Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. Vb4. The utility of philology: Jacob and Sherem

Imagining the Book of Mormon as a complex work reflecting numerous steps of compilation and abridgment helps explain some curious features of the encounter with Sherem in Jacob 7.

The contrast of 1 and 2 Nephi with Jacob is striking. 1 and 2 Nephi take place in Jerusalem or the wilderness, and Jacob, born en route, would presumably have addressed the first and second generations residing in the Promised Land. But Jacob as a book of scripture presumes a settled society that is surprisingly well developed. The Nephites have had time to imagine multiple kings, to get rich on trade and artisanal goods like gold and silver, and to lapse into wickedness greater than that of the Lamanites. The Nephites are numerous enough to constitute a “multitude,” and their conflicts with the Lamanites are on the scale of “wars.” When Sherem appears on the scene, he is described as “learned” and having a “perfect knowledge of the language of the people” with particular skill in rhetoric, but his arrival isn’t treated as something that needs explanation, as if training in rhetoric is widely available. What can explain such a dramatic difference in cultural context?

If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess my proposed solution. A straightforward explanation for the seemingly advanced state of Nephite society is that the book of Jacob is a collection of small texts added to the historical core of 1 Nephi and its extension in 2 Nephi, and Jacob 7 in particular is a late accretion added to the text much later than the lifetimes of Nephi and Jacob. Does that mean the confrontation between Jacob and Sherem never happened? No, it just means the form of the text was affected by and reflects the influence of a later stage of Nephite culture, just like “Did the Exodus really take place” and “Does the Old Testament reflect post-exilic editing” are two separate questions.

The only texts that don’t change are those no one reads. Short of burying corrosion-resistant records in the ground, the only way to preserve texts is by continuous storage or continual transmission, and that kind of continuity can happen only if later generations also find the texts worth preserving. You can increase a text’s value by adding more of it: by adding more words of Nephi, for example, or more words of his brother Jacob. Each of these additions makes your scriptural text more valuable, in a sense even more true. Whether through expansion, insertions, or compilation, older records come to reflect not only the time of their origin, but also the values and cultures of the people who saw them as worth preserving. If we ignore the value of the Book of Mormon texts for premodern readers, we won’t fully understand its historical existence or its present significance.

I don’t think I’m just invoking textual history as an easy shortcut around a textual problem. In the case of Jacob 7, we have some good reasons to consider the chapter a later addition.

  1. There’s clear slippage between the cultural and historical context. This is true of Jacob 7 (and Jacob as a whole) compared to the previous sections, as noted above. But it’s also what we’re trying to explain in the first place, so we’ll note the slippage without treating it as an argument.
  2. The type of material can easily be added to an older text. The confrontation between Jacob and Sherem is largely self-contained, and the genre, a dispute between a prophet and an antichrist, was popular enough to occur twice more in the Book of Mormon (with Nehor in Alma 1:2-16 and Korihor in Alma 30:6-60).
  3. There are structural indications of a break in the text between older and newer material. Note that Jacob has no less than three separate conclusions. Already in 3:14, Jacob closes the plates and makes “an end of speaking these words.” Then after chapters 4-6, primarily the Olive Tree parable (itself a likely addition), Jacob bids farewell again and closes with “Amen” (6:13). The third and final “Adieu” follows the confrontation with Sherem (7:27). Rather than a series of postscripts from the hand of Jacob, the younger brother of Nephi, these look very much like textual accretions about or attributed to Jacob that were recorded later and  reflect a more developed state of Nephite culture.
  4. The added material had significance for later readers. The dispute between Jacob and Sherem had very real stakes for Nephites of later centuries – specifically, for the period of 3 Nephi 1-7. Sherem observes that Jacob’s model of time situates their own moment “many hundreds of years” (7:7) before Christ, but Sherem maintains that a far-off future event is unknowable, and no way to orient yourself in time. In the time of Jacob, this would have been an abstract theological debate, like arguing about the best menu for a ward potluck during the Millennium would be for us. But in 3 Nephi 1-7, a new way to reckon years becomes urgent, as the precise number of years since Lehi left Jerusalem is uncertain, while the reigns of the judges have come to an end and no longer ensure an accurate chronology. A new way to reckon time is needed, but transitioning from one chronological system to another can give rise to sectarian bickering and debate, as the experience of Western Europe in the late sixteenth century shows. In that kind of environment, the story of an ancient prophet smiting an antichrist who’s skeptical about dating events according to the sign of Christ’s birth could be a very useful thing to include in your records. As Jacob asks Sherem, to shake him out of his recalcitrance: “Believest thou the scriptures?” (7:10)

Jacob 7 is perhaps the clearest example of textual accretion in the Book of Mormon. It appears where we would expect to see it, consists of material we would expect to see, takes a form we would expect to find, and has more significance for later readers than for Jacob’s contemporaries. In terms of textual history, this makes the Book of Mormon very ordinary. If you’ve spent any time tracing the transmission of premodern texts, you’ll recognize that acquiring textual accretions and undergoing other forms of change over time is all but universal.

* * *

­Thanks for reading all the way through this, and for the various questions and comments along the way. I hope you’ve found this interesting, although like most projects of internal reconstruction, from the Documentary Hypothesis to Proto-Indo-European laryngeal consonants, final agreement is likely to be elusive, and verification may be a long time in coming.

What I referred to as the “philological instinct” in the first installment of this series could be described, perhaps more accurately, as an understanding that the Book of Mormon is a text with a rich history prior to Joseph Smith. What I think is often missing in studies of the Book of Mormon is awareness that the text was read and used by people prior to Mormon, and that what we see is not a simple translation of an abridgement of an eyewitness report.

What the studies of chiasmus and other features of the Book of Mormon text over the last several decades have clearly shown is that the Book of Mormon is not a simple text. This doesn’t by itself prove that the work is revealed scripture or based on historical events, but it also makes it harder to dismiss the Book of Mormon as a shallow flight of fancy. Intense scrutiny of the text has uncovered all kinds of interesting – synchronic – features.

What I’ve tried to show is that the Book of Mormon is also a diachronically complex text. Approaching it as a text with its own history yields interesting and complex results, not a blank screen. This again doesn’t prove that the Book of Mormon is an ancient or inspired text, but it does suggest a textual history much longer than the brief span of its translation. And a Book of Mormon that’s harder to dismiss and more difficult to explain is worth more of our time to read and contemplate.


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

9 comments for “Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. Vb4. The utility of philology: Jacob and Sherem

  1. Love your comments on Jacob 7, Jonathan. Again, a series of observations that I don’t think I’d ever reflected upon before, but now that you lay them out so baldly–“Jacob 7 is perhaps the clearest example of textual accretion in the Book of Mormon”–I can’t help but see it as obvious and agree. Very well done!

  2. Thanks for this perspective. I think the BoM is shot through with adjustments as you suggest likely before they got to Mormon which I would assume made his cut, paste and comment job more challenging – hence the complexity.

  3. One of the most thought provoking series in the bloggernacle in years. Much of the discussion has been over my head, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and the concepts here will enrich my study of the BoM for years to come

  4. Love this series. Interesting, informative, and I can’t predict where the comments section will go (as I pretty much could with 8 out of 10 posts on Bloggernacle blogs these days).

  5. Jonathan, thank you for this series. I’ve read with interest, and appreciate your careful analysis.

  6. Jonathan, I want to echo many of the thoughts expressed here–thank you for this series. It makes a lot of sense and has given me a lot to chew on as I read the Book of Mormon in the future.

  7. I am a little late on commenting on this, but wanted to say how much I appreciate it. I think this is a worthwhile line of inquiry that could yield important insights into the Book of Mormon. Hugh Nibley said that the Book of Mormon “never tires of reminding us that it is not a myth but history and must stand or fall as such” (Since Cumorah, xv; note the section on philology in the same collection.)

    That said, I am in the awkward position of agreeing with the broad outlines of the argument while being skeptical of some of the individual points made. The Book of Mormon is by its own account an abridgement made by multiple people from a significant number of original sources. That should be rich ground for textual analysis, and I think there are insights to be had. However, the book is unusual in the quality of its sources and the care given by its authors and editors, and I think some caution needs to be observed in jumping to conclusions.

    Responses to earlier sections:

    I. What Did Mormon Know? My general impression of Mormon is having a tremendous quantity of records, but insufficient time to work from them (3 Nephi 5:8, “this book cannot contain even a hundredth part”, etc.) Your list of what can’t be assumed is straightforward and, to me, unobjectionable; but very generally, I would assume that Mormon had a lot more information than he puts down in the record, even if it’s still a process for him to “create” the history.

    One interesting piece of evidence: his letter to his son in Moroni 9, which is full of people and places and events that he does not cover in his own narrative. Mormon is holding back a tremendous amount of information, very likely to simplify the record and make it easier to follow for an alien audience.

    And given severe time constraints, I suspect that his natural inclination was to copy and redact what he had available that he considered to be reliable, rather than take pen in hand and write his own version of history at his leisure. Monks and scribes have time for that; generals in the middle of a war do not. Of course, that argues for a more prominent role for intermediate editors and compilers.

    III. Nephite Literacy. The prominence of “lawyers” in the text suggests a dedicated scribal caste, but it seems reasonable to extend literacy to large parts of the upper classes (cf. 3 Nephi 6:12, where “learning” correlates with class distinctions.) Oral transmission would necessarily have been the norm outside of those demographics, however.

    IV. The Puzzle of 3 Nephi. I think there’s a simple and straightforward explanation for the parallels between the early parts of 3 Nephi and Mormon: Mormon had this account at hand and used it as a reference in his own struggles. We know that he was making active use of the historical records in his own life, because he appears to have named his son after Moroni – a great deliverer of the Nephites in their struggle for survival. He may have accepted a division of the lands along an easily fortified line (Mormon 2:28-29) because an earlier general did the same as a matter of survival (Helaman 4:7, 19), and there are other interesting parallels with earlier events.

    In general, I would be cautious about assuming that a later historian is imposing his worldview on an earlier account, when it could just as easily be a later historian taking inspiration from a historical event of which he has a record. (Nobody is accusing Brigham Young of authoring Exodus.)

    The note on 3 Nephi 8:2 and 5 is interesting (it’s not clear if the lack of confidence is over the year, or over the more exact date of the calamity.) I would read it differently, though. I think Mormon is confident in his source (or else he would use an “about” date, as he does in Mormon 1:2), but it tells us something interesting: Mormon considers his sources to be reliable if they are “just [men]”. And that suggests who he may not consider reliable: secular sources, which would account for why nearly the entire record is taken from the prophet-historians, rather than accounts kept by scribes or other secular record-keepers. The question of reliability of sources is legitimate, it’s just that Mormon has a lot of confidence in his sources.

  8. I apologize for being a little long-winded, but let me follow up with a response to the section here, on Sherem, before either the spam filter or the “get your own blog” police send me on my way.

    Vb2. What Did the Nephites Know about Nephi? This is a very good question, and worth further consideration. I think the general population was not in full possession of the account of Nephi – his clear vision of the destruction of his own people was likely not in general circulation, for instance (it seems to be news coming from Samuel the Lamanite in Helaman 13:10.) If I were to guess, it would be that summaries of his teachings were available, but not the full account as found on the plates.

    Vb3. Jacob and Sherem. Of the evidences given for this section being a late addition, the breaks in the text (#3) is the strongest. Jacob’s account does seem to close out at Jacob 6, with Jacob 7 being tacked onto the collection at a later date.

    But there’s no reason to consider “historical slippage” here (#1). One very relevant fact for Jacob is his limited perspective: he was born in a family wandering in the wilderness, and lived in a relatively small tribal society in a near-wilderness, but didn’t know any different. If we consider his use of “kings” and “wars” to be extravagant, that is our perspective, not his. (Note the “kings” of Genesis, which ruled over city-states that were little more than towns; or the “wars” of the American frontier, many of which were little more than skirmishes; and that the “multitude” is still small enough to hear a single speaker.)

    The relevance to later accounts is obvious (#4), but I would suggest that it was later historians – Alma in particular – who took inspiration from this account, rather than the other way around. Note that despite the distance in the text, two of the later accounts of confrontations with Anti-Christs are by the same person, Alma. He is an obvious candidate for someone who discovered the earlier text, used it as a model for his account of his own experiences, and ensured that it was included in a collection of the teachings of Jacob in the small plates. It’s not impossible that some editing occurred in that process, but it isn’t required.

    For the mysterious origin of Sherem, see A. Keith Thompson in “Who Was Sherem?” (Interpreter v. 14, pp. 1-15), where he visits various theories, but concludes that Sherem was likely a Nephite. From my own perspective, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Sherem seems like both a part of Nephite society, and yet somehow an outsider; which suggests that the structure of their society was more complicated than we may be inclined to think.

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