni unfolded the mysteries of the ancient scriptures to him can we see as Joseph saw and as the prophets of all ages have seen. It takes a prophet to understand the prophetic. The revelations of the past are of little worth without revelation in the present. Until one shares the testimony of living revelation the arguments of past revelation are but the expressions of one who sees “through a glass darkly.” One must have life to grant life. Only living revelation can grant life to the revelation of ages past. Having the revealed knowledge that Jacob’s son, Joseph, did in fact have Heaven’s promise that a latter-day descendant of his would yet bear his name and do again his work in restoring Israel, can we be blamed in seeing in such traditions a resemblance to truths once had? It is a resemblance far too close to have been born of chance. Even the frills of the folklorist, the embroideries of the Talmudist, and the gross exaggerations to which all ancient tales are subject have not destroyed that likeness. Our prophet bears the right name, he was of the right lineage, he was in reality anointed, he did the right works, he taught the right doctrines, and he died the violent death anticipated by the traditions. All of this he did without ever hearing of the legends of which we speak, and in doing so he stood singularly and uniquely alone among the religious leaders of the world. Not since the days of the Bible has there been one like him, and from among the world’s religious leaders none have sought association with him.

In such legends and traditions we find fuel for testimony, but only if the fire of testimony already burns brightly. Such things can add to the burning fire but have no power in themselves to kindle that fire. They are not the source of testimony and thus have no profitable place in the proselyting efforts of the Church. They will not convert the Jew, though they may serve as an additional anchor to the converted Jew. They do not prove the verity of the Restoration and the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith, though as all things bear record of Christ, so they sustain our revealed testimony of the great Prophet of the Restoration. We would not and do not expect the world to see in these traditions that which we see in them. As the scriptures were used anciently to reject the living Messiah, so they are used today to reject the message of the Restoration. We cannot expect others viewing the distant horizon of legend and tradition, and doing so without the light of the new day, to see what we have seen. The wealth of Messianic prophecies has not converted the Jew, and the thousands of prophetic passages describing the Apostasy and Restoration have not dissuaded the Christian. The Sadducees and Pharisees are alive and well. But surely it does not remain for people who have denied the Christ by tradition, by creed, or by deed, and who have sealed the heavens, professing that they cannot speak, to sit in judgment on those who have found him and have heard his voice. As Joseph Smith asked, “Does it remain for a people who never had faith enough to call down one scrap of revelation from heaven . . . to say how much God has spoken and how much he has not spoken?” (History of the Church 2:18). Such traditions are but the rags of the past, yet the rags evidence the whole cloth. They are but ashes, yet the ashes evidence that once things burned with fervent heat. They are but a skeleton, yet the skeleton evidences that there was flesh and blood and spirit. [28]


[1] Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855–86), 16:264.

[2] Journal of Discourses, 267.

[3] Hugo Odeberg, trans., 3 Enoch or the Hebrew Book of Enoch (reprinted; New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1973), 144.

[4] R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 2:260; see also Charles T. Torrey, “The Messiah Son of Ephraim,” Journal of Biblical Literature 66 (1947): 266–68.

[5] The Jewish Encyclopedia, 12 vols. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1904), 8:512.

[6] “The Messiah Son of Ephraim,” 267–68.

[7] Joseph Fielding Smith, Origins of the “Reorganized” Church, 4th ed. (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing, 1945), 60. For additional commentary on names and their ancient significance, see Joseph Fielding McConkie, His Name Shall Be Joseph (Salt Lake City: Hawkes Publications, 1980), 154–58.

[8] Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible . . . with a Commentary and Critical Notes, rev. ed., 6 vols, in 3 (Nashville: Abingdon, n.d.), 4:72.

[9] History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1932), 5:401.

[10] Edward G. King, trans., The Yalkut on Zechariah (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co., 1882), 87.

[11] The Yalkut on Zechariah, 87.

[12] David Brown, A. R. Fausset, and Robert Jamieson, Commentary of the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 633.

[13] “The Messiah Son of Ephraim,” 253.

[14] Solomon Zeitlin, “The Essenes and Messianic Expectations,” Jewish Quarterly Review 45 (1954): 107.

[15] The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 2:355–56.

[16] H. J. Schonfield, Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1975), 71.

[17] The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1:683.

[18] Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1911), 6:340.

[19] The Legends of the Jews, 2:147.

[20] Julius H. Greenstone, The Messiah Idea in Jewish History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1906), 320.

[21] The Legends of the Jews, 4:233.

[22] The Messiah Idea in Jewish History, 96.

[23] The Legends of the Jews, 6:339.

[24] The Legends of the Jews, 5:299; also see Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (New York: Avon Books, 1979), 165.

[25] The Legends of the Jews, 2:7.

[26] “The Messiah Son of Ephraim,” 257.

[27] “The Messiah Son of Ephraim,” 257.

[28] His Name Shall Be Joseph, 180–81.