Four Contrasts between Joseph Smith’s Four First Vision Accounts and the Four Gospels

Icons of the Four Evangelists

The first article in the recent Book of Mormon Central “Insight” series provides an overview of “Joseph Smith’s Firsthand Accounts of the First Vision.” These include the 1838/1839 canonical account in Joseph Smith–History (part of the collection known as the Pearl of Great Price) and three other accounts given by Joseph, two of them earlier than the canonical account (1832, 1835) and one of them later than it (1842).[1] The main point of this article is to assure Latter-day Saints that the existence of these other accounts, despite any differences between them and the official account, should not be troubling to them. As an analogy meant to underscore this point, the article makes the following comparison between Joseph’s multiple accounts and the four Gospels:

As with the four canonical gospels in the New Testament that narrate the life and teachings of Jesus, the four primary accounts of the First Vision can be read individually to appreciate the nuance and subtle differences that they communicate in each retelling or they can be read together in harmony to appreciate them as an organic whole.

We will consider how nuanced or subtle the differences are among Joseph’s primary accounts as we proceed through this series. There are serious differences among those accounts that cannot plausible “be read together in harmony,” notably regarding what Joseph was seeking to know when he had the vision and who and what Joseph saw. For now, though, we should point out some relevant differences between the Gospels and Joseph’s firsthand accounts.[2]

1. The Gospels had four different authors, unlike Joseph’s firsthand accounts.

As the reader presumably already knows, the four Gospels in the New Testament were produced by four different authors. Although biblical scholars hold differing opinions as to the identity of the authors of the Gospels (none of which actually names its author), everyone agrees that they were four different individuals. By contrast, of course, the firsthand accounts of the First Vision were all produced by Joseph Smith himself.

A more appropriate comparison, one would think, would be between the four Gospels and various accounts by persons other than Joseph.

2. The Gospels were written longer after the events they narrate than Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision.

By the most conservative estimates in contemporary biblical scholarship, the earliest of the Gospels was written in the late 50s, at least 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection in either AD 30 or 33. Most scholars date the Gospels between the 60s and the 90s, which would be roughly 30 to 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection.

On the other hand, Joseph’s firsthand accounts were all written between 1832 and 1842, a narrow period of time 12 to 22 years after the date of the First Vision (1820). Thus, the latest of Joseph’s accounts was written a shorter period of time after the event it narrates than the earliest of the four Gospels.

3. The four First Vision accounts by Joseph Smith are all firsthand accounts, which is not the case with all of the Gospel accounts.

By definition, all of Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision were firsthand accounts and thus present themselves as eyewitness testimonies of what he said he personally witnessed. This is not the case with all of the accounts in the four Gospels.

According to the traditional attributions, the Gospels of Matthew and John were produced by apostles, whereas associates of apostles produced the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Assuming Matthew was in some sense the author of the Gospel that bears his name, he would still not have been giving a firsthand, eyewitness account of everything recorded in his Gospel. Matthew would not have been present during the events leading up to Jesus’ birth and infancy (Matt. 1–2) and probably did not witness most of the events that preceded Matthew’s call to follow Jesus as one of his disciples (Matt. 9:9). The traditional view is that Mark composed his Gospel based on the apostle Peter’s recollections in his oral preaching. Luke explicitly distinguishes himself from the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly life (Luke 1:1-4). Luke makes it clear in that preface that he consulted and used multiple sources in writing his account, and most scholars think that is true of the Gospel of Matthew as well. Only the Gospel of John presents itself as based entirely or even predominantly on the eyewitness testimony of its author (John 19:35; 21:24-25).

4. The Gospels are often narrating different though related events, whereas Joseph’s First Vision accounts all claim to report the very same event.

By definition, those accounts that Mormons recognize as First Vision accounts are accounts of the same event—a specific vision that happened to Joseph on a particular day in 1820. The Gospels, of course, often narrate the same events, and one can see this easily in parallel passages such as the three accounts of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22) or the accounts in all four Gospels of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:33-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14). However, in many cases the Gospels are narrating different though similar events that occurred around the same time but that involved different participants. This is notably true of several of the Resurrection appearances reported in the Gospels:

  • Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene alone (John 20:11-18)
  • Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
  • Jesus appearing to the eleven disciples (and perhaps others) on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20)
  • Jesus appearing to seven of the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee (John 21:1-23)

No specific Resurrection appearance is reported in all four of the Gospels.[3] Luke and John do give parallel accounts of Jesus’ first appearance to the men disciples gathered together in the house in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23). On the other hand, Matthew does not mention this appearance, reporting instead an appearance in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20). John does have an appearance in Galilee, but it is a different one than Matthew’s (John 21:1-23). It can be very difficult to harmonize these accounts, but that is not surprising since they are about different events that happened to different groups of people, told from different individuals’ perspectives, and written up by different authors. Luke tells us that there were an uncounted number of these appearances that took place during a period of forty days (Acts 1:3).

Why these contrasts between Joseph’s First Vision accounts and the Gospels matter

The relevance of these four contrasts between Joseph’s firsthand accounts of the First Vision and the four Gospels is simple to understand. In light of these contrasts, we would expect it to be easier, not harder, to harmonize Joseph Smith’s accounts than it would be to harmonize the four Gospels’ parallel accounts of a particular event such as Jesus’ crucifixion or burial. Yet such is not the case, as we will see in subsequent posts in this series. The most significant difficulties in harmonizing the Gospels arise when trying to fit together different events narrated in different Gospels, such as the various appearances of Jesus to differing individuals and groups found in Matthew, Luke, and John. Such difficulties should not be surprising when the accounts come in different books written by different authors reporting different events.

In the case of the First Vision, on the other hand, we have four accounts written by the same author reporting the same event. Yet the difficulties in harmonizing Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision with one another (as well as with other accounts produced by associates during his lifetime) are far more serious than any such problems in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. This is one of several ways in which the historical evidences for Jesus’ resurrection turn out to be much stronger and more secure than the historical evidences for Joseph’s first vision. This point is developed fully in my new book, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (DeWard, 2020).

NOTES


[1] For the complete texts of these and other relevant accounts produced during Joseph’s lifetime, see “First Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision,” at the Faith Thinkers website.

[2] For the information presented here about the Gospels, see especially the mainstream textbook by Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical Literary, and Theological Survey, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018); the evangelical textbook by Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); and, for an agnostic scholar’s perspective, Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[3] If we exclude the Long Ending of Mark (16:9-20) as a later addition to the Gospel, as the vast majority of New Testament scholars do, Mark gives no narration of any Resurrection appearances, at least none that has been preserved.

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