Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 1

The Book of Nephi

An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah, and his four sons, being called, (beginning at the eldest) Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi. The Lord warns Lehi to depart out of the land of Jerusalem, because he prophesieth unto the people concerning their iniquity and they seek to destroy his life. He taketh three days’ journey into the wilderness with his family. Nephi taketh his brethren and returneth to the land of Jerusalem after the record of the Jews. The account of their sufferings. They take the daughters of Ishmael to wife. They take their families and depart into the wilderness. Their sufferings and afflictions in the wilderness. The course of their travels. They come to the large waters. Nephi’s brethren rebel against him. He confoundeth them, and buildeth a ship. They call the name of the place Bountiful. They cross the large waters into the promised land, and so forth. This is according to the account of Nephi; or in other words, I, Nephi, wrote this record. This introduction was original to the plates.

Although it is possible that all Book of Mormon writers left space at the beginning of a record and went back to fill in the details of what they had written, it is much more likely that we see in these headers the planned contents of what they are writing. This is most evidenced by the header for Second Nephi, which indicates content only for the first five or six of our current chapters and does not mention the extensive Isaiah quotations nor Nephi’s prophetic text at the end. This particular introduction covers what Nephi intended to include in what we call First Nephi. The indicators “first” and “second” are modern additions. Just as Nephi rather unimaginatively called both sets of plates he created “plates of Nephi” without specific designation (the terms “large” and “small” plates are modern conventions), he called both books he wrote “The Book of Nephi.” Nephi is the only author to create two eponymous books. The reasons for this unusual arrangement will be an important aspect of this attempt to understand Nephi as an author. According to this header, Nephi’s plan covered:

  • Command to leave Jerusalem.
  • Three days into wilderness
  • Return for plates
  • Sufferings: Note that this prior to the sufferings in the wilderness after the eastward turn.
  • Then take wives.
  • Leave and sufferings.
  • Come to waters.
  • Brothers rebel and Nephi builds a ship.
  • Name Bountiful
  • Cross ocean. Finally, Nephi identifies himself as a writer, which is replicated in the very first text he writes as part of the body of his book.

Original Chapter 1: Comprising our current 1 Nephi, chapters 1-6.

1 Nephi 1:1-3

Whether by specific training or familiarity with texts, Nephi creates a colophon that identifies himself as the author. While many of the ancient colophons occurred at the end of the work and identified the scribe and the original being copied, Nephi is creating an original and perhaps for that reason identifies himself at the beginning. It is more than an introduction of the name, but also of the heritage. In the tradition of Mediterranean cultures, Nephi’s person would be assumed to be a reflection of lineage. Therefore, he provides the information of the goodly parents and a partial definition of why they were goodly (taught somewhat in all the learning of my father). Although Nephi will tell us that he has access to a record his father created, this introduction is purely Nephi’s. It depends upon his plausible scribal training for its content and form.

1 Nephi 1:4-6

At this point, Nephi begins the essential story. Nephi expects that in order to understand the events we need only the simplest of background introductions. Therefore, he provides only the fact that he is beginning the story in the first year of King Zedekiah. He expects that no further introduction is required. That conforms to a typical expectation of an ancient writer, but is significantly less than what a modern reader requires. Nephi’s assumption that his readers would both know when the first year of the reign of Zedekiah was, and what the conditions were like at the time is belied by the large number of modern readers who know that information only after looking it up in some source other than the Book of Mormon. The later addition of the years to the Book of Mormon pages were based on internal chronologies and are unlikely to accurately represent the way the Book of Mormon fits into actual chronologies.1 As important to the story as placing the story in time and place is that at this time there are many prophets. Nephi places his father in that category. Therefore, Nephi also intends that we see his father as similar to other prophets from that time period of whom he also expects that we have some understanding. The section comes from Lehi’s record. Nephi is clearly consulting it as it is information that he would not have witnessed. Nevertheless, it does not read as a quotation from the record, but rather the use of his father’s record as a source of information that Nephi recounts. This is similar to the way that Mormon uses his sources for historical information. It differs from Mormon’s habit of longer direct quotations of his source material. We will not see such obvious quotations in Nephi. Even when information must have come from Lehi’s record, it will be unclear whether it is quoted or restated. It is interesting that the call comes in two parts. The first is a manifestation, and the second is the call itself.

1 Nephi 1:7-15

This section is a synopsis of what would have been a more complete account on his father’s record. He admits to providing only an overview in the next sentence (v. 16). The clear indication of Nephi’s use of this source material in verse 16 tells us that there is a seam between our current verses 15 and 16 where the is a shift in source material from Lehi’s record to Nephi’s own recollection. It is an interesting question whether Nephi created a record contemporaneous with his father’s. There is no evidence for one, although Nephi was certainly capable. I suggest that he did not make one. It is unclear whether Nephi would have had access to writing materials (such things were much more precious and rare in the ancient world than they are now). There is nothing in Nephi’s text that indicates that he is using anything other than his memory to create his account. Finally, the carefully constructed nature of this account (1 Nephi, not 2 Nephi) strongly suggests planning in its construction. It is most likely that 1 Nephi constitutes a retroactive recreation and justification of history rather than a witness to history.

1 Nephi 1:16-17

It is only at this juncture that Nephi introduces the creation of the plates. Nephi will stick such references in at unusual times in his text. When he begins the story he starts with the essential time and place and then his father’s call. In verse 17 he jumps over thirty years into the future and indicates that he has made plates. These references to his creation of plates appear to be set into textual seams. In this case, he has laid the essentials of his father’s call and moves to link it to his own story. The statement about the plates firmly grounds this narration to Nephi. It is a subtle reinforcement that this is Nephi’s story, not Lehi’s.

1 Nephi 1:18

Nephi’s return to his father’s story after the very brief interruption highlights the anomalous nature of verses 16 and 17. Nephi recounted something from his father’s record, and then interrupted the textual flow for an out-of-sequence announcement. Now he returns to his father’s text. Something has created a shift in Nephi’s narrative construction. There are two possibilities, both relating to his father’s record. The first is that there is material that Nephi is leaving out. There is, of course, no evidence for this, but it is likely that Nephi does not recount everything in that record. The second, and more important, is that Nephi introduces the theme of Jerusalem’s destruction. That becomes the reason for the family’s exodus and is therefore absolutely required to understand Nephi’s story. For Nephi, the introduction of this theme provides a strong enough narrative shift that he used the conceptual break to insert the information about his own role in the creation of this record.

1 Nephi 1:19-20

Although the destruction of Jerusalem serves as the catalyst for this shift in Nephi’s narration, it is not the only reason for Lehi’s problems in Jerusalem. Even more important will be that Lehi “truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations.” Perhaps most importantly for the way Nephi will construct his text is that Lehi also “taught plainly o the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.” That message will become the major theme in Nephi’s writing and the foundational doctrine of the Israelite religion that Nephi established in the New World. Nephi links his teaching to a problem with that concept in Jerusalem Verse 20 has Nephi addressing his reading audience with a declaration of what is to come. That tells us that this information is foundational to Nephi’s narrative. It is a point that he believes underlies all that will come in the record. Just as his father’s teaching in Jerusalem creates a theme for Nephi’s writing, so does the fact of their exodus from the Old World. Nephi sees his people as cut off from Israel parallel to those who were taken away by the Assyrians a hundred years before, and as those whom the Babylonians had already taken away. The theme of being cut off and restored to Israel is a major theme for Nephi and Jacob, but rapidly fades as there is no physical reunion during Book of Mormon times.


  1. See, for example, Randall Spackman, “The Jewish/Nephite Lunar Calendar,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 7, no. 1 (1998): 48-59 

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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.

3 thoughts on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 1

  1. I am greatly enjoying your musings, Brant, but some of them raise several important issues for me:

    “we need only the simplest of background introductions. Therefore, he provides only the fact that he is beginning the story in the first year of King Zedekiah. He expects that no further introduction is required. That conforms to a typical expectation of an ancient writer”

    Mightn’t it also be possible that Nephi was fully aware that his own father had an account which covered the two to three decades prior to the reign of Zedekiah, making it unnecessary for him to duplicate that material (he had no idea that his father’s account would be lost in Joseph Smith’s day)?

    “The later addition of the years to the Book of Mormon pages were based on internal chronologies and are unlikely to accurately represent the way the Book of Mormon fits into actual chronologies.1″

    If we can assume that Nephi only began transferring his notes from vellum to permanent plates long after his arrival in the New World, it seems unlikely that his systematic chronological posts applied at that time could avoid the dominant Mesoamerican calendars – in particular, the Long Count. Moreover, since the 360-day Long Count is the only system which accurately correlates with Book of Mormon dates (and prophecies), why would we a priori assume lack of accuracy?

    “It is unclear whether Nephi would have had access to writing materials (such things were much more precious and rare in the ancient world than they are now). There is nothing in Nephi’s text that indicates that he is using anything other than his memory to create his account. Finally, the carefully constructed nature of this account (1 Nephi, not 2 Nephi) strongly suggests planning in its construction. It is most likely that 1 Nephi constitutes a retroactive recreation and justification of history rather than a witness to history.”

    I have no problem with Nephi carefully recreating his lineage history later. However, since you speak here and elsewhere of Nephi’s “scribal training,” it seems rather unlikely that he would be without his writing equipment. I would expect that he and his father went into the wilderness with a bag of standard writing equipment each, in addition to tents, food supplies, bows, arrows, knives, hammers, and other implements.

    Another thing: We don’t know how Lehi acquired the wealth which he sent his sons back to obtain somewhere outside of Jerusalem (perhaps cached in ancestral Manasseh just to the north), nor do we understand his connection to the Bronze Plates in Laban’s custody (it is remarkable enough that they are engraved in Egyptian), but it seems possible that trained scribes who knew Egyptian could have risen to become government officials in the Kingdom of Judah, perhaps being posted to foreign embassies for a time. It is even possible that Lehi was involved in foreign trade. We simply don’t know, perhaps due to the absence of the Book of Lehi.

    • Bob, Thanks for the interaction. It is rather what I was hoping would happen. When we start looking at things for which there is thin evidence, the conversation helps keep it grounded.

      For your concerns:

      1) It is certainly possible that Nephi had access to some other record that contained a lot of historical information. The question is how likely that might have been. There is no indication of it in this particular record, so Nephi is content to begin with a beginning that he expected would provide sufficient context. Although he wrote for a future audience directly in some passages, I think it would be unlikely that he would really understand a future that would be radically different from his present. There is no evidence I see in the ancient prophets that suggests that their vision of the future was couched in anything other than contemporaneous concepts.

      Second, of course, is that what we are looking at are the decisions Nephi makes when he writes this particular text. Very clearly he left out details that we need to know. He didn’t think them important. So, in the context of 1 Nephi, the question is why he begins so tersely. It gives us the context, but assumes that we know what we need to from only the reference.

      2)Chronology: I agree that we can reconstruct a chronology. What we cannot do is simply accept the 600 year count from the first year of the reign of Zedekiah to the birth of Christ. It is an accurate prophecy in Nephi chronology, but it doesn’t fit the way we count years. It does fit a lunar or Mesoamerican ritual calendar. There are explanations, but we require explanation rather than simply accepting the year count as correlating to what we expect it would be.

      3) Writing implements: I think you are probably correct on this one. If they packed essentials, I think you are correct that Nephi would have thought writing materials essential. Isn’t it S. Kent Brown who suggested that they may have “paid” their way through some for the Frankincense Trail with their abilities to read and write?

      4) I agree with you that it seems likely that Lehi was involved in trade. Chadwick makes a very good argument that the possession of gold and silver meant that Lehi worked those materials, and they were less likely to be hoarded for intrinsic value. The brass plates certainly had to have had some connection to Egypt given the language, and the lineage of Joseph is the best tie to get them from and Egyptian context to a clan in Jerusalem. I believe that Nephi’s respect for the brass plates influenced his choice to write his record on plates, would have given him the model for the size to use, and probably the color. Who knows if Nephi might have been able to create brass, but using gold (probably as a mixture, they are described as golden) rather than silver was also influenced by the color of the brass plates.

      • I was thinking of the typical biblical narrative book beginning where a previous narrative left off, and that fact that Nephi had that biblical pattern before him on the Bronze Plates of Laban. I am also assuming that Lehi began a record of his own at some point, either many years before (during the reign of King Josiah), or simply in retrospect during the years in Arabia. Both Lehi & Nephi would have had the historical facts available in the Bronze Plates to draw upon in either case.

        As to the chronology, we know that Assyrian and Babylonian scribes (including Nebuchadrezzar’s scribes) kept precision annals (eponym calendars) — which we can anchor with absolute dates via the astronomical observations made in those annals. It is very clear that the source you cite on the lunar calendar can only support his conclusion by faulting the Book of Mormon chronology, and by making a number of other unsupportable assumptions. I’ll forward my detailed 1998 critique to you via email.

        Nephi and his predecessors were unlikely to have had access to brass-making technology. They did, however, certainly have access to bronze-making and to steel-making. As Nibley pointed out long ago, the KJV word “brass” in Elizabethan and Jacobean terms refers to “bronze” in modern parlance. The question which puzzles me, though, is When and where did the Bronze Plates tradition get started? Did it come from the royal court of the Northern Kingdom of Israel? Could Lehi have been related to the royal scribes who regularly updated the records on the Bronze Plates?

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