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 If we want to think that Joseph Smith translated a pre-modern historical document, we have to consider the usual processes by which pre-modern texts are compiled and redacted, which can often more closely resemble sausage making (very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”?