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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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