There’s a reasonable chance that all efforts to situate the Book of Mormon over the last 180 years, geographically, culturally, and chronologically, are based on the Nephite version of the Donation of Constantine. But first, let’s talk about Odin.
In thirteenth-century Iceland, Snorri Sturlason compiled Heimskringla, an account of known history, and also his Edda, a collection of mythological lore and lyric conventions that every poet needed to know. In the first chapters of Heimskringla and in the preface to the Edda, Snorri addressed the question of where Odin and the other gods came from. Snorri knew the answer: they came from Troy. Connecting a noble family to Trojan ancestors had been a widespread European fashion since the Aeneid, and Snorri regarded Odin, ancestor of the Scandinavian royal houses, as an immigrant:
Near the earth’s centre was made that goodliest of homes and haunts that ever have been, which is called Troy, even that which we call Turkland….Odin had second sight, and his wife also; and from their foreknowledge he found that his name should be exalted in the northern part of the world and glorified above the fame of all other kings. Therefore, he made ready to journey out of Turkland, and was accompanied by a great multitude of people, young folk and old, men and women; and they had with them much goods of great price. And wherever they went over the lands of the earth, many glorious things were spoken of them, so that they were held more like gods than men. They made no end to their journeying till they were come north into the land that is now called Saxland; there Odin tarried for a long space, and took the land into his own hand, far and wide.
Even if there weren’t a mountain of historical evidence telling us otherwise, there would be good reason to be skeptical about the earliest sections of Snorri’s story, however earnestly he meant them at the time. Norway is a long way from the Aegean, and the thirteenth century a long time after the fall of Troy, and origin stories tend to serve contemporary ends. Scholarship on the settlement of Scandinavia does not often look to the Aeneid or Iliad for answers.
Which brings us to Lehi and the story of Nephite origins. Have you ever noticed that the historical thread of the Book of Mormon goes just a bit hazy for the four centuries between Jacob and Mosiah? Enos, Jarom, Omni, Amaron, Chemish, Abinadom, and Amaleki barely make an effort to fill in the gap.
And when history does start to happen again in the book of Mosiah, it doesn’t feel like we’ve rejoined Nephite culture after a long absence. Instead we find a society that seems to be emerging for the first time. Their geographic horizon is limited: there are lands they’ve heard of, but they don’t even know in what direction they lie. Various peoples wander out of the wilderness and join up, inlcuding Mulekites, the people of Limhi, and Alma’s flock. Known Nephite kings reach back all of one generation, from Benjamin to his father Mosiah. Nephite religion is a recent import through Alma, who also represents a tradition reaching back just a single generation, to Abinadi, making it even younger than the order of the priests of Noah. In a hostile environment of religious, political, and linguistic diversity, the Nephites are suffering a crisis of legitimacy.
The Small Plates of Nephi solve all those problems. According to these records, Nephite religion goes back to Nephi, who left Jerusalem centuries ago. The Nephite kings are the successors of Nephi, the first Nephite king. The story of Nephi’s travel in the wilderness also establishes Nephite claims on the land of Nephi, where Lamanites now hold sway. The Mosiah-era Nephites are not competing with diverse neighbors, but only with related descendants of the original colonizers of an empty land. Their preservation of Nephi’s language, lineage, and religion legitimates Nephite preeminence over the other peoples.
The Nephites know all of this, because they have the records, written by Nephi himself, on plates of gold. Isn’t that convenient?
Uh huh. Right.
People who want to take the Book of Mormon seriously as a historical document have to keep in mind the distinction between what a document says, and what actually happened. For 1 and 2 Nephi, there may be a gap between the two big enough to sail a barge through. Rather than conclusively identifying the Nephites as descendants of Semitic people who left Palestine around 587 B.C., “Nephi” may be the origin tale of a people who didn’t actually know all that much about where they came from.
There are advantages to this line of thought. It accords Book of Mormon historicity a similar status as Old Testament historicity (for example, the Exodus, Israel’s formative experience, still wants historical confirmation). Anxiety about DNA diminishesâ€”all that needs to travel to the land of Nephi is not a ship full of immigrants, but a story, a narrative about origins. Post-Exilic thought in the Book of Mormon ceases to be a concern. For the armchair Book of Mormon archeologist, abandoning a commitment to 600 B.C. makes it easier to consider alternate possibilities.
There are disadvantages too, of course. A century of apologetic work on the Semitic roots of the Book of Mormon goes out the window. Because there is no check from additional records or artifacts, the whole thing is liable to slip through your fingers once you start revising Nephite history beyond what the text says. There’s no real method except a gut instinct for what feels like history, and what might be Nephite myth or propaganda, so a lot depends on what assumptions you make about history in general and Nephite history in particular.
Also, people who take the Book of Mormon seriously as history are likely to take it seriously as scripture as well, and there may be some concern that a revisionist Nephite history might lessen the value of the book’s spiritual insights. If we regard the first two books of Nephi as, among other things, a somewhat dubious title of ownership to the land of Nephi, does the Iron Rod turn to silly putty in our hands?