The logical place for a philological approach to the Book of Mormon to begin is with Mormon, its eponymous editor, and his sources. How much did Mormon know about the Nephites, and what kind of records did he have to work with?
We can’t give a definitive answer to either of these two questions. It’s quite possible that Mormon was well informed about Nephite history and learned even more from orderly, complete and well-maintained records, and that the abridgement he provided as the Book of Mormon provides us with a reasonably accurate outline of Nephite history. But there are reasons for caution.
The charge given to Mormon was twofold: to compile a record of the Nephites based on prior accounts, and to write the history of his own time. Although Mormon reports traveling within the Nephite lands, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t mention some basic information about the recent history of his own people when he gives his eyewitness report.
- He knows that the Nephites and Lamanites are both internally subdivided alliances, but he gives no explanation of their internal divisions. These tribal divisions appear in relatively recent history, but Mormon offers an explanation based on religious difference that doesn’t clarify the Nephites’ internal divisions and seems scarcely applicable to his own time in any case, as religious belief among the Nephites had become nominal at best (Mormon 1:13-14).
- He knows that the Nephites and Lamanites are locked in war against each other, but he gives no explanation for the cause of the war or each side’s aims.
- If you’re tempted to answer that an explanation of the previous two points was superfluous because the origin of the Nephites and Lamanites and their conflicts had been treated at length from 1 Nephi to Alma and Helaman, note that Mormon separates his own day from the more solid historical ground of Helaman and 3 Nephi by a vaguely described gap of some 300 years. It would be like explaining current U.S.-Russian tensions by referring to adverse relations between Ivan V and Louis XIV. The world of Mosiah and Alma is not one that Mormon immediately recognizes as directly connected to his own.
- Mormon knows the name of his father, but his personal historical horizon appears to extend back only one generation.
- He doesn’t know exactly how many years have passed since the reign of the judges or the events of 3 Nephi. He describes his time as “many hundred years after the coming of Christ,” and the dates in his prophetic book are approximate.
- In his own book, Mormon mentions only a few people or events from earlier Nephite history, including Nephi, Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite.
- He holds a position of unique importance in Nephite society—keeper of records, leader of armies, witness of Jesus – but he says little about why or how this came to be, except that he was apparently the tallest in his class.
- We don’t know if the position as record keeper, especially in Mormon’s time, was an official position of high prestige, something like a court historian, or a clandestine role known only to the record keeper and his chosen successor, much as the prophet Ether, recording the destruction of his people from a cave.
- And Mormon is the best possible person to write Nephite history. Not only did he have access to such records as existed, but he was present for the key events at the end of Nephite history. If Mormon didn’t know, no one else did, either.
All this would be less of a concern if Mormon had access to concise historical overviews and a well-maintained archive, but Mormon did not – of course – read the Book of Mormon. He had to create Nephite history before he could find himself in it. (This is where Brant Gardner and John Sorenson contrast most sharply. Sorenson insists that Mormon did not manufacture history, while Gardner contemplates Mormon shaping not only history but even geography and personal names to serve his narrative.) When Mormon reaches the end of one record, he doesn’t already know where to go next, and sometimes what he finds surprises him.
There are many things about the Nephite annals, which Mormon describes as “many” and “particular and very large,” that cannot be simply assumed about pre-modern history writing.
- We can’t assume that the records were complete.
- We can’t assume that there were no chronological gaps. (And in fact, the majority of Nephite history, the centuries between Jacob’s death and Mosiah, and from 3 Nephi to Mormon’s own time, is addressed only by a few brief sentences in the minor books of Enos, Jarom, Omni and 4 Nephi.)
- We can’t assume that the records were consistent with each other.
- We can’t assume that the chronology was clear, continuous or reliable.
- We can’t assume that earlier records were preserved as intact artifacts rather than as recopied documents.
- We can’t assume that Mormon could reliably distinguish a recent copy from an ancient document.
- We can’t assume that Mormon was the first compiler of Nephite history and that he worked directly from primary sources rather than from intermediate compilations.
* * *
That’s kind of a down note to end on. But the point isn’t to say we know nothing. The point is to be clear to ourselves about how much uncertainty is involved. In the next few installments, I’ll start looking at what information we do have, and what some reasonable inferences might be. Just keep in mind that the range of possibilities is very large, and even the most reasonable possible solution has a good chance of being mistaken in some important ways.
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
 Cf. John L. Sorenson, “Mormon’s Sources,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20.2 (2011): 13; Brant A. Gardner, Labor Diligently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture, Interpreter 35 (2020): 42-43, 53, 74, 92-103
Very interested to see how this proceeds.
Was Mormon even particularly engaged by the prospect of filling in the gaps of what he didn’t know? Grant Hardy argued that on the basis of the received text we should recognize that Mormon saw “himself as a historian, with a responsibility to tell the story of his civilization comprehensively and accurately” (Understanding the Book of Mormon, p. 91), but acknowledges that such a recognition doesn’t comport with the way Mormon apparently did not attempt to fill in gaps in the records or in his own knowledge when he had the opportunity to speak to the three Nephite witnesses about events three centuries before him (p. 210). It’s kind of fascinating to think about the BoM as a fragmentary historical transmission, ultimately subject to the perspective and preferences of a very small number of people.
Incidentally, Jonathan, your final suggestion–“We can’t assume that Mormon was the first compiler of Nephite history and that he worked directly from primary sources rather than from intermediate compilations”–really resonates with me, because my reading of Royal Skousen’s BoM text gave me multiple of moments of thinking I was seeing a textual jump, a moment of Mormon inserting lines from one record into a narrative, then picking up some other already-existing narrative thread and continuing. We have no idea how many other people may have been called to help assemble and preserve these records over the centuries, and what perspectives and preferences they may have brought to their own redactions, summaries, and commentaries.
Russell, your post was one of the things that’s been on my mind for a while. It describes well how uncanny it can be to read the Book of Mormon. On the one hand, gold plates, angels, ancient civilizations? But then you look at the eyewitness accounts and those gold plates are really solid, really heavy, and it’s surprisingly difficult to come up with an explanation that doesn’t involve angels. Then you read the text, and it’s got a depth and texture to it that’s hard to explain. But then, angels? Maybe so.
I’m going to close the comments here just to keep the conversation all in one place. Feel free to add additional comments or questions to the latest section (currently http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2020/06/notes-on-book-of-mormon-philology-iiia-nephite-literacy/).