Why Is 3 Nephi Sometimes Called the “Fifth Gospel”?

November 2, 2016
KnoWhy #222
Fifth Gospel by Book of Mormon Central
Fifth Gospel by Book of Mormon Central
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel”
3 Nephi 27:21

The Know

While describing the contents of the Book of Mormon in a First Presidency message in 2004, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “It contains what has been described as the fifth Gospel, a moving testament of the New World concerning the visit of the resurrected Redeemer on the soil of this hemisphere.”1

In April 1904, B. H. Roberts mentioned that some debated whether “fifth Gospel” was an appropriate designation of 3 Nephi, demonstrating the idea originated at least a century earlier than President Hinckley’s use.2

Image via the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church

Gospel literally means “good news,” and so in one sense 3 Nephi is a “gospel” because—along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—it declares the good news of Christ’s Atonement and resurrection.3 As a literary genre, though, gospel is somewhat difficult to define.4 Broadly speaking, gospels are texts which focus on the life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus.

Beyond the four canonical gospels, there are additional early Christian texts dubbed “gospels,” such as the Gospel of Mary, the Infancy Gospel of James, the Gospel of Nicodemus (The Acts of Pilate), the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazareans, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip. Some of these deal mostly with the post-resurrection acts and teachings of Christ, similar to 3 Nephi.5 Hugh Nibley compared the 3 Nephi account with many of these early Christian post-resurrection traditions and felt that 3 Nephi fit so naturally within that body of literature that “with the title removed, any scholar would be hard put to detect its irregular origin.”6

The first page of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas from Nag Hammadi

Nibley’s work might suggest that 3 Nephi is a “gospel” within the meaning and tradition given to that genre by early Christians. Yet the designation as a fifth Gospel carries greater weight, suggesting it belongs within the same class as the four canonized Gospels, which, as New Testament scholar Christopher M. Tuckett observed, are quite different from the non-canonized gospels.7

The four Gospels are of course somewhat different within themselves, but a number of points neatly suggest that 3 Nephi has a place alongside them. Some examples include:

  • Much like Matthew and Luke, 3 Nephi begins with the fulfillment of prophesied signs of the Savior’s birth (3 Nephi 1; cf. Matthew 1–2; Luke 1–2).8
  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all mention John the Baptist, the forerunner sent to prepare the way for Christ in the Old World (Matthew 3; Mark 1; Luke 3; John 1). 3 Nephi likewise records the ministry of a forerunner who baptizes among the Nephites—the prophet Nephi, son of Nephi (3 Nephi 7:15–26).9
  • Just as Jesus did, Nephi cast out devils, healed the sick, and even raised his brother from dead. As the Savior’s New World forerunner, Nephi preformed his miracles “in the name of Jesus” (3 Nephi 7:19–22). Thus, as New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl put it, 3 Nephi “transposes the ministry of Jesus into a ministry of Nephi, a man of miracles in the name of Jesus.”10
  • Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the Father bearing witness of the Son,11 as does 3 Nephi (3 Nephi 11:7).
  • Just as all four Gospels document the death and crucifixion of Jesus,12 3 Nephi records the fulfillment of prophesied signs confirming the Savior’s death and three days in the tomb (3 Nephi 8–10).13 The 3 Nephi account may even help clarify the timeline of Christ’s entombment, since the account of the destruction adds information about the timing and duration Christ’s death.14
  • Image of Jesus Christ teaching from lds.orgJust as the New Testament Gospels record the teachings of the Savior during His earthly ministry, 3 Nephi records the teachings of the resurrected Lord.15 This includes the Sermon at the Temple (3 Nephi 12–14),16 which parallels the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) and Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17–49), the clarification of teachings recorded in John about His “other sheep,”17 and the institution of the sacrament.18
  • The Nephite record stands as a fifth witness of the bodily resurrection of Christ (3 Nephi 11), in a way that exceeds the all other Gospels, canonical19 and non-canonical.20

Several more points of comparison could be made.21 Yet just as the New Testament Gospels have key differences that ought to be noticed, 3 Nephi is different from the other four gospels in important respects. As LDS gospel scholar Andrew C. Skinner noted, the Savior “said and did things of which the four Gospels have no record, and for which 3 Nephi is our treasured source.”22 Key among these are the post-resurrection nature of the Savior’s ministry, and the emphasis on the temple in Christ’s teachings.23

The Why

Quote from Elder Brian K. Ashton's October 016 General Conference Address. Image by Book of Mormon Central.

Many have attempted to imitate the gospels, and have failed miserably.24 Yet 3 Nephi offers an authentic fifth Gospel which “complements and supplements the four biblical Gospels.”25 As Skinner pointed out, it is unique among Gospel accounts in possessing material “reviewed and edited by the Savior himself.”26

In the October 2016 General Conference, Brother Brian K. Ashton similarly taught, “Jesus’s visit to the Nephites after His Resurrection was carefully organized to teach us the things of greatest importance.”27 Thus, disciples of Christ can be confident that “3 Nephi contains those matters that the Savior himself felt were and are most important.”28

In July 1838, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven.”29

President Ezra Taft Benson taught that the Book of Mormon, “is the keystone in our witness of Christ,”30 a point Elder Gary E. Stevenson reiterated recently.31 While the entire Book of Mormon is saturated with various testimonies of Christ, the Gospel of 3 Nephi is the preeminent reason that the Book of Mormon stands as a keystone witness of Christ’s divinity.

Detail of The Bible and the Book of Mormon Testify of Christ by Greg K. Olsen. Image via lds.org

By detailing the post-resurrection appearance and ministry of Jesus Christ in the Americas, “3 Nephi stands as an independent witness of the linchpin doctrine of the entire Christian faith—the bodily Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.”32 It is a Gospel, not of the mortal Jesus, but of the risen Lord.33 In a time of ever increasing skepticism about who Jesus was and who He claimed to be, the Book of Mormon, as LDS author Michael R. Ash observed, “is a unique second witness to the divinity of Christ and the reality of the Resurrection.”34

“Truly, 3 Nephi is worthy of the designation Fifth Gospel—the capstone of all Gospel accounts,” Skinner concluded.35 It is a Gospel the world desperately needs now—a Gospel which has the potential to soften hearts, change minds, and convert people unto the Lord. Skinner resolved, “For this Fifth Gospel we should be forever grateful and perhaps much more active in filling the earth with its contents.”36

Further Reading

Andrew C. Skinner, Third Nephi: The Fifth Gospel (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2012).

Monte S. Nyman, Book of Mormon Commentary, 6 vols. (Orem, UT: Granite, 2003), volume 5.

John W. Welch, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999).

Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, The Collected Works Hugh Nibley, Volume 8 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 407–434.