Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. IIIa. Nephite literacy

III. Mormon’s sources

John Sorenson and Brant Gardner have addressed the issue of Mormon’s sources directly. In both cases, their treatments largely recapitulate the textual history Mormon provides and assume that his is the only editorial voice; their account of the development of the text of the Book of Mormon is rooted in the personal biographies of Nephi and Mormon.[1] Yet as Sorenson notes, Mormon’s editorial work had to be completed in limited time under difficult conditions, so making use of any prior summaries rather than an undeviating quest ad fontes would have vastly sped up his work. Gardner presumes that Moroni, feeling pressed for time, used Mosiah’s previous translation of the existing Jaredite records.[2] The same would have been even more true of Mormon and any prior summary of Nephite history.

Unless someone gets lucky with a spade or a metal detector, the full extent of Mormon’s sources will remain unknown. We can attempt to reconstruct the text’s history based on internal evidence, but even the most ingenious reconstruction will be wrong on more points than it is right. To keep even tentative answers on the side of plausibility rather than fantasy, how we think about Mormon’s sources should be informed by any information we have about Nephite literacy and textual culture.

IIIa. Nephite literacy

References to reading and writing are not infrequent in the Book of Mormon, including references to the interaction of writing and memory. In early classical Nephite culture, Alma wrote the words of Abinadi from memory, and Moroni also wrote from memory at its very end. Alma the Younger described written records as having “enlarged the memory of this people.” Transmission in writing could be parallel to oral transmission; Helaman taught his sons “many things which are not written, and also many things which are written.” In the context of King Benjamin’s speech, writing is used to extend and amplify the human voice. In the same context and elsewhere, writing could serve as a form of general publication. Epistles used for official communication appear in the books of Alma and 3 Nephi (including sealing, or affixing a seal to an epistle). Personal epistles, both from Mormon to Moroni, only appear quite late.

All these elements of literacy are reassuringly familiar. Since my assumptions about Nephite textual history are influenced by my experience working with the manuscripts and printed books of medieval and early modern Europe, I have some hope that my mental models aren’t misleading me too badly. Since writing could be used as a means of publication, I assume literacy wasn’t extremely limited, for example to just a few members of a priestly caste. I expect literacy rates ranged from one person per village to perhaps one person per household (including many incompletely literate people), or about what we expect from our knowledge of premodern literacy, much as as Brant Gardener suggests.[3] It seems quite unlikely literacy rates were much higher than that, as the levels of urbanization, schooling, and knowledge-based work that support and require higher literary rates are very recent developments (and so I disagree with Anita Wells’s argument for widespread Nephite literacy).[4]

­On the other hand, Nephite literacy does have a few distinguishing features. Jacob contrasts arduous but enduring writing on plates with perishable writing on other media. There are also numerous references to the contrast between secular and sacred writing (perhaps also public rather than private writing) that was handed down in person from one generation to the next (for example, in Alma). That’s distinctive enough to suggest caution about applying a model of literacy from another culture to the Nephites, and we can’t immediately say which other culture would provide the best model for Nephite literacy.

Brant Gardner has argued that Nephi had scribal training, and his analysis of Nephi’s literacy is strongly influenced by Karel Van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (2007).[5] Michael Austin has also recently identified Nephite literacy with scribal culture. The assumption that Israel at the time of the Babylonian conquest provides the best model of Nephite literacy (and culture in general) is common and reasonable, but it’s the kind of assumption that I’m resisting; for one thing, the culture of Mosiah and Alma is centuries later and set in a much different context. It’s also difficult to make a strong case for Nephite literacy as specifically scribal culture rather than a more general manuscript culture simply because there are no scribes in the Book of Mormon. Everyone who needs to write does so for themselves, including mute antichrists, robber chieftains and Lamanite kings. I assume there were scribes among the Nephites because scribes are often useful in a culture dependent on manuscripts, but it’s a big leap from there, on the basis of no evidence, to assume that literacy was dominated by a scribal class.

* * *

I.The philological instinct

II. What did Mormon know?

III. Mormon’s sources
IIIa. Nephite literacy
IIIb. The material culture of Nephite literacy
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] Sorenson, “Mormon’s Sources,” 4, 5, 10-13; Gardner, Labor Diligently, 32, 76.

[2] Gardner, Labor Diligently, 29 n. 39.

[3] Brant A. Gardner, “Literacy and Orality in the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter 9 (2014): 42-47.

[4] Anita Wells, “Bare Record: The Nephite Archivist, The Record of Records, and the Book of Mormon Provenance,” Interpreter 24 (2017):103-4.

[5] Brant A. Gardner, Labor Diligently, 141ff.

8 comments for “Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. IIIa. Nephite literacy

  1. Ethan R
    June 11, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    Question: who is Sherem (Nephite? Lamanite?) and how did he learn to read?

  2. June 11, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    The short answer: A Nephite, probably. But this whole series of posts is actually the long answer to that question.

  3. keepapitchinin
    June 11, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    Absolutely nothing to contribute, but I’m reading and looking forward eagerly to each installment.

  4. p
    June 11, 2020 at 9:05 pm

    BoM civilizations have evolved/devolved (depending on one’s orientation) from actual history to the supernatural, all neatly w/in my lifetime. Everything changes, it seems, even the unchangeable – thus, conversations like this literally have a aura of Lord of the Rings about them, and I wonder if this retards the spiritual development of Mormon people, simply because it is so utterly beside the point.

  5. June 11, 2020 at 11:11 pm

    Grant Hardy’s first section also includes what seems to me a pretty persuasive analysis of how the Nephi portions of the text reveal him to a real devotee of language and records, and probably rather despondent that the interest in pursuing or even just the bare ability to pursue literary endeavors was so rare among his descendants (that is, assuming he even had any himself who stayed with his people after the first separation from his older brothers’ families; Hardy makes some smart comments regarding that possibility as well).

  6. Ethan R
    June 12, 2020 at 1:31 am

    I’m interested to hear more about what you have to say about Sherem. He is a figure who has long puzzled me. If he was a Nephite, then wouldn’t he be a nephew or grandnephew of Jacob’s, or the son or grandson of Zoram, with whom the “people of Nephi” would have been already been well acquainted? The Nephites couldn’t have numbered that many by the end of Jacob’s life (200-250 people? And that would be a lot of kids per female if it were that number). Everyone would have known each other you’d think.

    But the account in Jacob 7 has Sherem “coming among”, as if to suggest he was an unknown outsider. It also says that he had a “perfect knowledge of the language of the people” as if to suggest that he learned the language of the Nephites after childhood and did not speak it natively. How would he learn the language of the people of Nephi if he hadn’t met them before? Wouldn’t he have known the language from birth if he were a Nephite, or even a Lamanite, since I can’t imagine Lamanite speech to have drifted that far from Nephite speech over the course of Jacob’s lifetime.

    Lastly, if he is coming from outside, then how was he acquainted with the scriptures? The people of Nephi kept the brass plates with them. Would these have been copied? If so, how? Scribal culture didn’t seem to be carried over by Laman and his followers when they split from Nephi and his followers. Just one generation without a scribal culture and who reads and writes? Maybe there was oral transmission of memories of what the scriptures said. Suffice it to say that I find Sherem perplexing.

  7. The Other Clark
    June 12, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    This and the preceding posts are fascinating. I have nothing to add, but I hope there are many like me who don’t comment, but find the material very worthwhile. Thanks for being willing to share your expertise.

  8. June 12, 2020 at 7:26 pm

    Thanks for the comments. Enjoying a post and learning a lot from it without having anything useful to add is usually my experience with Keepapitchinin, so thank you. I’ll post the next installment Monday.

    Russell, as for descendants of Nephi, don’t forget Aminadi. Everyone forgets about Aminadi. (Alma 10:2-3)

    Ethan, I’ll address Sherem, but it’s literally the last post in the series (see the outline), and at least the next two posts are necessary preliminaries for that post to make sense. But we’ll get there, I promise.

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