Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. IV. The Puzzle of 3 Nephi

If we take the possibilities raised in previous posts into consideration—that Mormon, rather than having a complete picture of Nephite history to work from, may have first needed to construct Nephite history; that prior writers and compilers created the records available to Mormon; and that annals and chronologies may have gaps and inconsistencies—then what emerges as the Book of Mormon’s most prominent textual puzzle is 3 Nephi 8-28:16. Why are these chapters, which record the central event in the history of Nephite salvation and destruction, located between Helaman and 4 Nephi?

The obvious answers to this ridiculous question would be that chronologically, 3 Nephi 8-28:16 falls between Helaman and 4 Nephi; historically, it forms the transition from the events of one book to the next; there is a continuity of personal actors from Helaman to 3 Nephi, and from 3 Nephi to 4 Nephi; and there is narrative continuity across all these books.

On closer inspection, however, there are real concerns with all of these justifications for confidence about the place of 3 Nephi. As already noted, the chronological transition in 4 Nephi is uncertain enough that dates in Mormon are approximate. Rather than a smooth transition, as from Alma to Helaman, there’s a vast gap of three centuries with little detail provided. Apparently, only four people span that gap: Nephi (around 75 years), Nephi’s son Amos (84 years), Amos’s son Amos (apparently 110 years), and Amos Jr.’s brother Ammaron (15 years; see 4 Nephi 1:19, 21, 47). This sequence raises concerns about the completeness or reliability of the chronology of 4 Nephi, as others have recognized.[1]

And the same issues afflict the transition from 3 Nephi 1-7 to 3 Nephi 8. In 3 Nephi, years are given according to three systems: since Lehi left Jerusalem, since the time of Mosiah, and, beginning in 3 Nephi, since the sign of Christ’s birth had appeared. If all three of these chronologies were consistent and reinforced each other in Mormon’s sources, Mormon would not likely hedge the chronology as he does in 3 Nephi 8:2: “And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man [Nephi] in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away.” That’s an odd caveat for Mormon to add if he’s highly confident of the sequence of years.

It’s also difficult to speak of historical continuity from 3 Nephi 1-7 to 3 Nephi 8 because Nephite society is literally upended in chapter 8, with cities buried and flooded and burned and otherwise laid waste. Rather than continuity, there is a massive cultural caesura at 3 Nephi 8.

But what about personal continuity? Isn’t there a continuous sequence of prophets among the Nephites? Here again, there’s a curious gap. In 3 Nephi 1, Nephi is given the records and acts as a prophet, praying on behalf of the Nephites, receiving revelation and preaching among them. And then Nephi disappears from the text. In 3 Nephi 3:19, it’s the chief judge Lachoneus and chief captain Gidgiddoni who not only act as prophets, but are explicitly identified as such. What happened to Nephi? He doesn’t return until 3 Nephi 7:17, just prior to the upending of Nephite civilization.

As for narrative continuity: This section of the Book of Mormon has several lengthy editorial intrusions by Mormon (at 3 Nephi 5:8-26, 26:6-13, and 28:17-30:2). While an editor can decide to editorialize anywhere, in my experience such interruptions are somewhat more likely at the boundaries between texts. Gardner additionally argues that Mormon used a set of sources for 3 Nephi that differed from what he had used for Alma-Helaman.[2]

Anita Wells has noted that the text of the Book of Mormon documents a continuous chain of custody of the plates that bear it, but the same problems with chronology apply to custody. Who’s keeping the plates (and taking notes about events) when Nephi disappears from 3 Nephi 3-7? And a chain of custody that includes only four custodians—two of them siblings—for some 300 years of history seems to have some issues.[3] However we look at it, there are basic problems with the continuity of the historical record of 3 Nephi 8-28:16.

In some ways it would be easier to simply remove the interruption and glue the all-consuming warfare of Mormon directly to 3 Nephi 1-7. In those early chapters of 3 Nephi, the distinction of Lamanite from Nephite disappears (but see also 3 Nephi 3:14); the Nephites are faced with a war of extinction; the Nephites attempt a strategy of centralization and fortification; the people become divided into rich and poor; the church is in a state of disarray; the nation dissolves into tribes based on family relationship; and there is a flight, ultimately futile, into the land northward. In 4 Nephi and Mormon, of course, class distinctions and national tribes reappear, the Nephites are threatened with a war of extinction, Mormon attempts a strategy of centralization and fortification, and ultimately leads a futile flight into the land northward. 3 Nephi 1-7 seem like a more plausible and detailed explanation for the warfare of Mormon’s time than 4 Nephi. Is Christ’s visit to the New World just an insertion followed by a resumptive repetition?

This is a philological puzzle that philology can’t solve­­, but the answer is no, I don’t think we should snip 3 Nephi 8-4 Nephi out of our triple combinations. While Mormon necessarily wrote from a limited perspective, his observational vantage was incomparably better than our own, and we’re unlikely to accurately second-guess his construction of Nephite history. 3 Nephi has to come after Helaman because Jesus’s ministry among the Nephites can only follow the expectation that he would come, and 3 Nephi has to come before Mormon’s prophetic book because the Three Nephites have to be transfigured before they can appear and minister to Mormon.

The fact that 3 Nephi 8-26:16 is anchored in place not by historical continuity, but by prophetic expectation and divinized beings, does tell us that 3 Nephi 8-28:16 relates events in sacred time, however. Sacred time is not experienced or recorded according to the same patterns as mundane time, and mapping one onto the other will always be less than satisfactory. Think of the Pioneer era in church history, which is not simply sandwiched between the Nauvoo and Utah periods, either geographically or chronologically, and is not just a transition between them. The Pioneer era was something experienced in its own particular way, and even today it’s remembered and commemorated as something particular to itself. In some ways, Christ’s visit to the New World begins Nephite history by casting them out of ana-chronism and turning them into Christian believers in step with a Christian era; but this resolution of tension is also the Nephites’ end. Perhaps 3 Nephi-Mormon would be best presented not as a sequential chronicle, but as something like one of the paintings by the Old Masters where everything happens simultaneously. In one corner, the Nephites would combine forces to successfully stave off the robbers, while in the opposite corner their strength would fail on the road to Cumorah; darkness and destruction would upend the land on one side, while Christ would appear as light in the darkness on the other.

* * *

So that wasn’t very phillological. Originally this section was just a brief note, but it kept growing. I keep thinking back on the image of Mormon rummaging through the Nephite annals after he had finished one set of records and discovering Nephi’s small plates. What happened after he finished with the Book of Helaman? The character of the record changes, and even with more than 100 pages left to go in the Book of Mormon, Nephite history is all but over.

Questioning whether 3 Nephi should really follow Helaman may not strike you as terribly useful, but it’s an essential detour before we get, eventually, to Jacob and Sherem. In the next few sections I’ll try to show more clearly that philological instincts can be not just permissible but also useful for understanding the Book of Mormon.

I.The philological instinct

II. What did Mormon know?

III. Mormon’s sources
IIIa. Nephite literacy
IIIb. The material culture of Nephite literacy
IIIb note 1. A note on the uniformity of the Golden Plates
IIIc. The source structure of the Book of Mormon

IV. The puzzle of 3 Nephi

V. The permissibility and utility of philology for studying the Book of Mormon
Va. The permissibility of philology
Vb. The utility of philology
Vb1. Useful cautions
Vb2. What did the Nephites know about Nephi?
Vb3. The overdetermination of Nephite origins
Vb4. Jacob and Sherem

[1] See for example Gardner, Labor Diligently, 44-45.

[2] Gardner, Labor Diligently, 43.

[3] Cf. Wells, “Bare Record,” 111-13. Gardner, Labor Diligently, 21 n. 21 considers the possibility that the line of record-keeping was interrupted.

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