The Man Nephi

April 25, 2007 | 32 comments
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Is Nephi an eponymous ancestor? Well, clearly, yes. In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites are named for him, and they called their kings “Nephis.” In addition, Nephi was the founder of their cult center, the central figure of three exodus narratives, the link between Nephite civilization and its Semitic heritage, the standard bearer of their prophetic and priestly legitimacy, a key figure in origin tales of symbols of political and religious authority (Laban’s sword, the Liahona, the Brass Plates), and is associated with crucial cultural and military technologies (shipbuilding, metallurgy, writing).

That’s a lot to accomplish in one lifetime, but not out of line with the expectations a nation might have of its founder. For us, 1 and 2 Nephi are scripture, but for the Nephites, they may have been something like founding myths with a political function. In this reading, the various traditions and legends accreting around the figure of Nephi would have served to legitimize the Nephite aristocratic and priestly elite in their struggles with neighboring peoples. The stories of Nephi can be read as stories about national difference: Nephi was faithful where Laman and Lemuel rebelled, the Nephites retained written scripture (thanks to Nephi) while the Mulekites lacked it, the Nephites preserved civilization while the Lamanites took a page out of Lord of the Flies.

Does it make any sense to read the story of Nephi like this, as a political document? Some might find it objectionable on religious grounds: Nephi wrote it, I believe it, that settles it, or something like that. To which I reply: no, man, that’s not history. If we want to think that Joseph Smith translated a pre-modern historical document, we have to consider the usual processes by which pre-modern texts are compiled and redacted, which can often more closely resemble sausage making (very satisfying end product, but you may not want to know about the ingredients) than unbiased observation. The more we want to think of the Book of Mormon as a pre-modern historical text rather than a nineteenth-century invention, the more we have to acknowledge the distinct possibility of a political agenda, even if the precise nature of that agenda is difficult to pin down. The people who write history always have a stake in how it is represented. Assuming inerrancy won’t do.

But the same is true of attacks on Joseph Smith’s claims as a translator. The logic of the arguments seems to be: assume the Book of Mormon is a real historical record, show that this leads to false deductions, and declare that Joseph Smith was therefore a fraud. The logic isn’t too bad, but the assumptions are prone to abuse. If one assumes, even for the sake of counterargument, that the Book of Mormon is a historical document, one has to acknowledge the historiographical problems of pre-modern texts. For would-be critics, a literal reading won’t do because completeness, objectivity, and infallibility are not assumptions one makes about historical records. The authenticity of Joseph Smith’s claims, and the accuracy of the Book of Mormon historical account, are two different issues. Objecting that Joseph Smith and later church leaders and many Mormons today read the Book of Mormon literally is irrelevant, because such is simply the nature of scripture. A billion-odd Jews and Christians read Exodus fairly literally, for example, and yet there is no historical or archeological evidence at all for the events it describes. This lack of evidence does not prove that the Old Testament is not an ancient record, but rather that a) Egyptian and Near Eastern archeology is incomplete, or b) the Old Testament was written by people with an agenda that included the Exodus story, c) both of these two, or d) something else entirely.

Consider the not unusual question as to whether the Nephites found other people already living in the Americas (not Mulekites, not stray Jaredites, but honest-to-goodness, crossed-the-land-bridge-back-in-12000 BC other people). The question assumes the existence of Nephites (which requires no justification in a Mormon context), but as a historical question, it still requires a historical rather than a devotional answer. Historical and archeological evidence shows that yes, other people were living in the Americas well before and during the time we usually imagine Nephites and Lamanites roaming the countryside, but the Book of Mormon doesn’t appear to say anything about them. If we treat the Book of Mormon as a historical document by asking historical questions about it, then we can’t declare, dogmatically, that these other people simply weren’t there because the Book of Mormon doesn’t mention them. Nor does it make sense to find that the Book of Mormon is a fraud because a strictly literalist reading is not inerrant.

Instead the question becomes a matter of textual representation and constraints on imaginable answers. That is, why does the Book of Mormon represent Nephite history as all but free of contact with outsiders? How stark of a collision with archeology can we tolerate? How flexibly can we permit ourselves to read a scriptural text? I don’t think many of the constraints are actually dogmatic; there are very few things that all Mormons are enjoined to believe about the historicity, as opposed to the scriptural authority, of the Book of Mormon. Given the typical processes of pre-modern historiography, the text of the Book of Mormon can reflect a vast range of actual historical events with the same degree of accuracy and integrity that is found in pre-modern historical documents. Some Mormons would reject a political reading of Nephi, but I think there is considerable space for thinking about Book of Mormon history in a way that avoids a collision between stubbornly literalist and maximal readings of scripture and the prevailing archeological consensus on the pre-Columbian Americas.

Was there a man Nephi? If we accept that Joseph Smith was a prophet, seer, and revelator, does the answer to the first question have to be “yes”?

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32 Responses to The Man Nephi

  1. Ben on April 25, 2007 at 10:17 am

    There are several good articles dealing with the perspective of Nephi writing a politically-motivated account.

    1) Richard L. Bushman. “The Lamanite View of Book of Mormon History” BSABF II. p. 52-73.
    2) Noel B. Reynolds. “The Political Dimensions in Nephi’s Small Plates” BYUS 27:4 (1984): 15-37.
    3) – “Nephi’s Political Testament” Rediscovering the Book of Mormon 220-230.

  2. Ben on April 25, 2007 at 10:18 am

    The first reference is toBy Study and Also by Faith Vol. II.

  3. Geoff B on April 25, 2007 at 10:49 am

    Jonathan, I think the exact same questions need to be asked about many Old Testament figures as well.

  4. Jonathan Green on April 25, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Ben, thanks very much, bibliographical notes are most welcome.

  5. Ben on April 25, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    I actually used part of this idea in my presentation on source-criticism at the Yale conference, to demonstrate that clear political motives behind a text are not inherently incompatible with inspiration or revealed command.

    As to reading the scriptures, I no longer think it’s a question of reading literally vs. figuratively. It’s a question of being a competent reader, ie. understanding the text as a semi-contemporary native would have understood it. There are contextual and genre issues at hand that most people simply are unaware of, because we no longer have the conventions available to us. To say they read it literally usually means that they read it without any regard for ancient conventions of which they are simply ignorant.

    I’m drawing this largely from chapter 3 of Brettler’s How to Read the Bible” which draws heavily on several chapters in John Barton’s Reading the Old Testament. Paradigm-changing stuff, for me.

    For example, imagine a martian coming to earth, who is completely fluent in the English language- vocabulary, grammar, etc. He sees me flipping through the mail, discarding everything that says “Urgent! Open immediately!” but keeping other things. He is confused, because he lacks the knowledge of the convention of junk mail to recognize it as such. When approaching the scriptures, we cannot achieve this perfect fluency in the language, nor do we have any natives left to explain these conventions to us. We have to piece them together.

    If we took one of Jesus’ parables, and stripped it from its context, would we recognize it as a parable? Or would we, reading “literally,” take it to be a historical narrative?

  6. Loyd on April 25, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    Shouldn’t we be asking this about all scriptural prophets? We tend to be so willing to dismiss the thoughts and views of various restoration prophets and leaders as being a result of their humanity. We can easily dismiss some of Brigham Young’s notions as being a remnant of racism common to his time, Joseph Field Smith’s various claims are set aside as an aspect of uninspired dogmatism, the list goes on and on. But when it comes to ancient prophets, especially those of the Book of Mormon, we want to strip them of their humanity and hold them to standards of near perfection.

    If we really believe the Book of Mormon to be what many LDS claim it to be, an ancient historical document written by real historical persons, then shouldn’t we be willing to see them as humans with human failings, misconceptions, self-interests, etc? Shouldn’t we be willing to also claim that Nephi was perhaps a little prideful of himself compared to his brothers, that maybe many of the early BofM prophets were had racist tendencies that skewed their perceptions of the Lamanites (perceptions that Ammon seemed to be able to avoid). Shouldn’t we question Mormon’s appraisal of Captain Moroni in light of Mormon’s own military career?

    We all have certain biases, sympathies, and self-interests that skew are religious understandings. It’s a part of being human. Joseph Smith understood this. Why is it that we want to deny ancient prophets their humanity?

  7. Frank McIntyre on April 25, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Jonathan,

    I’m a little confused about the question. Are you asking if Nephi wrote the plates with a political purpose in mind, or if the small plates got worked over by later groups, or if Nephi didn’t write them, or if Nephi didn’t exist?

    On the first, I think the “metal plates” part actually stands as a wonderful (though not insurmountable) barrier to this. The plates Mormon put in may well have been the very ones Nephi wrote. Interpolations like you get in passed down scrolls then becomes a lot tougher because there is no scribal descent wherein the thing gets copied and recopied– nor is there a need for it with golden plates.

    On the second or third, I don’t see any evidence of that and the text itself denies it repeatedly, so I am not sure what the value of the hypothesis would be.

  8. Kevin Barney on April 25, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    Excellent observations, Jonathan. I think there is tremendous value in reading the BoM as would any other book from antiquity, which means that we have to be open to the kind of political testament you mention.

    There is an interesting microcosm of the variant approaches to ancient scripture that plays out in the pages of Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (volume 3 in the Studies in the Book of Abraham series put out by FARMS). Some scholars argue that the astronomy portrayed in the BoA is geocentric; that is, not scientifically accurate, but what you would expect in a legitimately ancient book. And others argue that it is consistent with our contemporary, post-Einsteinian, scientific vision of the universe; that it reflects reality as it actually is. Two very different approaches. (I personally favor the first.)

  9. Jonathan Green on April 25, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Frank, look at it like this: One section of the Book of Mormon says that it was written by Nephi himself. There are two possibilities: Nephi himself wrote them, or somebody else wrote them and signed the name of Nephi to them. At least in the Middle Ages, the second option is incredibly common. One manuscript might close with a note that Hans copied it by hand in 800 AD, and then Franz copies the same manuscript 400 years later, including the date of 800 AD. Or Franz decides that his left-field thoughts on theology would go over better if he wrote that St. Augustine was the author. Would Mormon have been able to tell the difference between the writings of Nephi and pseudo-Nephi? Probably not. This doesn’t mean that Nephi didn’t write the books of Nephi, or that the events described in them didn’t happen, or happened much differently than they are described–but it also means that none of the four possibilities you ask about can be dismissed out of hand, if you are going to think about the Book of Mormon as a historical document.

    Your point about the plate-ness of the Book of Mormon is important. 1 Nephi talks about writing on metal plates, making an issue of its own creation and physicality. Whatever else Joseph Smith did, he had something that convinced a not insignificant number of people that he had plates made of gold in his possession. Can those plates have been created under any other circumstances than those which the text upon them reports? I can at least imagine something like that happening; a Nephite king, for example, could commission the creation of a founding account as if it were written by Nephi himself (and since the king is also a Nephi, who’s to say that wasn’t the case? Certainly not any courtier who wants to keep his head on his shoulders).

    My point isn’t that something like that happened–it’s purely speculative. But people who want to dig into Book of Mormon history should probably keep an eye on how widely historical documents can diverge from historical events.

  10. Jonathan Green on April 25, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Ben, sorry your comment got trapped in comment prison for so long. It made me think of a few questions that I can’t answer at the moment. Is there a difference between reading texts from other times and places, reading scripture, and reading the Book of Mormon? I agree that a competent reading of, say, Gilgamesh is an entirely appropriate goal. What about scripture, though? Doesn’t reading the New Testament as scripture mean not just competence in first century AD Christian culture, but also an acknowledgment and acceptance of some present-day legitimizing and interpretive authority that may be in some ways ahistorical? And what about the Book of Mormon? Does reading it as scripture mean accepting as authoritative a text originally intended for readers whose culture is largely unknown and unknowable?

  11. S.P. Bailey on April 25, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan. Great post. After reading, I went back and looked at this post by John Fowles: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2998. (It is interesting to speculate on the connections between BOM narratives and probably unknowable political facts …)

  12. Ben on April 25, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Ah, so you’re more interested in asking the “how authoritative is pseudepigraphic scripture?” question then the political aspects of the small plates.

    I think your questions get at something I’ve been mulling over for a while, which I’ve been working on from a Jewish angle. Jewish interpretation has categorized itself into 4 main areas. The two important categories for my purposes are peshat and derash.

    Peshat is the contextual, historical, plain-sense meaning. “We try to understand the Torah as it was once understood by the Israelites.” Competent reader skills necessary.

    Derash, on the other hand, is the non-contextual interpretation. It may play off a word, a concept, anything, in order to make some point. It is “the homiletical meaning of the verse as viewed outside its original context. Specific ideas and values are derived from the text, whether the text, in its literal meaning, could mean this or not.” Derash is “non-literal, it is ‘reading into’ the text.” (Quotes from Etz Hayim.) Both kinds of interpretation co-exist, and people recognize them each for what they are.

    Now, I think having such a formal distinction is useful. Much of my frustration about Gospel Doctrine classes arise from people thinking they’re discussing Peshat when it’s really derash. I have no problem with derash, as long as we recognize it for what it is. Derash may in fact be binding, but it’s binding-ness comes from the authority of the interpreter, and not the interpretation itself. That’s something that gets mixed up in the church as well.

    Certainly the 4 categories of Jewish interpretation don’t map perfectly into LDS interpretative practices, but I find it a useful model both for my own studies and in alleviating some of my frustration at Church.

  13. Doc on April 25, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    This point of view is all very interesting, and fitting with Mormon’s declaration that any imperfections in the record are the imperfections of men, but what exactly would be God’s purpose in giving us the record with all of this cultural baggage in it. The translation by the gift and power of God factor seems to muddle up the cultural polemic parts. How do we separate out the political and the spiritual? Why wouldn’t God make such sifting unecessary in the first version? Did we need to learn something about ourselves before we could learn this about them, or are we just using historian techniques to be blown by every wind of interpretation?

  14. Frank McIntyre on April 25, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Undoubtedly, people did that sort of thing all through the middle ages. But this is not some middle age historical document. It is explicitly a revelatory document. Thus, I completely agree that if this were just a historical document then these would be the obvious questions. But God pretty much sealed off the avenue of treating it as _just_ a historical document because of its fantastic and miraculous arrival.

    My point about the metal plates, by the way, is that later interpolations become vastly less likely. We don’t have John’s original testimony, just later scribes’ renderings. But for Nephi, it appears that what we have is one step (JS) away from what was written on the small plates. Mormon doesn’t even touch them, he just puts them in. Thus there is a credible mechanism by which this document comes to us straight from Nephi– something the middle age documents are going to hardily struggle with. It seems almost like God has created a custom-made answer to the usual critiques leveled against historical document– once you accept the part about angels!

  15. manaen on April 25, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    This looks like a good group to ask a parallel question regarding Nephi’s name.

    Consider these verses:

    And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature…And now I, Nephi, being a man large in stature, and also having received much strength of the Lord, therefore I did seize upon the servant of Laban, and held him, that he should not flee. (1 Nephi 4:31)

    And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. (Numbers 13:33)

    The footnote to “giants” in the last verse wryly indicates that it was translated from “Nephilim,” whose singular form is “N@phil”.

    Questions:
    1. Is the name of large-of-stature Nephi actually linked with this Hebrew word for giant?
    2. If so, how did Lehi and Sariah know beforehand to so name Nephi?
    3. Besides this, and Gen 6:16′s that recalls the Jaredites’ barges, what other footnotes are there in the LDS KJV that show the publication committee’s delight in sending the reader down these entertaining little side roads?

  16. manaen on April 25, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    15. Somehow the first two verses combined. They should read:

    And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature… – 1 Nephi 2:16

    And now I, Nephi, being a man large in stature, and also having received much strength of the Lord, therefore I did seize upon the servant of Laban, and held him, that he should not flee. – 1 Nephi 4:31

  17. Ben on April 25, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Manaen, from a Semitic perspective, the two names are not related. They have two different roots, n-p-l and (potentially) n-p-w/y.

    Jonathon, in case it wasn’t clear, my #14 is responding largely to the “Doesn’t reading the New Testament as scripture mean not just competence in first century AD Christian culture, but also an acknowledgment and acceptance of some present-day legitimizing and interpretive authority that may be in some ways ahistorical?”

    I can accept binding ahistorical interpretation as derash, but not as peshat.

  18. BRoz on April 25, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    I think it is interesting that Nephi says in 2Ne 5:18 “And it came to pass that they would that I should be their king. But I, Nephi, was desirous that they should have no king; nevertheless, I did for them according to that which was in my power.” But then he goes on to be annointed king and to annoint a king before his death. Did Nephi already realize the lessons King Mosiah would learn from the Zoramites. Nephi saw the rise and fall of his people. Therefore, did he have a foreknowledge that there would be a line of kings. I know one thing, if he hadn’t of done it, we wouldnt have the beautiful words of King Benjamin.

  19. BRoz on April 25, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    Nephi was sooo popular he became a brand name like “band-aids, Google, and iPod, etc”

  20. manaen on April 25, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    17. Thanks, Ben. Could Nephi at least be a Semitic pun?

  21. Sterling on April 25, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    Did Nephi grew up being much more comfortable with Jewish oral tradition than with metal plates? Or was he raised in a religious tradition outside the mainstream that recognized and tried to subvert the agenda behind the religious reforms of king Josiah? How aware was he of the efforts of his contemporaries to rewrite biblical history?

  22. Jason on April 26, 2007 at 1:34 am

    1 Nephi just goes so well with the map of Arabia that it would be very unlikely for his story to be made up, or rewritten completely, by people with absolutely no knowledge of things from the old part of the world. So, while the idea of a completely eponymous, legendary Nephi is intriguing, I think it fails with all the modern searches for “Lehi in the Wilderness”.

  23. john f. on April 26, 2007 at 5:10 am

    Jonathan, I like this post and your thoughts from the medieval documentary-generation perspective. If anything, I would say that the Bible surely suffers from this. But Frank makes a very good case for at least the plates of Nephi being of original authorship by Nephi. If it is the case that we are only one step removed from Nephi as author himself (i.e. through the translation of Joseph Smith), then that reinforces such statements by Joseph Smith about plain and precious parts of the Gospel being lost or even removed from the Bible but not so in the Book of Mormon (at least with reference to the plates of Nephi). Despite the conviction of some Evangelical Christians, we simply cannot have any confidence in the comprehensiveness or even origin of everything that is in the Bible. This is because we cannot avoid the knowledge that it has only come to us through the medieval documentary process that you outline.

    My sense is that the Book of Mormon suffers from the same effects of one or more editors (Mormon and Moroni, as well as all those who preceeded them in the collection and maintenance of the various religious, genealogical, and historical records produced by an aristocratic society over nearly 1,000 years) in its content outside of the small plates of Nephi. We are further removed from everything else in the Book of Mormon than we are from the plates of Nephi precisely because of editorial decision-making in which records to include in the first place and then in how to redact and rewrite them for the particular agenda of the editor.

    That said, I fully agree with “Nephi” as a type and his record as a support for aristocratic ethnicity which seems an ironic outcome considering the seeming deuteronomic, reformist affinity of the Lehi/Nephi perspective on the law.

  24. Robert C. on April 26, 2007 at 6:20 am

    Ben, I’ve been on the verge of buying the Etz Hayim. You linked to the deluxe, $150 version, but I’ve been looking at the travel-size for less than $20, or the regular hard-cover edition just under $70—can you comment on the essays or other factors to help me decide?

  25. Jonathan Green on April 26, 2007 at 7:32 am

    Ben, thanks for the explanation of peshat and derash, which I knew nothing about but are very useful concepts for thinking about the scriptures. One somewhat exaggerated way to frame my question might be: with respect to the Book of Mormon, do we only have derash? If not, how do we know? (Incidentally, the medieval Christian tradition has its own four-fold sense of scripture; I wonder if there’s any relation between the Jewish and Christian traditions?)

    Doc, you raise some very good questions. It seems to me that adding historical context nearly always has the consequence of lessening present-day relevance to some extant by giving us the option of saying that some injunction or the other only reflects the agenda of some long-dead group, or only applies to some long-gone circumstances. Sometimes this is good and useful, but it can also enable us to ignore things we should be taking to heart. Eventually we have to return to the fact that God is content to let us use as scripture the texts we have. One conclusion I draw from this is that solving historical enigmas is not among God’s primary purposes in revealing scripture.

    Frank, I think we could say that your objections to a political reading of Nephi are primarily religious. That is, you just don’t think it’s reconcilable with how you think of God, prophets, and scripture. That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. Historically, the biblical text was quite liable to creative innovations, to say nothing of haggiographic tradition, so I don’t think it can be ruled out from a purely human/historical perspective for the Book of Mormon. Remember, there’s a difference between Mormon not touching the plates of Nephi at all, and Mormon writing that he didn’t touch them. Your last point gets to the heart of the matter: if you buy the angel story, why bother with all this pseudo-historicalist nonsense? Why not accept the Book of Mormon as literal history and be done with it? If I seem more skeptical of objective history than I am of angelic visitors, part of it is just professional instinct. I mean, if you read a verse that said, “And lo, the poor and humble of heart did go forth in might, shoulder to shoulder, and take unto themselves the means of production, sharing all things in common and rejoicing in their great bounty, for behold their commonality did bring great wealth upon the land,” wouldn’t you be inclined to wonder what really happened?

    S.P., thanks for the links to John’s earlier post, and John, thanks for writing it. Sorry if I’ve managed to repeat a lot of what you already covered.

  26. Frank McIntyre on April 26, 2007 at 9:04 am

    Jonathan,

    Well, since that passage is not that different than what we have in 4th Nephi, obviously I don’t have much of a problem with it. We all know that Zion rocks, if we could just get there. But taking upon oneself the “means of production” without the “poor and humble of heart” part is the socialism I mock.

    In any case, it seems silly to say that you are fine with Joseph Smith saying he dug these plates up cause an angel told him and that God showed him how to translate them, but then want to treat the resulting manuscript as if it is subject to the same critiques as the stuff you run across in some Viennese library.

    Now, I agree that there may be lots going on that we don’t know about. And I am fine with the fact that the text is still the product of mortals and their flaws. But this document has a temporal history completely unlike any of the middle age documents you refer to. It is not written by scribes but by prophets. And to think differently based on nothing seems to me a loss without a gain.

    To put it in statistical jargon, this marble was not drawn from the same urn. And treating it like it was, for no good reason, seems pointless.

  27. Ben on April 26, 2007 at 9:31 am

    Robert, I’ve only used the 70$ edition. I imagine that the text of the paperback would be annoyingly small, particularly the Hebrew.

    “In any case, it seems silly to say that you are fine with Joseph Smith saying he dug these plates up cause an angel told him and that God showed him how to translate them, but then want to treat the resulting manuscript as if it is subject to the same critiques as the stuff you run across in some Viennese library.”

    Why? Text is text.

  28. Sterling on April 26, 2007 at 9:52 am

    What about considering the historical consciousness of Nephi and the other Book of Mormon authors? Did they operate with a modern philosophy of history, as was common when Joseph Smith translated the plates, where history is pushed forward in a linear fashion by political, economic, and social forces and where humans continually make progress? Or were the Book of Mormon authors much more in tune with mythical and cyclical concepts of history, where supernatural forces cause things to happen and events are bound to repeat themselves? It seems to me that peoeple with the modern philosophy of history try to produce histories of what really happened. People with mythical and cyclical concepts of history are much less likely to be concerned with the historicity and chronology of their account.

  29. Frank McIntyre on April 26, 2007 at 10:31 am

    Ben,

    The stuff “by” St. Augustine is rightly critiqued on the grounds that it appears to have not been written by St. Augustine but by some guy pretending to be him. That is easy to understand, you write a document and then put Augustine’s name on it and you’re done.

    But the Book of Mormon is a document handed over by Moroni (and testified of by President Hinckley) as being the account and testimony of ancient prophets (like Nephi). Furthermore, it is not just some piece of cowhide, but written on valuable metal plates. And the pedigree of those plates is attested to by the authors and God– authors who were prophets, not unknown monks.

    Thus I am not saying that there are no applicable tools of textual analysis. I am saying that JG’s pointing out that pseudo-writings were common in the middle ages (and many other eras) does not really get us anywhere with this document. This document has a traceable pedigree right back to Nephi which those documents don’t have. Sure, it is possible (anything’s possible) that the first hundred pages are not actual testimony of Nephi, but of some unknown scribe. And presumably at that point you have to say the same for the rest of the small plates. But there is no evidence of that and it only reduces the value of the text, so what does it get you?

    In fact, since the writing style of Jacob and Nephi differs and Enos appears to be a worse writer than Nephi, and his descendants seem even less impressive, textual analysis seems to move against this hypothesis of a scribe making this into a creation story. Why in the world would a creation myth end in such a bizarre dribbling out of the ancestors?

    All of this in the context of a book where Christ himself appears and makes a point of mentioning the importance of accurate record-keeping…

  30. Ben on April 26, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Ok, I misunderstood you Frank. This clarifies much.- “Thus I am not saying that there are no applicable tools of textual analysis.”

  31. Jonathan Green on April 26, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    Right, Frank, those are all reasonable objections, but they’re all religious objections, the kind of thing that applies to the Book of Mormon as scripture, but not necessarily to the book as a historical record. Documents with the approval of religious leaders are not immune to forgery (Donation of Constantine). Deluxe manuscripts can preserve badly abused texts. (In fact, if someone is going to such lengths to make it look impressive, doesn’t that suggest that someone is trying to pull a fast one?) If the generations after Nephi seem weaker, by the way, that would fit the notion quite well that Nephi was a great progenitor in something of a golden age. And about creation myths that end in decline, don’t forget what Genesis says about life spans.

    The key points you make are:
    “Sure, it is possible (anything’s possible) that the first hundred pages are not actual testimony of Nephi, but of some unknown scribe. And presumably at that point you have to say the same for the rest of the small plates.”
    Uh huh. I don’t see this as relevant to a Gospel Doctrine class, but it should be an issue in dealing with historical questions.

    “But there is no evidence of that…”
    True, but there’s not a great deal of independent historical evidence for the events described in the Book of Mormon, either.

    “…and it only reduces the value of the text…”
    Which is a valid religious concern.

    “…so what does it get you?”
    Well, for starters, it gets you a new source of flexibility in situating the Book of Mormon historically that doesn’t entail postulating additional creative innovation on the part of Joseph Smith. I’m not saying that he never expanded on the text, but a little extra flexibility elsewhere can come in handy. Whether it’s worth it is another question.

  32. Frank McIntyre on April 27, 2007 at 8:43 am

    “Documents with the approval of religious leaders are not immune to forgery (Donation of Constantine).”

    I haven’t seen that one in our canon…

    Anyway, I think we both understand the issues. It is an interesting idea and if we’re lucky, Nephi will tell us how it all came down when we hit the afterlife.

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