The Complexity of the Book of Mormon

During the most recent General Conference, Elder Ted R. Callister (General Sunday School President) spoke about the Book of Mormon, and particularly about its complexity as evidence for its inspiration. All too often, however, I see assertions of the opposite, that almost anyone with some basic familiarity with the Bible or an open copy of the King James version could write it. I came across many such claims during the writing of my thesis, and just the other week found a similar statement in a “Concise Oxford Dictionary of Religions” I came across in a charity shop (namely that the book’s authenticity was doubted because of its “reminisces of the King James version”; I didn’t check at the time, but would be intrigued to know if the contributors had felt the need to make similar statements in regards to other faiths).

These statements typically take the form of sweeping generalizations, with little evidence because few of those making such comments seem to have taken the trouble to examine the book itself closely. In contrast, one very clear finding throughout my thesis was just how exceptionally complex the Book of Mormon’s use of biblical material actually was, far more complex than I’d suggest most actual readers pick up. Furthermore, again and again I found evidence that the authors of the Book of Mormon would have needed to be far more familiar with biblical material than the critics claimed. One example from Chapter 3:

Nephi then proceeds to place a condition upon the fulfilment of this covenant:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

At first glance this appears to be a simple assertion, a claim that this ‘marvelous work’ is to be accomplished by a display of divine power. However, what this misses is that the two halves of this verse are not connected simply by assertion, but by a chain of associated passages:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

Yea, and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord, saith the prophet; every nation, kindred, tongue and people shall be blessed.

(1 Nephi 19:17)

The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

(Isaiah 52:10; bold, italicised, and underlined text marks linked passages.)

Thus the reference to the blessing of ‘all the kindreds of the earth’ not only refers to the just quoted covenant with Abraham, but also alludes to the second half of 1 Nephi 19:17, attributed as a quotation of the non-biblical prophet Zenos. In turn, the first clause of 1 Nephi 19:17, ‘and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord’, corresponds to the second part of Isaiah 52:10 (not quoted here, but quoted four times – twice explicitly – elsewhere in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 12:24, Mosiah 15:31, 3 Nephi 16:20 and 20:35). Finally, returning to 1 Nephi 22:10, we find the first half of Isaiah 52:10 supplying the final phrase of the verse.[1] This is extremely unlikely to be coincidental; instead it appears that the various stages by which the author linked these phrases together in 1 Nephi 22:10 have been left out, leaving only the conclusion.

[1]     Grant Hardy appears to have noticed the same connection, see Hardy, Reader’s Edition, p. 58, footnotes f and g.

As I then point out a little further down:

As noted in chapter two, one particular suggestion has been offered to explain this connection: that Joseph Smith had access to a King James Bible in front of him to assist him. While such suggestions face difficulties from eyewitness statements to the dictation process, this idea has been advanced by both critics and believers in different forms.[1] Thus Wesley Walters, holding that Joseph Smith was the actual author, argues that Joseph Smith must have had ‘his KJV Bible open in front of him’, the only alternative being memorization.[2] Sidney Sperry, on the other hand, while regarding Joseph Smith as a translator, has also argued for the possibility that a Bible was used for help in translating when Joseph Smith came across passages that were recognisably from the Bible and when the KJV was considered adequate.[3]

Yet the above example, and others like it, of the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible present such suggestions with substantial logical problems. While the idea of working directly from an ‘open’ Bible might suffice for explicit quotations, it is a less adequate explanation for the situation above in which phrases are interwoven into the text and associated by an unwritten chain in which the intervening steps are omitted.[4] Any author would need substantially more familiarity than Wesley Walters’ scenario appears to grant (that is ‘enough to scatter biblical phrases freely’).[5] Likewise any translator attempting to use the KJV as a mundane aid to fill the gaps of any translation would need extensive biblical awareness simply to find the chain of relevant texts. There are historical reasons such scriptural fluency on the part of Joseph Smith has not been assumed.[6] A range of historical and theological possibilities could be suggested that do not require Joseph Smith to have this biblical familiarity; the book itself claims to be interpreted ‘by the gift of God’ (title page). What is clear, however, is that an open Bible alone is insufficient to explain the evident familiarity with the biblical text and the close connection the Book of Mormon has with the KJV.

[1]     All eyewitness statements to the dictation process deny the presence of other texts. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 132; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 70; Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, pp. 30–32.

[2]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 36.

[3]     Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 135; Sperry, ‘The text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon’, pp. 80–81.

[4]     Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, pp. 67–68.

[5]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 13.

[6]     For instance, Emma Smith’s report that at one point during the dictation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith expressed concern as to whether Jerusalem had walls. John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, ‘Book of Mormon Translation by Joseph Smith’, Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. by Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 210; See also Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 13.

Obviously, like Elder Callister, I’d attribute this complexity and familiarity with the biblical text not to Joseph Smith, or any other 19th century figure, but to far older figures and ultimately divine inspiration. However, what is clear are that repeated claims that the Book of Mormon simply copies the Bible, and that anyone with an open Bible could have written it, are simply not true.


More examples of this complexity, and much else, can be found in my book, The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, which is available as a free PDF from this site, or may be obtained in paperback or in kindle format (including from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here).

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Shiz versus Coriantumr

A major, but often ignored, theme of the Book of Mormon is the collapse of societies and civilizations. The book concludes by recounting the destruction of both the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations. As I’ve written before, I believe there’s a lot in those accounts that is relevant for the situation we find ourselves in today. There are important differences between the two accounts, however. With the Nephites, they were destroyed by an external adversary, due to their pride, wickedness, and failure to repent despite the mercy the Lord had previously extended to them. While one could see the Nephite-Lamanite divide as a case of polarization, the Lamanites were ultimately spared. In the Jaredite case, however, the conflict was internal, and both sides destroyed themselves in an act of civilizational suicide.

It is perhaps particularly applicable to the social and political climate in which we find ourselves today, that the Jaredites never stopped in their conflict to wonder whether they had any other options. After another period of prolonged conflict, their choices devolve into two: Shiz or Coriantumr. Doubtless there were Jaredites who were exclaiming that everyone must choose, and that it was a binary choice. It was certainly the case that many Jaredites chose their side because of their terror of the other:

And there went a fear of Shiz throughout all the land; yea, a cry went forth throughout the land—Who can stand before the army of Shiz? Behold, he sweepeth the earth before him!

And it came to pass that the people began to flock together in armies, throughout all the face of the land.

And they were divided; and a part of them fled to the army of Shiz, and a part of them fled to the army of Coriantumr.

(Ether 14:18-20)

After all, do you want Shiz/Coriantumr to win? If you don’t choose Coriantumr/Shiz, then all you’re doing is helping Shiz/Coriantumr! At least, many say such things today, and it’s entirely possible that at least some Jaredites said something similar.

Now sometimes there are only a few available choices, and one must try to choose the better one in difficult circumstances. But sometimes, neither choice is correct. Witness Nazism vs Communism on the Eastern front, where two genocidal and evil ideologies faced off, and some choices could be based on but little than “who doesn’t want to kill us right now?” In some cases, there are no good choices. But what would certainly be incorrect in such circumstances is to conclude that, because the other is evil, the other must be good and be embraced. This is a perennial temptation through the ages, a pattern in which we are tempted to accept the evil in one thing merely because it is opposed to another evil thing. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.

The Jaredites became so consumed with their hatred for the other side, they never considered that they didn’t have to choose a side, and that by choosing a side, they would end up destroying both sides. But that was the result of their decisions, even over the heads of their leaders. In perhaps the most interesting part of the account (and one I’ve discussed before), we learn that Coriantumr, though he had rejected repentance earlier, had begun to regret that when faced with the destruction that was happening, and went as far as offering to “give up the kingdom for the sake of the lives of the people” (Ether 15:3-4). Shiz demands Coriantumr’s life as well. It’s possible that Coriantumr rejected that, but any response of his is not recorded. Instead we read (Ether 15:6):

And it came to pass that the people repented not of their iniquity; and the people of Coriantumr were stirred up to anger against the people of Shiz; and the people of Shiz were stirred up to anger against the people of Coriantumr; wherefore, the people of Shiz did give battle unto the people of Coriantumr.

The resumption of hostilities – the final resumption that will conclude in the death of every combatant save Coriantumr – is thus ascribed not to Coriantumr’s reply, or even Shiz’s bloodthirstiness, but to the anger of “the people” of both sides. The people of Coriantumr himself were prepared to keep killing and dying in his cause, even if he himself was prepared to concede at least his position to spare the people.

The only other individual, save Coriantumr, who survived was Ether, who did not pick either side. Yet it was Ether’s legacy – his writings – that continued, which survived the destruction of his whole civilisation and which were preserved for future civilisations to come. It was Ether who ultimately made the most difference, and did the most good, by not choosing either side, but by choosing something higher.

We live in an age in which political and cultural rivals and opponents are increasingly regarded as evil and are called enemies, in an age in which we are increasingly told we must pick a side, and in which increasing numbers are embracing extremism out of fear and hatred of others. This is a familiar account, and one that may well have a similar result. The leap towards violence seems so much smaller once one is dealing with enemies rather than mere opponents you might disagree with. Yet whatever the wider society does, we do not need to embrace evil to fight evil. We can reject such a binary choice. We can choose differently. We can choose higher.

Kindle edition available

For those who wish to read it on mobile devices, a Kindle edition of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible is now available:The_Book_of_Mormon_a_Cover_for_Kindle

It’s now linked up with the paperback’s Amazon entries, so can be found on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and most other Amazon marketplaces.

In the print

Perhaps this is a feeling many authors have when meeting their work “in the flesh” for the first time, but part of me is honestly finding it a little hard to believe I had anything to do with this:

I have to say I’m very impressed with Createspace’s quality, and would certainly both use them again and recommend their services to others.

Once again, the book is available as a free PDF, or may be purchased as a paperback from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and various Amazon Europe pages.

Free e-book: The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible

As readers of my blog may be aware, I’ve been engaged in a PhD examining the Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. I submitted earlier this year (2017). However, to the great surprise of not only myself but also my supervisors, it was rejected with the instruction to rewrite it and resubmit for examination in 2019. I have significant cause to believe that this was an unfair and an inadequate assessment of my thesis, while the requested revisions would utterly change the character of the thesis and cannot be made in good faith, even if I could continue. Lacking other effective recourse, I have thus decided to release my work – with only very slight revisions – to a wider audience, and let the reader judge for themselves.

The book is available both for purchase as a paperback, and for free as a bookmarked PDF. The PDF version may be downloaded from the following link: The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. For those wanting a hard copy, the Paperback is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and various European Amazon sites, and should hopefully be available from other channels soon.

From the book description:

The Book of Mormon is an influential and controversial book. It launched a religious movement, is believed by millions to be scripture, and is derided by others as fraudulent. Despite this (or perhaps as a result), the book’s contents have been subject to both academic neglect and popular myth.

This book challenges some of that neglect by examining the Book of Mormon through the lens of its relationship with the Bible: a work which the Book of Mormon openly quotes and expects to be read alongside, and the only text which everyone agrees is connected to the Book of Mormon.

Through close examination of the Book of Mormon text and biblical parallels, including three substantial case studies, this book addresses questions such as:

How and why does the Book of Mormon draw upon the Bible?
Why does the book quote parts of the Bible at great length?
Why do quotations often differ from their biblical counterparts?
How does the Book of Mormon suggest the Bible be read?

Also included in an appendix is a textual comparison of each explicit biblical quotation in the Book of Mormon with the KJV.

(I’ve also added this post as an extra page so it remains available).

Why “history” matters in the Scriptures

I’ve seen notice of a podcast with an LDS scholar, which will apparently discuss the issue of genre within the Bible, and which apparently makes the claim that:

Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. [The guest] points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact.

I’ve seen this claim and ones like it multiple times; I briefly touch upon some of these claims here. Related claims tend to revolve around the idea that ancient peoples did not adhere to modern standards of historiography, that the “truth” or spiritual value of scriptural events does not depend upon them being “historical”, and that this is simply a matter of modern biblical scholars learning about different genres and their literary markers.

As a summary of the issues, however, this is incomplete and distinctly less than accurate. Indeed it seems to omit precisely what is of most importance to people and what is of most consequence to our understanding of the scriptures and God

It’s true that many people in the past didn’t adhere to modern standards of historiography. But that’s also irrelevant: when most moderns talk about “historicity”, they’re not talking about historical conventions, or even about accuracy in the details, they’re talking about whether particular events actually happened or not.

Now, on some topics, the reality of particular events may not have much consequence, and we may indeed be able to be inspired equally whether that thing happened, or whether it is simply like a parable. However, there are some subjects where the question as to whether something happened or not matters. If, for example, there were no historical person called Moroni, then who appeared to Joseph Smith? If the Nephites or Lamanites did not exist, how can their descendants be spiritually and physically restored? If Christ did not appear post-resurrection at Bountiful, than how can the Book of Mormon be an additional witness of his resurrection? And if Christ did not rise from the dead, then how can we be resurrected and what hope is their in the Christian gospel?

That last concern, of course, was famously discussed by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:14-19), who lived some time considerably before the Enlightenment. The eternal significance of some events depends a great deal on whether they happened or not, and people have indeed considered this issue long before the Enlightenment rolled around. Claiming people’s concerns are simply an artefact of the thinking of that era is a way of dismissing, rather than addressing, the issues involved, issues which can have significant consequences on our understanding of the gospel, or whether there is a gospel at all.

It is also less than accurate to depict academic biblical studies as simply following generic markers. There are varying views within the academy on a range of such issues. However, key individuals within biblical studies have sought to depict events like the resurrection as non-historical, and these arguments have not rested solely on the issue of genre. Indeed, in some cases, their ideas of biblical genre have been considerably influenced by their other ideas and beliefs. Rudolf Bultmann’s rejection of a literal resurrection and his project of “de-mythologising” the New Testament, for example, rested in significant part on his conviction that modern peoples (presumably including himself) could not believe in such events (or as he put it: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament”).* It is as inaccurate to characterise this approach as emerging simply from genre of the New Testament writers, as it is to depict such issues as having no real spiritual consequence.

 


* Some of Bultmann’s successors (at least amongst some internet commentariat I’ve come across) seem to believe that ancient peoples could not possibly believe such things either. However, as far as I’m aware, biblical studies generally still accepts that many past peoples believed in supernatural events, and of course later ancient readers, including Jesus himself, certainly did.

 

Omni 1

And behold, the record of this people is engraven upon plates which is had by the kings, according to the generations; and I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy; wherefore, that which is sufficient is written. And I make an end.

(Omni 1:11)

While there’s lots that could be drawn from this chapter, I find this verse of particular interest. In just the preceding book (and chapter), Jarom states that:

And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith.

(Jarom 1:4)

Jarom himself doesn’t write his own revelations, but for the reason that he feels it is unnecessary in the light of what his predecessors have written. But he asserts that he and many others have had revelations, and goes further to say that all who are not stiffnecked and have faith may have the same privilege.

In this light, Abinadom’s statement that he doesn’t know of anyone who has any revelations is an indication of apostasy. As Mormon declares about miracles or the ministering of angels, “if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain” (Moroni 7:37).

When we think of apostasy and restoration, we tend to think in terms of the Apostasy and the Restoration, but passages like this show it as an ever present cycle throughout the scriptures. Thus in the book of 1 Samuel we read that “the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision” (1 Samuel 3:1). And then the Lord appears to Samuel:

And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground.

And all Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord.

And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

(1 Samuel 3:19-21)

Likewise here Abinadom likewise claims there are no revelations and prophecies, and then in the very next verse his son, Amaleki, records how God revealed himself to Mosiah, who led all those who listened to God’s word to safety. Likewise, based on what King Benjamin was commanded to reveal to his people, it appears much of what Nephi and Jacob had taught about Christ had been forgotten by the people, so it had to be revealed again. As if to hammer home the point about the importance of continuing revelation in avoiding apostasy, Amaleki states how he will give his records to King Benjamin for safe-keeping, “exhorting all men to come unto God, the Holy One of Israel, and believe in prophesying, and in revelations” (Omni 1:25, my emphasis).

There is more here than just the general pattern, however. It is not only salvifically important to believe in the existence of prophecy and revelation, but Jarom’s words in Jarom 1:4 suggest the promise of revelation is to everyone: “as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit”. It reminds me of the following comment by Brigham Young:

There is no doubt, if a person lives according to the revelations given to God’s people, he may have the Spirit of the Lord to signify to him his will, and to guide and to direct him in the discharge of his duties, in his temporal as well as his spiritual exercises. I am satisfied, however, that in this respect, we live far beneath our privileges.

(Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 32)

As we believe and follow the revelations God has given to His prophets, we may also experience such revelations ourselves. I’ve had such experiences, and it is a marvellous thing. But I am also sure Brigham Young is right, and that it is easy for us to live beneath our privileges in this regard. And I am sure that at least one key step in being able to receive these privileges is to believe that they are possible, and that we personally can and ought to receive such revelations, and be willing to follow them. Then, if we are not stiffnecked and if we have faith, we too may have communion with the Holy Ghost.

“For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain”

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

(Galatians 2:21)

I find this an interesting verse to mull over. Sometimes it seems our reaction to sin and bad habits is to try and conquer them purely through our own efforts or mortal means. But this isn’t possible. What is true of addictions is really true of all our sins: we, as natural men (and women) cannot overcome them by our own efforts (indeed, in this light addictions are simply the adversary getting smarter about how he preys upon our fallen natures), no matter how hard we try.

But Christ did not die in vain. Freedom from sin, from addiction, from bad habit is possible, but only through his power. Through him, we can be cleansed from all wickedness and have the power to put off our fallen natures to which we are otherwise prone:

Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.

(Alma 7:14)

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

(Mosiah 3:19)

Link: “On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi”

One significant thing I cover in my thesis (now submitted, and hopefully en route to my viva) is that quite a few scholars get the tone of the Book of Mormon work: there’s a tendency in some quarters to treat it as if it is engaging in some gentle academic discussion, which understates the ultimate authority it claims and the forcefulness with which it states its demands for its readers to change their lives and repent.

One facet of this is touched upon by this interesting article by Noel B. Reynolds, which has just been posted on The Interpreter. Reynolds is responding, amongst other things, to certain claims made by Joseph Spencer in his An Other Testament: On typology (a work, I confess, I’m not a fan of), particularly the division Spencer suggests in Nephi’s writings. One compelling point Reynolds raises in his article is proposed claims result in the characterisation of Nephi as an esoteric writer, something which fits uneasily with Nephi’s own explicit enthusiasm for ‘plainness’.

The article is available via On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi: A Critique of Joseph Spencer’s An Other Testament: On typology | The Interpreter Foundation

Jacob 5

Everything I said about Jacob 4, in terms of being able to mention all sorts of things, applies even more to Jacob 5. Most of chapter four of my thesis is a detailed examination of Jacob 5, and I can confidently say after that exercise that there’s a lot to examine. I’ve also happened to post about Jacob 5 before in part, in commenting on an article that I felt was inadequate in its approach to the allegory. So there’s a lot that could be said, and a lot that I have said elsewhere.

What struck me reading through it this time though was the very first few verses (Jacob 5:1-3):

Behold, my brethren, do ye not remember to have read the words of the prophet Zenos, which he spake unto the house of Israel, saying:

Hearken, O ye house of Israel, and hear the words of me, a prophet of the Lord.

For behold, thus saith the Lord, I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard; and it grew, and waxed old, and began to decay.

Aside from the incongruity of a olive tree in a vineyard (something I do happen to discuss in the thesis), this opening reminded of thoughts I had when I was first writing the chapter, and unravelling the vast number of ways in which Jacob 5 connects to biblical passages that use olive tree imagery. It’s one of those things where the more you dig down, the more complex the issue actually gets. Scholarship tends to be very focused on the issue of where such ideas came from, and Jacob 5 has attracted similar commentary. But who first used the Olive Tree to symbolise Israel? The deeper one digs the more it seems like a chicken and egg scenario where it’s not quite clear what influenced what (assuming direct contact at all). And of course, Zenos does not attribute this image to himself but directly to the Lord.

It’s while I was thinking of this chicken and egg issue that my mind turned to a couple of other scriptural passages:

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.

(2 Nephi 11:4)

And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.

(Moses 6:63)

From these verses we learn that all things given by God typify Christ, and that all things are created – both spiritual and temporal – to bear record of God, Christ and the plan of salvation (see Moses 6:62). With these verses in mind, I wondered if this whole thing went even further? Perhaps it’s not an issue of ascribing who first used the olive tree to represent Israel to any one author, even God? With the above verses in mind, is it not possible that the Olive Tree was purposely created and permitted to have the traits that it has, precisely so that it might serve as such a symbol (for God would know of the destiny of Israel)? In other words, is it the symbol that came first, before the actual tree and even the world itself was created?