Looking beyond the Mark

Insights from the JST into First-Century Judaism

Robert L. Millet

Robert L. Millet, “Looking beyond the Mark: Insights from the JST into First-Century Judaism,” in The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Truths, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1985), 201–14.

Robert L. Millet was an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was published.

In speaking of Joseph Smith the Prophet, President Wilford Woodruff observed:

His mind was opened by the visions of the Almighty, and the Lord taught him many things by vision and revelation that were never taught publicly in his days; for the people could not bear the flood of intelligence which God poured into his mind. [1]

Latter-day Saints, however, should be filled with gratitude for what God did see fit to make known to the restored church through that “choice seer,” the man who in modern times beheld “things which were not visible to the natural eye” (Moses 6:36).

Through his work of inspired revision of the King James Bible (JST), the Prophet Joseph restored to the world many plain and precious truths concerning Jesus Christ—his parables, miracles, his personality and power. In addition, invaluable insights concerning his ministry among the Jews are now available. This paper will deal specifically with the state of Judaism at the time of Jesus, as such things are elucidated in the JST.


Seven hundred years before Jesus walked the roads of his beloved Palestinian homelands, Isaiah the prophet spoke of the coming Messiah as one who would mature “as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2). Indeed, he would grow up “as a choice and favored plant whose strength and achievement did not come because of the arid social culture in which he dwelt; it was not poured into him by the erudition of Rabbinic teachers; but it came from the divine source from whence he sprang.” [2] This root-stock or “stem of Jesse” would grow to godhood in a sterile and barren religious soil, in the midst of great learning but gross darkness. The social and religious backdrop of the life of Christ—the setting of first-century Judaism in Palestine—provides the supreme element of contrast in the unfolding drama of the mortal ministry of the Son of God: the Anointed One was the Light which shone; a benighted generation bound by traditions and customs was the darkness which refused to comprehend the light.

After ages of bondage, the Jews of the first century had riveted themselves upon the hope of deliverance. Anticipation was great and expectations were legion, for “the Jews taught that the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (JST Luke 19:11). And yet, “the Jews were looking for a redeemer quite different from the Christ. It was a temporal salvation that they desired. It was an earthly kingdom for which they longed. It was not faith, repentance, and baptism for which they sought, but national vindication, the destruction of gentile oppressors, and the establishment of a kingdom of peace and justice.” [3] With such limited vision and perspective, it is not difficult to see how a people could “discern the face of the sky” but not “discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). Jesus the Christ was the ultimate sign, the fulfillment of the Mosaic ordinances and utterances, and, ironically, the great end to all of Judaism’s myriad means. Nevertheless, a stiffnecked generation refused to focus upon the Mark, and chose instead to look for a Messiah of their own making.

Jesus, the Jews, and the Law

In the purest sense, Jesus was an observant Jew. He Loved and honored the law of Moses, and sought to keep the statutes and ordinances associated therewith. His divine perspective allowed him to view the law in the spirit in which it was given, as a “schoolmaster” (literally “pedagogue,” “tutor,” or “attendant”) for a wayward people in need of structure and direction. “Christ Himself,” taught Joseph Smith, “fulfilled all righteousness in becoming obedient to the law which he had given to Moses on the mount, and thereby magnified it and made it honorable, instead of destroying it.” [4] Until the time of the infinite atonement was past, the Master taught that the law was to be observed and kept. “Heaven and earth must pass away,” he emphatically declared, “but one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, until all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so to do, he shall in no wise be saved in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach these commandments of the law until it be fulfilled, the same shall be called great, and shall be saved in the kingdom of heaven.” (JST Matthew 5:20–21.)

It is not difficult to fathom how a people could become so enamored with the extremities and extensions of the pure instruction of heaven that they might begin eventually to ignore and overlook the core teachings, the “weightier matters of the law.” Those who become easily bored by the basics and who constantly seek to engage in the peripheral and esoteric may come to trade plainness of blindness (see Jacob 4:14). Such was obviously the state of things at the time of Christ. Had the Pharisees been more intense in their study of the pure law (rather than the commentaries upon it) and more eager to apply its teachings (rather than seeking for further things which they could not understand), they might have distilled the central message of the Torah and thereby recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the giver of the law and the promised Messiah. Such was not, however, to be the case. Even though Judaism represented the closest approximation to the ancient gospel (“Salvation is of the Jews,” Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman—John 4:22), the failure of individuals and congregations to accept and receive the living oracles sealed their doom. One of the most interesting insertions of the Prophet Joseph Smith into the King James Bible is found in chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel. Note the relationship between rejecting (or ignoring) the law and rejecting the Christ:

JST Matthew 9:15–16

And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from the, and then shall they fast.

No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse.

JST Matthew 9:16–22

And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridge-chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them?

But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.

Then said the Pharisees unto him, why will ye not receive us with our baptism, seeing we keep the whole law? [5]

But Jesus said unto them, Ye keep not the law. If ye had kept the law, ye would have received me, for I am he who gave the law.

I receive not you with your baptism, because it profiteth you nothing.

For when that which is new is come, the old is ready to be put away.

For no man putteth a piece of new cloth on and old garment; for that which is put in to fill it up, taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse.

Not only does the preceding addition provide a marvelous topical transition an establish the social and doctrinal setting for the discussion of new cloth and new battles (Jesus has rejected the baptism of the Pharisees—cf. D&C 22); it also underscores the fact that those who accept and follow divine direction come to recognize and accept the Divine Director; those who set the law at naught and seek to become a law unto themselves are condemned by the law and rejected by the Lawgiver. Another passage from Luke teaches this same principle.

KJV Luke 14:33–35

So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?

It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

JST Luke 14:34–38

So likewise, whosoever of you forsaketh not all that he hath he cannot be my disciple.

Then certain of them came to him, saying, Good Master, we have Moses and the prophets, and whosoever shall live by them, shall he not have Life?

And Jesus answered, saying, Ye know not Moses, neither the prophets; for if ye had known them, ye would have believed on me; for to this intent they were written. For I am sent that ye might have life. Therefore I will liken it unto salt which is good;

But if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned?

It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dung hill; men cast it out. He who hath ears to hear, let him hear. These things he said, signifying that which was written, verily must all be fulfilled.

Jesus’ criticism of the leaders of the Jews was largely for their perverted priorities, for confusing tokens with covenants, ritual with religion. Further, he condemned their adherence to the “traditions of the elders” as “teaching the doctrines and the commandments of men” (JST Mark 7:6–7; JST Matthew 15:8). In the eyes of the Lord, to present oneself as a master and expert of the law and then to miss the undergirding intent and antitype of the law was the height of hypocrisy. In a sense, it was to be guilty of a profanation and violation of the entire Mosaic code. “Ye blind guides,” Jesus said in a scathing denunciation, “who strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel; who make yourselves appear unto men that ye would not commit the least sin, and yet ye yourselves, transgress the whole law” (JST Matthew 23:21). In addition, the Lord chastened the leaders of the Jews for being so caught up in the observance of the traditions of the elders (see Matthew 15:1–9; Mark 7:1–9) that they had ceased to observe the very law around which those vain traditions had been established. In an insightful passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ explained to his disciples:

KJV Matthew 7:3–5

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

JST Matthew 7:4–8

And again, ye shall say unto them, Why is it that thou beholdest the mote that is in they brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and canst not behold a beam in thine own eye?

And Jesus said unto his disciples, Beholdest thou the Scribes, and the Pharisees, and the Priests, and the Levites? They teach in their synagogues, but do not observe the law, nor the commandments; and all have gone out of the way, and are under sin.

Go thou and say unto the, Why teach ye men the law and the commandment, when ye yourselves are the children of corruption?

Say unto them, Ye hypocrites, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

A similar passage from Mark points toward misplaced zeal and priorities among Jewish leaders Jesus is chiding the Jews for failure to keep the regulations of the law regarding care of one’s parents (see Exodus 20:12). Note the account in the JST:

KJV Mark 7:9–10

And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandments of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:

JST Mark 7:9–12

And he said unto them, Yea, altogether ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

Full well is it written of you, by the prophets whom ye have rejected.

They testified these things of a truth, and their blood shall be upon you.

Ye have kept not the ordinances of God; for Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death of the transgressor, as it s written in your law; but ye keep not the law.

Spiritual Stumblings of the Jews

Jesus stood as a marked contrast to the rabbis of his day. He taught the people “as one having authority from God, and not as having authority from the Scribes” (JST Matthew 7:37). The ability to teach with spiritual authority is a gift granted to those who pay the price of fasting, prayer, and scripture study (see Alma 17:2–3). Jesus had paid such a price and much more, while his Jewish counterparts had attended more to what the learned had said about the law than what had actually been said in the law. “Ye do err therefore,” Christ said the Sadducees, “because ye know not, and understand not the Scriptures, neither the power of God” (JST Mark 12:28). Here even the Sadducees—who rejected the oral interpretations so dear to the heart of the Pharisees—are scolded for their lack of scriptural insight. Had the leaders of the Jews prayerfully studied and taught from the scriptures of the day, there would have been a power and an authority behind the words they spoke. Had they accepted Jesus as the Christ and entered in at the strait gate, they would have enjoyed the ratifying influence of the Holy Ghost in their declarations. Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written:

Many great doctrinal revelations come to those who preach from the scriptures. When they are in tune with the Infinite, the Lord lets them know, first, the full and complete meaning of the scriptures they are expounding, and then he ofttimes expands their views so that new truths flood in upon them, and they learn added things that those who do not follow such a course can never know. [6]

Needless to say, first-century Judaism may be characterized as a generation who, for the most part, did not follow such a course. Consequently, the teachers of the day lacked the confirming spiritual power that was so evident in the works and words of Jesus.

Jesus chided the Pharisees and scribes for remaining content with a sterile form of worship, a hollow shell of a system wanting in the life that is breathed into religious practice through current revelation. Truly, as Nephi had taught almost six hundred years before, “from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (2 Nephi 28:30). Traditions are evident among some rabbis concerning a noticeable absence in ancient Judaism of the spirit of prophecy and revelation. [7] Some date the loss of the Holy spirit or the divine Shekhinah from the destruction of the first temple, others with the deaths of the Old Testament prophets. [8] One ancient Jewish writer observed: “When the last of the Prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi died, the Holy spirit departed from Israel.” [9] Another account: “At first, before Israel sinned against morality, the Shekhinah abode with each individual; as it is said, ‘For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp’ (Deuteronomy 23:15). When they sinned, the Shekhinah departed from them.” [10] E.R. Goodenough spoke of later Judaism and made the distinction between what he called the “horizontal” and “vertical” paths to holiness. In describing the horizontal path, Goodenough explained:

Man walked through this life along the road God had put before him, a road which was itself the light and law of God, and God above rewarded him for doing so. Man was concerned with proper observances to show respect to God, and with proper attitudes an acts toward his fellow men, but apart from honoring God, he looked to God only for the divine rod and staff to guide him when he was weak. . . . This seems to me the Wesen of halachic or rabbinic or talmudic or Pharisaic Judaism. . . . [11]

Further, Goodenough observed:

Alongside rabbinic Judaism in Palestine in the century or so before the fall of Jerusalem there sprang up a rash of other sects. The Essences we know by name, but we have only external and inadequate reports of their views. Then we have documents, like the strange apocalypses of Enoch and Baruch, Noah, Adam, and the rest, whose interest seems to be in a hero who had trod not a horizontal path but a vertical one up to the throne of God, and had returned to tell men of another world. [12]

In summary, Goodenough proposed that there was eventually within Judaism “the tension between the two basic types of religious experience . . . , the religion of the vertical path by which man climbs to God and even to a share in divine nature, as over against the legal religion where man walks a horizontal path through this world according to God’s instructions.” [13] In the end, according to Goodenough, Rabbinic or Pharisaic Judaism won out, and the vertical path to God within Judaism was suppressed and gradually forgotten. [14] The fact that many in the first century had reached the point of personal apostasy to the degree that they no longer accepted modern prophets or even personal revelation is evident in the following from the Sermon on the Mount:

KJV Matthew 7:7–10

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:

For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

JST Matthew 7:12–19

Say unto them, Ask of God, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you

For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened.

And then said his disciples unto him, they will say unto us, We ourselves are righteous, and need not that any man should teach us. God, we know, heard Moses and some of the prophets; but us he will not hear.

And they will say, We have the law for our salvation, and that is sufficient for us.

Then Jesus answered, and said unto his disciples, thus shall ye say unto them,

What man among you, having a son, and he shall be standing out, and shall say, father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee, will not say, Come in, my son;’ for mine is thine, and thine is mine?

Or what man is there among you, who, if his son ask bread, will give him a stone?

Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

Perhaps more than any other place in the Gospels, the above passage from the Prophet’s inspired revision demonstrates the static and inert condition of the days of Jesus. Much like the people in our day who eschew the Book of Mormon as an unnecessary addition to the total and complete and inerrant Bible, the Jews of the first century had stumbled into a pathetic state of blindness perfectly characterized by the statement: “God, we know, heard Moses and some of the prophets; but us he will not hear.” How typical of those who are “past feeling” to so respond.

“Have ye inquired of the Lord?” Nephi asked his rebellious brothers concerning their lack of understanding regarding the destiny of the house of Israel. “We have not,” they responded, “for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” (1 Nephi 15:8–9; emphasis added.) In Christ’s day the spirit of true inquiry was all but gone. Absent was the awareness of the need for the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Elder Orson Pratt explained:

The Jews had apostatized before Jesus came among them to that degree, that there were sects and parties among them, just as we find in the Christian world since; and these Jewish sects were destitute of the spirit of prophecy which their ancient fathers had; they were destitute of the ministration of angels, and scarcely one feature existed which was among their fathers in the days of their righteousness. It was because of this that the Jews were broken off, and the Gentiles were grafted in, and were made partakers of the riches, blessings and glories formerly enjoyed by the ancient Jews. [15]

As an illustration of the elevation of the wise interpreter of the law over the simple man with prophetic mantle and inspiration, note the following short observation of one Jewish mind: “Although the gift of prophecy was taken away from the prophets, it remained with the wise; hence it may be inferred that the wise are greater than the prophets.” [16] One rather humorous but poignant rabbinic anecdote is given in the Babylonian Talmud. It seems that a debate had ensued between a Rabbi Eliezer and a number of his colleagues. The account is as follows:

On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: “If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!” Thereeupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place—others affirm four hundred cubits. “No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,” they retorted. Again he said to them: “If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!” Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they rejoined. Again he urged: “If the halachuh agrees with me, let the walls of the building be inclined to fall.” But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: “When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?” Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: “If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: “Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!” But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven.” What did he mean by this?—Said R. Jeremiah: “That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai. . . [17]

An absentee God and an unresponsive Deity exerts little influence upon the hearts and minds of his children. Those who subscribe to a belief in such a Being are only a stone’s throw removed from an outright denial of their God’s existence. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass,” the Lord declared, “than for one tittle of the law to fail.” And then in a discerning and stinging manner, Christ continued to address the leaders of the Jews: “Why teach ye the law, and deny that which is written; and condemn him whom the Father hath sent to fulfil the law, that ye might all be redeemed? O fools! for you have said in your hearts, There is no God. And you pervert the right way; and the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence of you; and you persecute the meek; and in your violence you seek to destroy the kingdom.” (JST Luke 16:19–21; emphasis added.)

The Jews of the meridian dispensation made their destruction sure when they determined upon a course which denied the place and efficacy of continuing revelation. “Woe unto you, lawyers!” the Savior said. “For ye have taken away the key of knowledge, the fullness of the scriptures; ye enter not in yourselves into the kingdom; and those who were entering in, ye hindered.” (JST Luke 11:53; emphasis added.) Elder McConkie has written concerning this verse:

The Devil wages war against the scriptures. He hates them, perverts their plain meanings, and destroys them when he can. He entices those who heed his temptings to delete and discard, to change and corrupt, to alter and amend, thus taking away the key which will aid in making men “wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15–1).

Accordingly, Jesus is here heaping wo upon those who have contaminated and destroyed scriptures which would have guided and enlightened the Jews. [18]

In a much broader sense, to take away “the fullness of the scriptures” is to deny and hinder the spirit of revelation, inasmuch as scripture represents that which is uttered by the power of the Holy Ghost (see D&C 68:3–4). There stood One among the Jews who, with his associates (as legal administrators), offered to the world of the first century living scripture, living fruit from the living tree of life. Those who were earnest in their hearts partook of the fruit and lived. Those who chose to “walk in darkness at noon day” rejected the fruit and denied themselves access to God’s new covenant with Israel, and, equally important, fellowship with the Mediator of the covenant.


[1] Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855–86), 5:83–84.

[2] Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1978), 478.

[3] Joseph F. McConkie, “Messianic Expectations Among the Jews,” in A Symposium on the New Testament (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church Educational System, 1980), 128.

[4] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1972), 5:261.

[5] “Now the process by which a man was made a proselyte [convert to Judaism] was threefold: it consisted of circumcision, immersion in water (i.e., baptism), and the presentation of an offering in the Temple. Of these rites baptism assumed a growing importance.” (W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980], 121.) See also Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p. 320; Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1937), 3:88; F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1979), 64; W. F. Flemington, “Baptism,” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vols. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962–76), 1:348–49.

[6] Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah, 515–16.

[7] I am indebted to Catherine Thomas for calling a number of these statements to my attention. Some of the statements are cited in Catherine Thomas’s “Cessation and Restoration of Divine Revelation in Israel,” unpublished manuscript.

[8] See Ginzberg, Legends, 6:441–42.

[9] Yomah 9b and Sotah 48b, as cited in Thomas, “Cessation and Restoration of Divine Revelation in Israel,” 4.

[10] Sotah 3b, as cited in ibid.

[11] E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1953), 1:18.

[12] Ibid., 18–19.

[13] Ibid., 19–20.

[14] See Goodenough’s discussion in ibid., 3–32.

[15] Orson Pratt in Journal of Discourses, 16:345; (emphasis added).

[16] Cited in Ginzberg, Legends, 6:442.

[17] TB BABA BAZIA 59B; see also Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1947), 68–69.

[18] Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966–73), 1:624–25.