This post is a summary of the article “Assyria and the “Great Church” of Nephi’s Vision” by Todd Uriona in Volume 55 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Uriona posits that some elements of Nephi’s vision were in part influenced by and a response to rhetoric of conquest and domination from the Assyrian Empire, with the fall of the Assyrian empire used as a template for the fall of the “great church.”
In this article, Todd Uriona proposes that language used within royal inscriptions from the Assyrian Empire, long known to have connections with biblical writing, may also have influenced Nephi, particularly in some of the imagery used in the account of Nephi’s vision. Uriona puts forward several potential parallels based on language used by conquering Assyrians, including the following:
- Nephi’s descriptions of pride and loftiness for those opposing the Lamb of God (reinforced by the loftiness of the great and spacious building), aligning with Assyrian descriptions of their enemies as “arrogant”, “obstinate”, and “proud”.
- Nephi’s focus on the saints being yoked in captivity, which was a common Assyrian metaphor for their rule of other nations.
- Nephi’s descriptions of torture by the great church, which Assyrians seems to enjoy describing in details.
- Assyrian imagery of advancing in battle like a raging flood, with the king’s “glory” overwhelming his enemies, which Uriona attempts to connect to the river of filthy water and being covered by a “mist of darkness” respectively in Nephi’s vision.
- Nephi’s description of the great church’s acquisition of “gold”, “silver”, “fine-twinted linen” and “harlots”, which has no biblical parallel, but that aligns well with Assyrian descriptions of the tribute they received from conquered enemies.
- Assyrian descriptions of their palaces as “great”, aligning with the “great and spacious building”, and with the Assyrian word for “palace” the same as Near East terms for “temple” or “church”, helping strengthen the connection with Assyrian Empire as a model for the “great church”.
- Nephi’s presentation of the Lamb of God as a universal sovereign over the “four quarters of the earth”, and bringing peace and healing through his “rod of iron”, contrasting with Assyrian claims of maintaining control over the “four quarters of the earth”, with a rod or scepter a common Assyrian motif symbolizing legitimate rule.
- Nephi’s description of garments being “made white in the blood of the Lamb” contrasting with Assyrian descriptions of dyeing the skins of defeated kings red with blood.
- The common Assyrian metaphor comparing their conquered victims to slaughtered sheep contrasting with Christ’s introduction as the “Lamb of God” (which Uriona acknowledges as also being a strong metaphor for Christ’s sacrificial role).
On the basis of these parallels, Uriona reframes the “great church” as being potentially modeled on the Assyrian Empire, with its brutal methods of compulsion, its appetite for fine material goods, and its subsequent destruction presaging the dramatic fall of the great church. Christ thus serves as the true sovereign that can help us avoid that fall through reliance on his righteousness and power.
It makes sense to me that Nephi’s vision would have relied on themes and imagery that he would’ve been familiar with, and Uriona makes a persuasive case that Nephi, as with other writers in the biblical era, could have been strongly impacted by the relatively recent destruction of the Assyrian Empire. I could imagine a modern individual being similarly influenced in their writing, being more likely to use imagery from the fall of the Third Reich or the Confederate loss in the U.S. Civil War when faced with describing more contemporary military defeats. Readers can judge the strengths of Uriona’s parallels for themselves (I’m sure, for instance, that the Assyrian’s weren’t the only ones to describe their palaces as “great”), but the possibilities he presents remain interesting regardless.
One aspect that I’d like to see explored a little deeper is the potential comparison with competing accounts of the origins of Nephi’s vision. How, for instance, does Uriona’s model of Assyrian influence compare with the idea that Joseph Smith was influenced by 19th century anti-Catholic rhetoric? Which idea has greater explanatory power, particularly when Uriona’s perspective is combined with other potential ancient influences (e.g., ancient apocalyptic literature or Wisdom theology)? Hopefully Uriona and others can continue to meaningfully move these ideas forward. In the meantime, we can enjoy the fruits that continue to be harvested from Nephi’s expansive vision.