Another Suggestion for Reading 1 Nephi 1: 1-3

1 I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

2 Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

3 And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge. (1 Nephi 1:1–3)

Verses 1-3 are a complete literary unit and should be read together. They form a colophon, or an indication of the author of the piece. Verse 2 has had no reasonable explanation. Nephi says that he makes a record in the language of his father, but then defines that “language” in a way that leaves modern readers without a clear understanding. There are two disparate elements to the clarification, “learning of the Jews” and “language of the Egyptians.” If Nephi intended to say that he wrote in Egyptian, he could have skipped the rest of the message.

The typical reading of this passage supposes that Nephi intended to tell modern readers something about the way he wrote–that the “language of the Egyptians” refers to the characters used to express the sounds of the words, but that the underlying language was Hebrew. Unfortunately, that understanding of the verse is possible only from a modern perspective, imposing a definition to fit what we think we are looking at. It cannot be the meaning that Nephi had when he wrote.

The very fact that Nephi wrote his text on metal plates tells us that he understood that he was writing for a future audience. We understand that he had revelations alluding to that far distant future audience, but most of what he wrote has a logic and thematic arc that are clearly intended for his current community (and more immediate descendants). There is no indication that Nephi understood much about those who would become his readers in the Restoration. The structures of his work are open to analysis from the ancient world’s patterns, not modern sensibilities. Therefore, understanding these passages requires understanding Nephi, not imposing our interpretive apologetic on his text.

The initial problem from Nephi’s perspective as a writer is that verse 2 is entirely unnecessary. Anyone who could read what Nephi had written knew the language (and the script) in which it was written. No text in English has ever begun with: “I am writing this in English, which consists of the learning of the Saxons polished by the French.”

The function of a colophon was to provide information about the author. Thus verse 2 logically describes Nephi, not the linguistics of his text. Unraveling his unusual self-description requires stepping back far enough to see Nephi against a clearer background:

  • I have argued that Nephi was apparently trained as a scribe. Several aspects of his writings are explained by that background, not the least of which is that he could write at all. While not exclusive to scribal schools, literacy was not universal; and of those who could read, not all could write. (See Brant A. Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011).
  • Lehi also wrote a record. While 1 Nephi 1:17 is the only indication of Lehi’s education, it implies a formal education. He might have learned to read and write in the home, but only if his parents already had those skills. Lehi had an education as well as metal working skills—probably at the professional level.
  • Nephi also clearly has metal-working skills in addition to formal scribal training, a prestigious occupation.
  • Nephi’s style incorporates numerous parallels to scriptural accounts. He likes to place his story in a greater context.

When Nephi writes about his family’s journey in the wilderness, he explicitly parallels the account of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. See 1 Nephi 4:3.1

Nephi intentionally sets his own story as a parallel to that of Joseph of Egypt (from whom he was descended). In 1 Nephi 2:22. The Lord promises Nephi that he will “be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren.” Joseph was to rule over his brothers. In 1 Nephi 7:16. Nephi’s brothers bind him. Joseph’s brothers restrained and threw him into a pit.

With that background we may attempt a more contextually appropriate reading of verse 2.

Nephi explains (v. 1) that because he was born of goodly parents “therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.” The goodliness of the parents was in the care taken to provide for his education. It was not an opportunity available to all, but only to those with sufficient means (although I disagree with the reading of “goodly” as “having goods”). Although Nephi speaks of his father’s learning, it is Nephi who is the subject of the message. Nephi has learned the things his father learned.

The “language of my father” (v. 2) must mean something more than the unremarkable fact that Nephi could speak his father’s language. I suggest that Nephi is creating a parallel between himself and his father. Granted, the evidence is thin, but it nevertheless explains this verse:

  • Lehi had an education and could write—at least Egyptian and Hebrew, possibly more. Perhaps he learned Egyptian through trade as several commenters have suggested. However, it could possibly result from his education.
  • Nephi also had an education—scribal training–and could write. Even in Israel, scribes learned Egyptian.2
  • Nephi’s claim that he writes in the “language of my father” is a description of the quality of the writing, not linguistic information about it. His language is informed by education, an education he shares with his father.

This reading of verse 2 is reinforced by Nephi’s construction of his family’s story. He provides essential information about his father, followed by the equally essential information about his father’s prophetic calling. Nephi parallels himself with his father both in subtle and structural references. This verse may be one of the subtle references. The clearest structural similarity is Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life followed by Nephi’s similar vision. Both of those occasions also result in a discussion of the mission of the Messiah. With Nephi’s vision, he is clearly stamped as a visionary man, as was his father. Just as Nephi creates himself as a parallel to Joseph in Egypt, he also consciously links his story to his father’s, not just in sequence, but in paralleled events.

Verse 3 is the verification of the trustworthiness of the author’s efforts. Had Nephi been the scribe for someone else’s text, this sentence would have verified that it was a faithful record. Most texts were given orally and written down by the scribe; hence, the scribe testified to the accuracy of the recording, not the copying. In this case, of course, Nephi is the author. Yet he declares that he has faithfully recorded the events he has experienced.

The triple parallel emphasizes the point. Each statement elaborates on the faithfulness of the record and should be seen as a cumulative witness:

And I know that the record which I make is true;

and I make it with mine own hand;

and I make it according to my knowledge.

The first three verses are intended to be a formal colophon, in this case, one that identifies who Nephi is. As a literary unit intended to discuss the author we are required to first look to their meaning as descriptions of Nephi rather than the manner or language of his writing.

  1. S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 30, no. 3 (Summer 1990). 

  2. Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 100. 

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

19 thoughts on “Another Suggestion for Reading 1 Nephi 1: 1-3

  1. I like your definition of “goodly.”

    I believe Nephi puts verse 2 in deliberately to produce balanced inverted parallelism.. Here is how I see these verses.

    A I, Nephi,

    B having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father;

    C and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days,

    D nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days;

    D’ yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God,

    C’ therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

    B’ Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews

    A’ and the language of the Egyptians.

    The B’ reflects his father and his father’s learning. And John Gee has suggested that Nephi is an Egyptian name (John Gee, J. Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 1, Fall 1992, p. 191.).

    • Lynn,
      You might want to consider Don Parry’s more effective chiastic analysis in his Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon (2007), 1,

      A yea, having had a great knowledge
      of the goodness and mysteries of God,
      B therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
      C Yea, I make a record in the language of my father,
      D which consists of the learning of the Jews
      C’ and the language of the Egyptians.
      B’ And I know that the record which I make is true:
      and I make it with mine own hand:
      A’ and I make it according to my knowledge.

      This not only tells us specifically that Egyptian is the language of his father, but it follows Egyptian chiastic practice in featuring key words in balanced sequence: knowledge, record, language, learning, language, record, knowledge. This feature appears to be completely absent in your A A’ units, and some other units parallel primarily via prepositional phrases. Pretty thin gruel.

  2. Brother Gardner,
    I don’t know who proofreads your articles, but the fact that there are at least four glaring problems somewhat spoils the message you are presenting.
    1) “There is no indication that Nephi understood much about those who would become is readers in the Restoration.” Did you mean [his] readers?
    2) “The function of a colophon was to provide information about the author. Thus verse 2 logically describes Nephi, not what the linguistics of his text. Did you mean …not () the linguistics of his text”?
    3) “When Nephi writes about his family’s journey in the wilderness, he explicitly parallels the account of the Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.” Did you mean …”he explicitly parallels the account of () Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.”?
    4) “However, it could possibly result from through his education.” Did you mean “However, it could possibly result from () his education.”?
    Your reasoning would be even more persuasive without the errors.
    I like to think that Nephi thought his parents were “goodly” because they were good to him. They loved him; they protected him; they provided for him the necessities of life. They educated him, and they prepared him for life.

  3. Originality was not prized in ancient literature, but rather parallels: “This is like that and therefore everything is okay.” Nephi likening himself to his father would be within this pattern.
    It has been argued that Nephi’s training in Israelite history and theology, and polished rhetorical skills, mark him as a trained scribe. This is supported by his position as the fourth son of Lehi. For thousands of years it was common to give the family estate and business to the oldest sons and send the younger sons off for a college education. On that basis, Paul also was almost certainly a younger son.

  4. Good article. Well done. However, I might press you a bit to elaborate on the idea that “there is no indication that Nephi understood much about those who would become his readers in the Restoration.” What do you mean by this? While I agree that we should try not to impose our modern sensibilities upon an ancient text (is this really possible?), but an understanding of Nephi could not possibly exclude the Nephi whose visions did not simply “allude” to a “far distant future audience”, but record in great detail events of the last days. This is not to say that therefore Nephi could adapt himself to a modern audience. Rather, like all prophets, his message could reach both his own time period and that of future generations. In some ways, Nephi understood more about his readers in the Restoration than those readers understand about themselves. Moroni wrote and “spoke” as if we were present. Moses discerned the intelligences of the earth by the Spirit of God. Nephi was also a prophet, and there are plenty of examples to show that Nephi understood much about his future readers. He might even have seen you and I on the Interpreter blog.

    • Nephi saw the future, but we can’t tell how much he understood of it. Based on the way he wrote, he assumed that people would understand his motivations and allusions. We don’t understand nearly as well as he assumed we might. So I agree that he could have seem much. What I can’t see is any evidence that his vision of the future altered the nature of his writing nor his assumptions about what he needed to say. The messages he recorded can certainly benefit us, but they work best in his own context.

  5. Bro. Nibley wrote about this passage. He said that the phrase “in the language of my father” means “as my father would say”. I think this supports your argument in that one of the reasons why we quote another authority is we want to associate ourselves with that authority. It isn’t the only reason, but it is a possible reason. If your argument is correct, Nephi could be alerting us to parallels between himself and Lehi by calling out “the language of [his] father”.

    • Yes, it is dogmatic. Yes, there is little evidence for it. However, there is no evidence that he meant the characters that were different from the language. I understand that there is evidence that Hebrew could be written in Egyptian characters, but that makes the modern assumption possible, it doesn’t indicate anything about what Nephi actually said.

      If we read Nephi as Nephi (or a contemporary) would have written, describing the characters he writes in is redundant. I have never seen any modern writer declare that they are writing in cursive (a particular style of characters) or even Times Roman. If someone can see the text to read it, they do not have to be told what the characters are.

      So, yes it is dogmatic, but intentionally so–so that we stop to think about the assumptions and interpretations we impose on the text, particularly when we are hoping to shape it into a meaning that justifies our assumptions and interpretations. The best internal evidence we have of tha language of the text from what it says itself is that it is Egyptian (Benjamin has to teach it to his sons so they can read scripture–which also suggests that it isn’t their first language). Later, we are told that they write in reformed Egyptian rather than Hebrew.

      In any case, the thrust of the argument is that in the context of the literary function of a colophon, Nephi should be telling us about himself, and it requires very special pleading to find a reason that he would discuss the characters in which he encoded his message. Even if we assume that they were instructions to Joseph, they did no good because Joseph required more sacred means to translate than just knowing which dictionaries to consult.

  6. I see what you are saying, but it seems like you are arguing from a negative. Nephi doesn’t say he was writing for our day, and so he was not writing for our day. Yet you can’t prove a negative. I could just as easily argue that Mormon was inspired to include an explanation of the Nephite weight system in Alma 11 even though such an explanation wouldn’t make any sense to a Nephite (after all when I write about something weighing 1 lb I don’t also write about how many oz are in a pound and how many pounds in a ton). Therefore Nephite, being inspired, included the language comment even though it wouldn’t make sense to a Nephite. Perhaps the issue is, the writers don’t exactly delineate when they are writing under inspiration versus not. So do we always assume they were not writing under inspiration unless they explicitly say so? Unfortunately we can’t know what was happening in their mind when they wrote, thus I think it would have been preferable if you had written “It probably was not the meaning that Nephi had when he wrote.” Or “It almost surely was not the meaning that Nephi had when he wrote.” Or “It most likely the meaning that Nephi had when he wrote.” But, “cannot be”? That cannot be ascertained without more information from Nephi or a revelation from God.

    • As pointed out by Gordon Thomasson many years ago, the only reasons for including the short, partial description of Nephite weights & measures in Alma 11 is to provide context to the nature of a bribe, along with the reason for the metonymous names applied to a couple of characters: Antionah, who was likely named so based on the Nephite gold-measure antion, making his name “Mr. Gold, Money-man.” Likewise, Zeezrum is “That-silver-guy, Mr. Silver,” based on the Nephite silver-measure ezrum. The cities Antionum and Zeezrum may also be implicated, but the personal names are in close proximity to Alma 11, and so are prime suspects.

      • Yes, but the people of that time would have understood the nature of the bribe without the additional information. We are the ones who need that kind of information. Likewise perhaps God inspired Nephi to include the language information for us, even though the information may have been obvious in Nephi’s time. Why would God inspire Nephi to do so? I have no idea. Maybe he didn’t or maybe he did and it was for a wise purpose that will become obvious someday. Right now it’s all conjecture without revelation or additional information.

        • Of course it is conjecture, but it is conjecture built on the nature of human behavior. Writers in the real world don’t explain what everyone knows. In this case, it is clear that someone didn’t know what the monetary system was. It was either an explanation for the future audience, or for the current one. Personally, I suspect that the media of exchange was not universal and would have had to be explained from one city to the next. Particularly when it was being used metonymically.

          Assuming a universal standard of exchange would be the anomaly in the ancient world during times when barter established value. This was a time period before coins in the Old World. A monetary economy doesn’t show up in the New World until the Spanish Conquest.

          • I respectfully disagree. Ammonihah used a system of weights and measures imposed by King Mosiah before the Reign of the Judges. This means the city was already in the Nephite economic orbit. And if Ammonihah, a major trading center used this system, so did the lesser centers it traded with. Alma 11 depicts a widely used system of value. You can’t have large-scale commercial operations without a universally-recognized system of weights, measures and values. Look how screwed up American commerce was before the imposition of the Constitution. I written a little something on this which is too long to go into in this forum.
            (Am I off-thread? I can’t keep track.)

          • Whoa, I didn’t realize what a can of worms I was opening. I was just trying to draw a possible parallel between Mormon including the weight information (possibly under inspiration for our day to help us understand the rest of the chapter better) and Nephi including the language information (potentially under inspiration for us in the latter-days). Of course the reason mormon added his explanatory information is a lot more obvious than why Nephi might have been inspired to do so. Perhaps those who believe that it means that Nephi wrote in hebrew with egyptian characters are right and an indisputable example of such a thing will come forth in the archeological record in the future, thus demonstrating the foreknowledge of God. Or maybe the original post is right and this is just saying something about Nephi. Who knows?

        • I understand what you are asking, John, but Alma 11 is no more than an explanatory aside inserted by editor Mormon in order to explain other issues. We find the biblical editors doing exactly the same thing by including metonyms and word plays in their texts. Unless we have compelling reasons to do otherwise, we should accept such items at face value, as we do in any literature.

  7. I’ve found these articles offering insights into Nephi’s colophon to be fascinating and I appreciate all of the research. But I’m wondering, where do you guys get the idea that Lehi was a metallurgist? That Nephi understood how to work metals is apparent from the text (he makes metal plates multiple times, needs directions on where to get ore and how to build a boat but no instructions on how to make tools from the ore, etc.), and that he was a metallurgist with some talent comes across to me in his descriptions of the Sword of Laban and the Liahona (being able to appreciate “fine workmanship”). But where are the parallel passages describing Lehi’s occupation?

    • Authors writing on that issue may be extrapolating from the skills which the son obviously possesses to those of the father. For a full discussion see John A. Tvedtnes, “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?” FARMS Preliminary Report TVE-84 (1984), which is chapter 10 in Tvedtnes’ Most Correct Book (Cornerstone, 1999), 76-98; cf. my FARMS Update for March 1984, “Lodestone and the Liahona,” also available in J. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (1992), 44-46.

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