The textual tectonics of 1 Nephi

September 25, 2009 | 30 comments

My basic problem with Blake Ostler’s expansion theory is that it approaches via intellectual history what is at heart a problem in textual history. Blake’s theory that the Book of Mormon is a modern expansion of an ancient source is plausible and useful, perhaps even correct. In biblical texts that he cites, and certainly in the more recent prophetic texts that I’ve studied, later expansions on earlier works are quite common.

However, I think Blake’s treatment has some limitations. The chronological dichotomy of ancient vs. modern is too narrow. If we are to critically examine the textual history proposed by Joseph Smith, we should do the same for Nephi and Mormon, rather than take their accounts at face value. Thus even if we accept the Book of Mormon as a pre-modern text, that does not require that we uncritically accept the text’s claim to represent an offshoot of pre-exilic Jewish culture, a Semitic source language, or the time period of 600 BC-400 AD. Apologists’ provision of evidence that tends to confirm these notions (and skeptics’ efforts to the contrary) are very interesting, but not the end of the discussion.

One of my problems, I suspect, is that I’m looking for the expansion theory to provide things that it was never intended to accomplish. I want a theory of Book of Mormon textual history to give me tools for dealing with the text, but my primary objection to Blake’s theory is that it mostly plays out at the lofty level of motif and literary form, and only infrequently deals with textual history (as it does when comparing the Book of Mormon to passages from the KJV). At that height, the expansion theory misses textual fault lines in the Book of Mormon that suggest a more complex textual history than usually envisioned.

If I were to propose a Book of Mormon textual history, it would look something like plate tectonics. During the Book of Mormon’s development, sections of solid text were periodically torn apart by intrusions of red-hot commentary, dividing formerly continuous texts like the Atlantic separates South Africa from the embrace of Argentina. Sometimes whole continents slipped down beneath the surface, leaving at most a plate of ancient rock surrounded by a younger continental shelf as a witness of its passing. Passages can drift towards each other until their collision leads to the rise of new verses, like the Himalayas rising between India and Asia.

In this respect, the story of Nephi and his Brothers is something like the Gondwanaland of 1 Nephi. The narrative consists of a series of scenes, which often have the character of accretions: fleeing Jerusalem, and then the return for the brass plates, and then the return for Ishmael’s family, and then Nephi’s bow, and then the Liahona, and then Nephi’s ship and the voyage to the Promised Land. The Nephi novel has been broken up, however, by the addition of various self-contained textual units, including sermons, visions, commentaries, editorial interludes about plate-making, and lengthy scriptural quotations. If Lehi’s vision was a set-piece addition to the Nephi novel, then Nephi’s vision and commentary on Lehi’s vision followed even later. The boundaries between narrative segments—and also places where the narrative thread is dropped for a moment, and then resumed—are marked not by chapter divisions, but by visits to Lehi’s tent.

Internal reconstruction of textual history is necessarily speculative, so for the most part all we can hope for is to extend the boundaries of what can be imagined, rather than pinning down exactly what must have been. But we might note the following from 1 Nephi as possible evidence that the text has been expanded repeatedly, rather than just once, or never.

  • Consider 1 Ne. 5: 17-19, 7: 1. Lehi read the brass plates and “began to prophesy concerning his seed.” We only get a few brief passages of this prophecy in vv. 18-19 before Nephi breaks off with the note that Lehi “prophesied many things concerning his seed.” At this point we have what look like a couple of intrusions into this section of text, including Nephi’s insistence that both he and Lehi had kept the commandments (5: 20-22) and one of Nephi’s several interludes about how and why he made his plates (6: 1-6). Following this (7: 1), we get a textual clue that the narrative is resuming: “after my father, Lehi, had made an end of prophesying concerning his seed.” The narrative has been interrupted by two kinds of intrusions, and most of Lehi’s prophecy has been omitted.
  • 1 Ne. 20-21 are clearly signaled as textual citations that expand the narrative. Note Nephi’s introduction of the citation in 19: 24: “Hear ye the words of the prophet, ye who are a remnant of the house of Israel, a branch who have been broken off…” We also get a clear signal that the narrative resumes (at least long enough for Nephi to launch his commentary on Isaiah) in 1 Ne. 22: 1: “And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had read these things which were engraven upon the plates of brass…” Both believers and skeptics would agree that 1 Ne. 20-21 represents a citation of Isaiah 48-49, for that is clearly what it is, and also what 1 Nephi says that it is. But note also the additional signal in 1 Ne. 19: 24 that an older, linguistically marked text is being inserted: “for after this manner has the prophet written.” The same marker of perceived linguistic markedness, “after this manner (of language)”—which I take as more specifically marking linguistic antiquity—occurs several other times in 1 Nephi, often by way of introducing direct quotations of highly stylized genres, including poetry, oaths, and laments, where it is plausible to imagine that the particular wording was worth preserving.
  • Note that 1 Ne. 10: 12-14 again appears to preserve an abbreviated citation from Lehi: “My father spake much…concerning the house of Israel, that they should be compared like unto an olive-tree….After the Gentiles had received the fullness of the Gospel, the natural branches of the olive-tree, or the remnants of the house of Israel, should be grafted in….” And then in v. 15: “And after this manner of language did my father prophesy and speak unto my brethren, and also many more things which I do not write in this book…” Following this, we find religious statements by Nephi (10: 17-22) and Nephi’s expansion and commentary on Lehi’s vision (chapters 11-14). After this, Nephi’s return “to the tent of my father” signals the resumption of the narrative, again only long enough for Nephi to launch a lecture to his brothers. The topic of Laman and Lemuel’s confusion is noteworthy: “Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive-tree, and also concerning the Gentiles.” This looks to me as if Nephi’s teachings and vision have intruded into the middle of Lehi’s olive-tree sermon and Nephi’s commentary on it.

One might also note that attitudes toward the descendants of Nephi, Laman and Lemuel are dramatically different at various points in 1 Nephi, where the Nephites appear as everything from rivals of the Lamanites, to victims of Lamanite hostility, to an obliterated remnant. To the extent that 1 Nephi was actively read by the Nephites (and Zeniff’s citation of 1 Ne. 1: 1 suggests that it was), and to the extent that texts are affected by the social context in which they exist (and scholarship on texts of many periods suggests that they are), then we should acknowledge that 1 Nephi will have had a different significance at various times in Nephite history, and will have been variously affected by a changing Nephite society before its modern translation into English.

My final point is that Book of Mormon apologists and skeptics disagree vehemently about the historicity of the events described in the Book of Mormon, but they often (although not always) have similar views of the Book of Mormon as a text with no history: either it sprung at once from the mind of Joseph Smith, or it sprung from the stylus of Nephi and Mormon into the mind of Joseph Smith. Stressing the textual historicity of the Book of Mormon—that is, that it underwent changes similar to those experienced by other texts in pre-modern and modern times—is one way to relieve some of the pressure on what might be called archeological historicity. Positing that the Book of Mormon has a textual history also poses challenges for both believers and non-believers, however. One must accept the possibility that great prophets can still be lousy editors. Alternatively, one needs a theory of composition that accords with accounts of Joseph Smith’s translation process, and with the traces of expansion in the text.

30 Responses to The textual tectonics of 1 Nephi

  1. Adam Greenwood on September 25, 2009 at 10:31 am

    JG, this series of yours, paying careful attention to the Book of Mormon, is the bees knees. Thank you. And, uh, no thanks for giving us the well-nigh impossible task of deciding who wrote what.

  2. Ben on September 25, 2009 at 11:16 am

    “a text with no history”- Unless I misunderstand your point, several articles from “apologetic” presses explicitly get into Book of Mormon textual history, such as Grant Hardy’s article on Mormon as editor.

  3. Jacob J on September 25, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Good stuff, thanks.

  4. Ben Pratt on September 25, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Well done, sir.

  5. Jonathan Green on September 25, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Ben, thanks for the link to Hardy’s article. I like it.

  6. Jonathan Green on September 25, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    And now that I poke around some other chapters in the book that Hardy’s article appeared in, I like them too.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 25, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Can I plagiarize the phrase “textual tectonics”? I can use it to impress my clients.

    Just as the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision vary somewhat with the date of composition, I would imagine that the fact that 1 and 2 Nephi were actually written down some 20-30 years after the events they describe means that the more mature Nephi’s perspective colors his description of those events, including his emphasis on the thickheadedness of his older brothers. I also assume that the original composition of text was done on some more perishable medium like parchment, where corrections could be more easily made and “cut and paste” editing was actually possible, and the edited version then transcribed onto metal. In that case, i could see a straightforward narrative that makes only a referral to Nephi’s vision as being the original, with the lengthy detailed vision being inserted into the draft, so that the narrative ends referring to olive trees appear before and after the insertion.

    We generally conceive of Mormon as putting together a mosaic of narratives, histories and sermons, but our picture of Nephi usually has him writing his books as one continuous process without editing. What you have pointed to suggests that we should consider 1 Nephi to be just as much a product of editing as the Book of Alma.

  8. SC Taysom on September 25, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Excellent post. Your thoughts also raise the issue of audience. I know that our standard idea is that the Book of Mormon was written for our day (meaning from 1830 forward, I suppose), but there are textual hints that suggest sections of the book were, at the very least, read to groups of contemporary Nephites, Lamanites, etc. Certainly the intended audience(s) would influence the construction of the narratives in ways that are most likely inaccessible. In any case, your thoughtful work on this subject is as stimulating as it is satisfying.

  9. Jim Donaldson on September 25, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    I view 1 Nephi as the founding documents (like our Declaration of Independence and Constitution) of the Nephite tribe/nation, with Nephi as George Washington (thus the repeated references to his ‘stature’—there are no short heroes). It is mythic in the sense that it is a traditional story which explains why things are the way they are, i.e., why the Lamanites and Nephites oppose each other and why the Nephites are right and justified in their defense. It is, among other things, a very political document.

    It may have been written for our day, but it had a very immediate audience. I agree that since it was written late in Nephi’s life when the tribal dust had settled, it is a stylized version, as opposed to a more objective history, of what happened, conceived to meet several then contemporary needs.

    Closer to the topic, I wonder about all that chiasmus stuff in 1 Nephi and its effect on the editing process. Chiasmus is a fairly restrictive literary device that would likely frustrate much cut and paste and tossing together of various elements, wouldn’t it? Thoughts?

  10. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 25, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Certainly the intended audience(s) would influence the construction of the narratives in ways that are most likely inaccessible.

    Indeed, which is why I feel that the text benefits from efforts to deconstruct it.

  11. Jack on September 25, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Jim Donaldson,

    I’ve been wondering why Nephi copied all those Isaiah chapters when they were readily available on the brass plates — seems like a lot of work for not a lot of gain. I think your your comment may shed some light on that question. Interesting…

  12. BHodges on September 25, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Brant Gardner has done excellent work on Mormon-as-editor. Some of the best I’ve seen. You might be interested:

  13. BHodges on September 25, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    He also talks about the fault lines you refer to extensively in his 6-volume commentary on the BoM, Second Witness.

  14. Jonathan Green on September 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for the comments and thanks especially, BHodges, for the link. One of the nice things about posting on topics that interest me is that they often result in links to more things that interest me. And I find the work being done on the Book of Mormon as a highly complex text very interesting.

    That being said, my literary study instincts tell me that Brant Gardner and Grant Hardy are both too quick to collapse the distinction between the author(s) and editor(s) of the Book of Mormon and the text’s authorial and editorial figures, or more generally to assume that the text’s account of its own history is reliable. In this series of posts I’m not always and entirely consistent in maintaining the distinction myself, but I think an “agnostic” textual analysis of the Book of Mormon is worth pursuing. If we set aside for the moment the idea that the Book of Mormon reflects ancient Semitic language and culture, or that it’s a 19th-century pastiche of biblical tropes, we’re still left with a highly complex document, and it seems we should try to unravel that complexity a bit and see where it leads us.

  15. BHodges on September 26, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Jonathan, Gardner goes into much more detail in his Second Witness series, it’s expensive but it’s the best I’ve seen. He has no qualms following the information as reasonably as he can, including interacting with Metcalfe, Wright and others, sometimes in surprising ways.

  16. Mike on September 26, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    It seems obvious to me that the authors of the Book of Mormon wrote and rewrote and expanded and “abridged” the text several times at several levels. It might be a modern concept to assign tight ownership (authorship) to a piece of written material. I imagine in the past that everybody would plagerize and copy each other at will. Sort of parallel to the vague ownership of land by the Native Americans when Columbus arrived in contrast to complex deeds and zoning laws today.

    I think it is too easy for modern scholars to image Mormon was much like them. An intellectual, cautiously thoughtful, a genius. One crucial hint about Mormon is mentioned in Mor 2:2: In his 16th year he went forth at the head of the Nephite army. You don’t go to the head of an army in a day, he must have been in the army for a few years before that. And by implication, not in school. But the bigger question, why would the Nephites put a teenager at the head of their army in a national crisis?

    My guess is that Mormon must have been big and strong and a skillful fighter. Perhaps a man with the desirable warrior attributes of both a Goliath and a David. Whatever the answer, it probably had nothing to do with his writing and editing abilities. I don’t see much room in his schedule between all those battles for getting his Nephite PhD in any field. Most people born before the invention of the printing press were illiterate and the fact Mormon could even read is unusual for his time and occupation.

    The Book of Mormon has a few specific axes to grind, it is not an objective wide-ranging sampling of Nephite culture. I guess the Lord picked Mormon to be the one to grind them, because of his life experiences more than his literary and writing skills.

  17. Mike on September 26, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    #9 Jim: about chiasmus

    One of the brightest luminaries of our time discovered the chiasmus and has written extensively about them and I wish to take nothing from him. But it seems to me, personally, that complex chiasmus are everywhere, not limited to ancient Hebrew writings. That they are in the Book of Mormon doesn’t prove or disprove anything for me. A Hebrew Nephite could have used them in an accout just as easily as a ignorant 19th century frontier stoyteller.

    People in my scout troop claim I am a decent story teller around campfires. One of the secrets of telling a story in contrast to writing one, is how repetition is used. Repetition is crucial in order to remember and emphasis what is important.

    There are two simple ways to repeat a portion of a story:

    1. A-B-C-D-E then A-B-C-D-E

    (Matt 25, Parable of the Sheep and Goats repeats key elements or their opposite 4 times.)

    2. A-B-C-D-E then E-D-C-B-A

    (the classic chiasmus form)

    Both ways work to enhance memory, but the second is more interesting and is the key to telling many ghost or bear stories. Something startling happens in that final A section. So I have unwittingly been using chiamus since I was a cub scout telling stories around campfires.

    If you recount a journey to the top of a mountain and back it has a chiasmus formula built into it. The seasons begin with increasingly warm weather followed by decreasing cool weather so daily temperatures are chiasmatic, as are hourly ones. The process of hypnosis has a chiasmatic formula. Even our DNA has many repetitions and sometimes a piece is duplicated, clipped out, turned around and inserted back in creating a chiasmus in our genetic code.

    If while editing, material is cut and pasted with no consideration to the content then the chiasmus might well be lost. But a skillful storytelller will tend to select and preserve the best elements of the story as it is retold, perhaps even enhancing the underlying chiasmatic structure.

  18. Tom D on September 27, 2009 at 2:25 am


    It seems highly likely that Mormon became leader of a Nephite army at age 16 because he was the heir of the previous leader of the army. That was after all how they appear to have select their governors even when they were righteous. To be sure the chosen heir probably had to show some merit in the first place, but the Nephite governments and institutions appear to have been dominated by a relatively small aristocracy. Being “large in stature” as he says in Morm 2:1 could mean more than just that he was tall.

    Considering all the wars Mormon lived through he probably was a good fighter, but as a member of the ruling elite (he states in several places that he is a “pure” descendant of Nephi), he was likely very well educated (see also Morm 1:2-5). Not only was he literate, he could read and write the ancient languages and characters the various plate were written in.

    It is hard to say how much time Mormon had for the work of abridging, but he apparently first got the plates when he was 24 and lived to the ripe old age of 75. The wars with the Lamanites were frequent, but not continuous. His comments on Nephite records in 3 Ne 5:8-16 suggests that both detailed and summary accounts were kept by the Nephites and further that his abridgement was based upon the summary account.

    I think we often project too much of our own culture and expectations on the texts of the Book of Mormon and the Bible. I grew up thinking that the Nephite institution of judges and “voice of the people” was just like our own institutions of elected officials and legislatures. Many years of reading the Book of Mormon and various commentaries has convinced me otherwise. I now think that there were similarities in spirit and detail, but there were significant differences as well.

  19. Brant Gardner on September 27, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Blair, thanks for the plug. I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out where the seams are in the Book of Mormon. I have tried not to assume anything beforehand, but to let the text tell me how it is changing.

    In 1 Nephi, I don’t really see any seems. The reason is that it isn’t very far away from an original source. Although Nephi says he takes things from his father’s book, I suspect that they are the things he wrote in that book and felt he needed to repeat in a different context. 1 Nephi is written at least 30 years after leaving Jerusalem. The didactic nature of the text, the way it transforms stories into parallels with biblical stories, and the way it drives to a particular conclusion suggest that Nephi outlined it and wrote against his outline. There are no real seams exept when he might take an aside.

    2 Nephi is a different animal. I think he started one way and then there is a huge fault line between our chapters 5 and 6. When Nephi gets going on Isaiah, something has changed, and changed in a way that he did not necessarily plan. The ending of the book also suggests that he knew he was dying and was cutting things short.

    The rest of the small plates don’t seem to indicate any editing other than that which is stated.

    Mormon, on the other hand, worked differently. The only times we actually “see” his sources is when he quotes sermons. Within whatever definition of translation you use, we have them as faithfully as possible. The other narrative threads, however, are tied to the sources, but in Mormon’s language, understanding, and intention.

    It is certainly possible that there were scribes editing the plates before Mormon got to them, but I think it unlikely. There is no evidence for it, and the nature of their creation would suggest that there was no reason to edit them (except backwards, and there are reasons why that didn’t happen). As records of the kings, they were kept with the kings.

    Historically, such records are edited when a different reign takes over and wants to eradicate the past. There is no evidence of that happening to the plates of Nephi, with some of that being prevented by the historical movement of the plates in and out of the royal lineage.

    The paper Blair mentioned gives my ideas on Mormon, but not Nephi (it was for a FAIR presentation and there is only 40 minutes).

  20. Mike on September 27, 2009 at 10:15 am


    I hadn’t ever heard of or thought of this possibility to explain his youthful leadership of the army. But it seems highly plausible. I think that all educatuional systems of antiquity were not as extensive as modern ones, but you never know.

    You wrote:”I think we often project too much of our own culture and expectations on the texts of the Book of Mormon and the Bible.”

    I completely agree with this.

  21. BHodges on September 27, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Tom and Mike, you might like a discussion on that issue here:

  22. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 27, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Or Samuel the Lamanite and the failure of his sermons to meet contemporary aesthetic standards … and Christ asking why they did not have his prophecy and the vast silence.

    There is a lot going on.

  23. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 27, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Vis a vis the series of posts I wrote, starting with:

  24. Adam Greenwood on September 27, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    I think the idea that being a soldier and being a scholar is incompatible is something of a modern idea (“jocks” v. “nerds”) that needn’t be true of Moroni. On the other hand, his idea of good writing, scholarship, and fidelity to the sources are probably pretty different from ours.

  25. Jonathan Green on September 27, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Brant, thanks for stopping by to comment. I confess I have not read your 6 volume commentary on the Book of Mormon. From your comments here and the various posts at LoGP, it sounds like an interesting project.

    I think, however, that we’re not taking precisely the same approach to the question. Would it be fair to say that you’re trying to analyze the Book of Mormon as a historical document in the context of the ancient Near East and New World? I think that’s something that should be done, but I’m suggesting that someone should also look at the Book of Mormon as a text whose historical context is all but unknown. In your comment above you talk about the editorial practices of Nephi and Mormon, but that may be something like studying the writing habits of Ishmael in Moby Dick.

    So I guess I would say that what you’re doing certainly does involve assumptions on your part about the Book of Mormon. At first glance it looks like you assume, among other things, that Nephite literacy functioned more or less like Ancient Near Eastern or New World literacy. Which is fine! I have my own set of assumptions, and I’m not trying to be less assumption-bound than thou. And yet I see a need for an analysis that respects the difference between the authors and author figures of reception aesthetics, and that takes as little as possible at face value (without getting lost in a hall of mirrors, that is).

  26. Comet on September 27, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    # 8

    Perhaps we could say that the book was edited (by Mormon/Moroni) for our day, as opposed to being written (from scratch) with our day solely in mind.

  27. BHodges on September 27, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Stephen M: I see the omission of Samuel the Lamanite’s prophecies in Nephite records as something like racism, without much of the loaded content our modern thought brings to that word. He was a Lamanite and doesn’t belong in a Nephite record and so forth, is the attitude.

  28. Brant Gardner on September 28, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    You are, of course, correct that my approach loads the analysis with assumptions based on the reality of the individual authors. However, the evidence of the text is the same, regardless of who we posit as the author. No matter who we suggest wrote 1 Nephi, it has a thematic cohesiveness that is very different from what happens in 2 Nephi. The structure of any of the texts from Mosiah-Mormon is qualitatively different from that found in the Nephi-Omni material.

    It is possible that I am missing something because of my assumptions, but the explanations are built on the data that are there – not necessarily the assumptions (though the assumptions obviously control the language in which they are presented).

    I understand that you would not have read the commentary. Sadly (for me), there are few who have, and comparatively few who have it in their possession so that they might some day. It is not, shall we say, comparable to anything Dan Brown has written .

  29. Jonathan Green on September 28, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Brant, I’ll look for the opportunity to read your commentary. If I might ask, have you published a sweetened condensed version as a journal article in which you summarize your approach and major findings? If curious readers are interested in a first look, where would you send them?

  30. Brant Gardner on September 28, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Jonathan: Check out Much of what I presented at various times at the conference were preliminaries to the commentary. Last year it was a summary of Mormon’s editing. This year is a preview of stuff I am working on.


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