What do the Scriptures Say about “Mocking” Sacred Things?

Over on Twitter my friend Kwaku El tweeted his dissatisfaction with those who “mock” Mormonism. The ensuing discussion centered around what exactly is meant by “mocking” and when or if it is ever appropriate when it comes to sacred things (e.g. religious doctrines).

The first thing that comes to mind is the problem of definition. A standard definition of “mock” as a verb is: “tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.” What stands out to me is the emphasis on “scornful or contemptuous” as the defining characteristics of mockery. In other words, mockery is not playful teasing or humorous criticism. It is being scornful or contemptuous towards the focus of the comedic attention and teasing.

Of course, determining when something is mockery versus teasing or playfulness is largely subjective. What some people consider contemptuous mockery others consider mere teasing or “poking fun.”

Which is what led me to do a search for the word “mock” in the English LDS Standard Works. I was curious to see how the scriptures use this word to see if it might shed any light on the matter.

My quick search turned up the following uses of “mock” in the scriptures:

  • Old Testament – 22 instances
  • New Testament – 16 instances
  • Book of Mormon – 14 instances
  • Doctrine and Covenants – 3 instances
  • Pearl of Great Price – 0 instances

For the sake of this short blog post I will focus on the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.

In the Synoptic Gospels the verb in Greek translated as “mock” in the KJV is ἐμπαίζω, which carries the following meaning:

  • “To mock at, mock” (Liddle & Scott)
  • “To make fun of someone by pretending that he is not what he is or by imitating him in a distorted manner — ‘to mock, to ridicule.'” (Louw & Nida)
  • “To trick someone into thinking or doing something and thus to make a fool of such a person.” (Louw & Nida)
  • “To play upon, deride, mock, treat with scorn, ridicule.” (Mounce)

So the Gospels utilize ἐμπαίζω in two ways: when a person 1) mocks or derides someone else or 2) tricks someone and makes them look foolish (cf. Matthew 2:16).

In the case of the first usage of ἐμπαίζω, it is interesting to note that this is the verb used to describe what the mob did to Jesus as he hung on the cross:

  • “And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked [ἐνέπαιξαν] him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29)
  • “Likewise also the chief priests mocking [ἐμπαίζοντες] said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.” (Mark 15:31)
  • “And the soldiers also mocked [ἐνέπαιξαν] him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar.” (Luke 23:36)

In each instance the context is clear as day: the mob was scornfully and contemptuously deriding Jesus by sarcastically calling him a king, dismissively observing he could not save himself, and cruelly offering him sour wine to quench his thirst.

Interestingly, the New Testament actually appears to distinguish between the “mocking” that was directed at Jesus and the “mocking” endured by the apostles, as in two instances the Greek verb χλευάζω is used instead of ἐμπαίζω to describe the reactions of, respectively, some of those who observed the apostles on Pentecost (Acts 2:13) and the reaction of some of those listening to Paul’s discourse in Athens (Acts 17:23). In these two instances it seems to me that the thrust of the language is meant to say the apostles were the object of humorous jesting or jeering as opposed to the outright contemptuous mockery suffered by Jesus on the cross.

But what about the Book of Mormon? The earliest instance of “mock” appears right off the bat in 1 Nephi 1, where it is written that “Jews did mock [Lehi] because of the things which he testified of them” (1 Nephi 1:19). Seven chapters later we encounter the inhabitants of the Great and Spacious Building, who “were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit” (1 Nephi 8:27).

Prophets (Helaman 13:24; Ether 7:24) and the Book of Mormon itself (Ether 12:23, 25–26) also find themselves on the receiving end of “mocking” in the text. The Ether 7:24 text is notable since the people not only “mocked” the prophets, but “did revile against” them. This would appear to indicate that in the Book of Mormon “mockery” and “reviling,” among other acts, are conceptually linked (cf. Alma 26:29). And, of course, Abinadi prophesied that Jesus would endure being “mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people” (Mosiah 15:5), something Ammon and the faithful endured in the land of Nephi (Alma 26:29).

Finally, in three instances the Book of Mormon uses “mock” as a noun. In Jacob 6:8 those who reject Jacob’s teachings concerning the atonement of Christ are accused of having made “a mock of the great plan of redemption” through their unbelief, while in Helaman 4:12 Mormon laments that the Nephites at this time were “making a mock of that which was sacred” by “denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions.”

Unfortunately we lack access to the underlying Egyptian that the Book of Mormon was written in, so we cannot do with it what we could do with the New Testament passages examined above. What we can do, however, is look at Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, which probably gives us a reliable guide in determining, at the very least, what Joseph Smith’s English translation would have conveyed to his readers.

“Mock” as a verb is defined as “to imitate; to mimick; hence, to imitate in contempt or derision; to mimick for the sake of derision; to deride by mimicry,” and likewise “to deride; to laugh at; to ridicule; to treat with scorn or contempt.” As an adjective it is defined as “false, counterfeit; assumed; imitating reality, but not real.”

It appears from context that every instance of “mock” in the Book of Mormon intended to describe some instance of “contempt or derision,” and not merely humorous jeering. Thus “mocking” is linked with “reviling,” “scourging,” “disowning,” being “cast out,” and other abuses.

So in none of the instances examined in either the New Testament or the Book of Mormon are those who “mock” portrayed in a positive light. Jesus, prophets, and the plan of redemption are all “mocked” by those who are very clearly not looked very favorably upon by the authors of the respective texts. The only exceptions to this that I can think of come from the Hebrew Bible, where Isaiah mocks idols (Isaiah 44:9–20) and Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27). In these instances, however, it is prophets doing the mocking. (To see what happens when someone mocks a prophet in the Old Testament, consult 2 Kings 2:23–24).

Accordingly, however one defines “mockery” in a modern context when it comes to making humorous critiques or jokes at the expense of sacred things, one should be very careful to avoid the kind of “mockery” described in the scriptures.

1 thought on “What do the Scriptures Say about “Mocking” Sacred Things?

  1. All of your examples (unless I misunderstood one) deal with mocking people, not things (as in “sacred things”). Perhaps a better subject might be what the scriptures say about mocking beliefs held sacred by others?

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