Vb 2.The overdetermination of Nephite origins
Thinking of the Book of Mormon as the result of a series of textual accretions and combinations might help make sense of how curiously overdetermined the account of Nephite origins is.
Who are the Nephites? People in the time of Helaman or Mormon could have known at least two sets of two similar origin stories. According to 1 Nephi, the people are descendants of Lehi, who fled from Jerusalem. The Mulekite story identifies the people as descendants of a royal refugee from Jerusalem. The exodus story of Limhi identifies the people as refugees from Lamanite captivity, while Alma’s exodus story identifies the people as Christ-believers who fled from Lamanite captivity. (The account of the Jaredites in the book of Ether would add a fifth origin story, while the Lamanites and even the Gadianton robbers have their own origin stories.)
Because 1 Nephi is the first book of our Book of Mormon, we instinctively think of “Nephite” as meaning “descendant of Nephi.” But the Book of Mormon abounds in plausible alternative etymologies and definitions of the word, including: the people who are ruled by the Nephis, the people who live in the city (or land) of Nephi (or perhaps Nephihah), or the people who own the records of Nephi. Alma 3:11 lends support to deriving the name of Nephites from the records of Nephi, as the people who “believed those records which were brought out of the land of Jerusalem, … who believed in the commandments of God and kept them, were called the Nephites, or the people of Nephi, from that time forth.” There is a different definition in Alma 2:11, where the Nephites are defined, in distinction to the Amlicites, as the “people of God.”
Even the Nephite church has multiple origins. While King Benjamin seems to have things well in hand in the early chapters of Mosiah, seemingly in continuity with the foundation provided by Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob, it’s ultimately the dissident Noachite priest Alma who organizes and heads the church among the Nephites. Mormon presents the baptismal scene at the Waters of Mormon as a new emergence of authority to baptize (similar to that of 3 Nephi 11:21 or 19:11-13), and Mormon refers to the Waters of Mormon as the site of the “first church which was established among them after their transgression.”
If the Nephites—represented as a heterogeneous group consisting of Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, and Zoramites—had differing accounts of their ethnic and religious origins, putting the accounts in sequence would be one way to reconcile the tensions between them. Gardner observes that Nephi’s narrative documents the “legitimate right of his people to be a separate people and for Nephi to be their king.” That would have made 1 Nephi a very useful document for a society and a culture in need of legitimizing narratives, and all but assured it of circulation at much later times.
Vb 3. What did the Nephites know about Nephi?
But what did the Nephites actually know about Lehi and Nephi? This again sounds like a ridiculous question, but if we exclude formulaic references to plates, geography, descent, and years since Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem, we’re left with just a half-dozen cases from Mosiah through 3 Nephi where specific people refer back to the events of 1 Nephi. King Benjamin refers to Lehi’s records and knowledge of Egyptian; Limhi gives a concise overview of the contention between Nephi and his brothers; Alma and Amulek refer to Lehi and Nephi while preaching in Ammonihah; Alma mentions Lehi’s vision to his son Helaman; Helaman’s epistle to Moroni mentions Lehi as the father of Laman; and Nephi the son of Helaman refers to the preaching of Lehi and Nephi.
This list is diverse enough, in terms of people and chronology, that it seems likely 1 Nephi was reasonably well known among the Nephites. There are also several editorial citations, whether from Mormon or from an earlier editor. This suggests that many Nephites read the account of 1 Nephi over an extended period, which would require multiple copies of the records, which in a manuscript culture implies the circulation of multiple versions of the text and changes over time. (Based on Helaman 5:41, John Hilton III has also suggested that “later Nephite prophets had access to the words of earlier ones,” referring specifically to Alma, Amulek and Zeezrom. So the problem of wide circulation in multiple copies and competing versions likely applies to Mosiah through 3 Nephi as well.)
There are also direct quotations from 1-2 Nephi later in the Book of Mormon. Consider the couplet spoken by Lehi to his sons in 2 Nephi 1:20, “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence,” which is repeated in half (as previously at 1 Nephi 4:14) or in full numerous times, including by Lehi himself and also by Jarom and Amaron. Later figures to use this quotation include King Benjamin, Alma preaching in Ammonihah and giving final counsel to his sons Helaman and Shiblon. Each of these quotations is quite similar, although there are a few, mostly minor differences between each one (see Table 1 below; as the context formulas make clear, nearly all of these are identified as explicit quotations).
There is also an editorial quotation that cites Lehi by name (in Alma 50:20) preceded by an extended introduction in verse 19 (emphasis added):
And thus we see how merciful and just are all the dealings of the Lord, to the fulfilling of all his words unto the children of men; yea, we can behold that his words are verified, even at this time, which he spake unto Lehi.
A very similar introductory phrase occurs in Alma 3:14 to set up another quotation of a different set of verses:
Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to Nephi.
In this case, the description of the dissident Amlicites in Alma 3 appears to be quoting the description of the Lamanite cursing from 2 Nephi 5:21-23, and the parallel language and structure makes clear that this is the intended source (and Alma 3:18-19 additionally sees the Amlicite self-marking as fulfillment of the same curse). But the textual correspondence is often approximate; each passage has its own unique material, and Alma 3:16-17, although introduced as two quotations, have no equivalent in 2 Nephi 5. (See Table 2 below. For chiasmus aficionados, note how the similar features [which, if we’ve gone this far, we might as well imagine as reflecting an original text prior to the independent expansions of each version] form a nice symmetric pattern, with “repent of their iniquities/wickedness” at its core.)
What’s going on here? Why are similar formulas used to introduce near or exact quotations on the one hand, but substantially different passages in the other?
The most straightforward explanation is that the text of 1-2 Nephi existed in multiple versions and underwent changes during Book of Mormon times. Gardner finds it “problematic to discover clear cases when those recorded on the large or small plates provide quotations from earlier writings on the large or small plates.” But it is not clear to me why this should be so. Far from being dismaying, it accords entirely with what we expect from manuscript records preserving widely circulated texts of high interest and relevance to their readers. The text of the Book of Mormon doesn’t behave like the inerrant scripture we don’t believe it to be, but like the real book with real history that we believe it is.
As noted above, Nephi the son of Helaman refers to the preaching of Nephi and Lehi, lamenting that he doesn’t live “in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem” when people were “easy to be entreated, firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity.” Grant Hardy writes, “It is hard not to smile at his misplaced nostalgia. Either he has been reading a very different version of early Nephite history or he hasn’t been paying attention.” But reading a different version of early Nephite history is not only a very real possibility. Centuries after the fact, with material of broad cultural importance being copied and recopied by hand (and perhaps updated or expanded as well), the existence of multiple versions of 1-2 Nephi was all but certain.
* * *
Next: The final installment, dealing at last with Jacob and Sherem.
Table 1. Full and half quotations of the formulaic couplet found in 2 Nephi 1:20 (keep my commandments / prosper in the land/ cut off from my presence). Significant noncontextual changes that can’t easily be attributed to inconsistency in translation in bold. The introductory passages preceding each citation show that in almost every case, including the earliest ones, the couplet is presented as a conscious quotation of some earlier statement.
|1 Nephi 4:14 (half)||I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that:||Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.|
|2 Nephi 1:20||And he hath said that:||Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.|
|2 Nephi 4:4||For the Lord God hath said that:||Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.|
|2 Nephi 5:20 (half)||Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that:||Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord|
|Jarom 1:9 (half)||But the word of the Lord was verified, which he spake unto our fathers, saying that:||Inasmuch as ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land.|
|Omni 1:6 (half)||… he would not suffer that the words should not be verified, which he spake unto our fathers, saying that:||Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not prosper in the land.|
|Mosiah 2:22 (half)||… and he has promised you that||if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land|
|Mosiah 2:31 (half)||As ye have kept my commandments, and also the commandments of my father, and have prospered, and have been kept from falling into the hands of your enemies,||if ye shall keep the commandments of my son, or the commandments of God which shall be delivered unto you by him, ye shall prosper in the land|
|Alma 9:13||Behold, do ye not remember the words which he spake unto Lehi, saying that:||Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land? And again it is said that: Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.|
|Alma 36:1 (half)||… I swear unto you, that||inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land.|
|Alma 36:30||… for ye ought to know as I do know, that||inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land; and ye ought to know also, that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence.|
|Alma 37:13||O remember, remember, my son Helaman, how strict are the commandments of God. And he said:||If ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land–but if ye keep not his commandments ye shall be cut off from his presence.|
|Alma 38:1||My son, give ear to my words, for I say unto you, even as I said unto Helaman, that||inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence.|
|Alma 50:20||… we can behold that his words are verified, even at this time, which he spake unto Lehi, saying:||Blessed art thou and thy children; and they shall be blessed, inasmuch as they shall keep my commandments they shall prosper in the land. But remember, inasmuch as they will not keep my commandments they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.|
Table 2. Cursing of the Lamanites and Amlicites. Textual similarities are bolded to clarify the similarity in diction and structure; Alma 3 is quoting a text that shares a source with 2 Nephi 5.
2 Nephi 5
|14 Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to Nephi:|
|21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing,||Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed,|
|because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome,|
|that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.||and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed,|
|from this time henceforth and forever,|
|22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people,|
|save they shall repent of their iniquities.||except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them.|
|15 And again:|
|23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing.||I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren, that they may be cursed also.|
|And the Lord spake it, and it was done.|
|16 And again: I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed.|
|17 And again, I say he that departeth from thee shall no more be called thy seed; and I will bless thee, and whomsoever shall be called thy seed, henceforth and forever; and these were the promises of the Lord unto Nephi and to his seed.|
|24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.|
|25 And the Lord God said unto me: They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction.|
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
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
 Gardner, Labor Diligently, 177.
 John Hilton III, “Textual Similarities in the Words of Abinadi and Alma’s Counsel to Corianton,” BYU Studies 51.2 (2012): 41.
 Gardner, “Literacy and Orality,” 80.
 Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 292 n. 34.
That table is wonderful, Jonathan. And your suggestion that differing and likely competing versions of the core collection of prophecies and events that eventually became 1 Nephi (I am a little less comfortable with extending the same to 2 Nephi, since the inclusion of so much Isaiah material there seems to strongly suggest a later, more singular textual intervention) were floating around the Nephite and other communities during the Zarahemla period is, again, something that I hadn’t thought of before, but now seems obviously. Thanks again for this series of reflections, sir.
Jonathan, Thanks for your work on this series. I’ll be coming back to it, probably multiple times.
Thanks, I’m glad this has been helpful. Russell, I agree that Isaiah probably arrived in 2 Nephi as a block. But I’d really need to take a much closer look at 2 Nephi to say much about it, even tentatively.
I’ll try to add some final thoughts onto the end of the last post, which should go up toward the end of the week.
If you don’t mind my asking – how are you distinguishing “philology” from “using historical context”? I’m enjoying the series either way but I always sort of read philology as meaning “the study of the evolution of languages”.
As a trained and practicing philologist, I am struggling to understand the utility of all this work you have gone through to examine something that, to honor the external claims about it, is a work in translation. I have never yet profitably read any philologically critical approach to the Iliad when that study is performed on, say, an English translation from the early 19th century.
I don’t mean to throw shade here because it is not your fault at all, but unless you are dealing with and controlling source languages (which is impossible for the Book of Mormon), I don’t think you can really call any of this philology. Help me understand why you are calling this philology and not something more suited to the approach.
N.Fen., I wouldn’t say I’m using historical context, because I’m trying to minimize the assumptions I’m making about context. I prefer the term philology because my approach is rooted in the text. The term used to have a much broader definition that encompassed historical linguistics, descriptive linguistics, literary history, literary analysis, and other things that are today disciplines in their own right. But you ask a good question, and I think I have a better sense of what I mean by philology now than I did at the beginning. Maybe I’ll try to address that in the last post.
ABIDM, I’m trying to provide quality entertainment at a time of death, unrest and quarantine. Also, I think this exercise is a useful reminder about unwarranted but common assumptions about the Book of Mormon. Finally, think of the work on the Book of Mormon over the last 50 years that has gone a long way toward demonstrating that it’s a complex text that rewards serious inquiry; an element I think is missing in that effort, and that I’m trying to sketch out here, is that the textual history of the Book of Mormon – prior to its translation – is also complex. Existing work still operates on a simple model of, more or less, Alma said it, Mormon abridged it, Joseph translated it, the end. And I think that model ends up making unconscious assumptions and overlooking some important things about the text.
Naturally I’d prefer to be working with prior versions of the text, and I’m aware of the limits that having only a translation imposes. But I wouldn’t say having only a translation to work with precludes philological work. Texts known only from (generally medieval or early modern) translations rather than an original source aren’t all that unusual, after all, and I’ve dealt with cases of it in my own academic work. If we only knew Homer from a 19th-century English translation, there are certainly some philological approaches that would be impossible, but I think we could still talk about epithets and theories of oral composition. At least by the older definitions I think what I’m doing here fits under the umbrella of philology, although I’d be happy to consider alternatives.