“There came a man among the people” says Jacob, who sought to “overthrow the doctrine of Christ.” That last bit – the “doctrine of Christ,” turns out to rather crucial to this story.
It appears from the details we found in the book of Jacob generally, that Jacob’s preaching left him a bit marginalized from the community. Soon after Nephi’s death, Jacob finds himself preaching repentance to the people not just for their personal weaknesses, but for general trends in the community. When Jacob preaches in Jacob chapter 2, he explains that “this people … seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son” (Jacob 2:23). This was not an isolated occurrence, but something going on in the community generally. He also preached against seeking riches and against those who were learned.
So along comes Sherem, who “was learned” and did “use much flattery.” But most interesting is actually his specific claims against Jacob. He says,
Brother Jacob, I have sought much opportunity that I might speak unto you; for I have heard and also know that thou goest about much, preaching that which ye call the gospel, or the doctrine of Christ. And ye have led away much of this people that they pervert the right way of God, and keep not the law of Moses which is the right way; and convert the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence. And now behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you that this is blasphemy (Jacob 7:6-7)
While he may have been learned, or perhaps even rich, the encounter with Sherem focuses on the question of whether or not there is a Christ. Jack Welch apparently has a fantastic article on Sherem, where he reads this encounter as a sort of official trial for Jacob’s blaspemy! We would tend to think of Jacob putting Sherem on trial more than we would Sherem putting Jacob on trial! But it’s a productive reading. Sherem accuses Jacob of inventing this “doctrine of Christ.” And, if we look closely at the small plates so far, that “doctrine of Christ” is something taught by Nephi and Jacob. (As I understand from 2 Nephi 31-32, it is the doctrine simply of faith, repentance, baptism, and Holy Ghost.) But that phrase doesn’t appear in the Old Testament writers on their brass plates. It would be possible for to read Jacob of going beyond the scriptures. In that way, Sherem would be the purist, and Jacob would be blaspheming.
Note in verse 7 that Sherem says, “no man knoweth of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come.” However he also says he believes the scriptures (v. 10). Don’t Old Testament prophets prophesy concerning future events? Actually, as we discussed this during Study Group, they don’t in the same way that Nephi and Jacob do. Biblical prophets tended to preach about more immediate circumstances: what will happen in this or that war, what sins the people needed to fix so they weren’t destroyed within a few years, etc. Their focus was on interpreting the situation in front of them and prophesying about that.
In the Book of Mormon, we have a different sort of prophesying. The Nephites know 600 years early that Christ will come, and even what his name will be! (And the name of the person who baptizes him!) They have predictions of what generation will be destroyed after Christ comes! Alma explains that things “are made known unto us in plain terms, that we may understand, that we cannot err; and this because of our being wanderers in a strange land; therefore, we are thus highly favored” (Alma 13:23). The Nephite prophets actually are different that Jerusalem prophets. Perhaps Sherem is actually right to point out that Jacob is doing something different. You could read Sherem as saying either that “no man can know of things to come” (ie, Jacob is not a prophet like the brass plates writers and he shouldn’t pretend to be), or “no man can know of things to come” (ie, you aren’t prophesying like the brass plates prophets do so you must not really be a prophet at all).
(Sidenote: we also noted that the Biblical prophets from the exile tended to prophesy of things much further ahead: Daniel, Ezekiel…. Perhaps there is something about simply being away from Jerusalem that entitled prophets to more information about the future.)
So Sherem comes along and basically accuses Jacob of going outside of or beyond the cannon. He says that Jacob is trying to “pervert the right way of God” by adding doctrines to the scriptures without authority to do so. Note that this sounds a lot like the conversation between Abinadi and priests of King Noah. (See Mosiah 12, especially verse 32.) The priests also say they believe the scriptures, but believe that salvation comes through the law of Moses. Abinadi is trying to get them to see that Christ is real and will literally actually come to earth to save us from our sins! It might be that both the people of Nephi and the people of King Noah are trying to made their society match Jerusalem as much as possible. (This might explain the polygamy going on among the Nephites in Jacob’s time, and king Noah having wives and concubines – see Mosiah 11:2.)
Jacob responds by first confirming that Sherem believes the scriptures (v. 10) and the proceeds to explain that those scriptures also teach about Christ but Sherem hasn’t read them very well. His argument might be: whether or not I’m a prophet, what I’m teaching is not blasphemy! But then he goes further “And this is not all” he says in verse 12 “it has been made manifest unto me, for I have heard and seen; and it also has been made manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost.” But, I am a prophet as well!
It had never occurred to me before that this reference to the Holy Ghost is also a reference back to Nephi and Jacob’s teachings about the “doctrine of Christ.” (See 2 Nephi 32 especially; receiving the Holy Ghost after baptism is an essential part!) Sherem, perhaps sarcastically, says, “Show me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much.”
Jacob of course leaves that up to God, and Sherem is overcome such that he falls to the ground. The whole people are amazed when he confesses his fault before his death, which causes them to fall to the ground too. Jacob says “this thing was pleasing unto me, Jacob, for I had requested it of my Father who was in heaven” (v. 22). (This reminds me of Alma the elder rejoicing when his son is carried home helpless by his friends!) Whether “this thing” refers to Sherem being struck or to the people being amazed us unclear.
But whichever it was, it works. “And it came to pass that peace and the love of God was restored again among the people; and they searched the scriptures, and hearkened no more to the words of this wicked man” (v. 23). Note that they actually went and searched the scriptures. This reminds me of Alma 14:11, where the people realize they’ve taught false things and dive back into study of scripture so they won’t be fooled again.
And perhaps the people again, at least for a short while, believe that there really will be a Christ who will make an atonement for their sins.