Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: Preliminary: Nephi as Author

As I was reading Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible ((Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2007).)) I began to recognize Nephi in Van der Toorn’s descriptions of scribes and the kinds of training they had. Seeing Nephi as a scribe put him in a very different light for me and I began to understand more of the planning and care that went in to his writing of the book we know as 1 Nephi.1

Nephi uses at least three sources as he writes. One is a record that his father kept:

But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life. (Nephi 1:17)

The second is his own experience, and the third is Isaiah. Nephi had the brass plates with him, and we may assume that Isaiah was on the plates and therefore provided the source for the extensive quotations. However, Van der Toorn has suggested that Isaiah formed an important standard text in Judah’s scribal school,2 and therefore Nephi would have brought that familiarity with the text to his own writings, perhaps giving us the reason that he cited Isaiah so frequently and easily. His studies would have made him very familiar with it and with using it as the basis of other writing.

Nephi’s art as a writer is evident in the way he makes use of the two external sources. While Isaiah is quoted, it is also used as a springboard for his own ideas. In 2 Nephi, it will serve as an intricate part of his own prophetic writing. Nephi must have consulted his father’s record, but we must infer where he does. The way the information is written it is not easily distinguished from his own experience. Finding the seams is difficult because he has merged the information so well. This contrasts to Mormon’s style, where the seams between quotations and connecting text is often much clearer.

As a general note as I begin looking at Nephi, I suggest that 1 Nephi is a very carefully constructed document. I see it as an ethnogenetic text. Either through direct instruction or through an understanding of common principles, I see Nephi specifically organizing 1 Nephi to provide the appropriate cultural model for the beginning of a new people. Ann E. Killebrew, professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University, summarizes research into the common aspects of this ancient Near Eastern genre:

Following Hedwig Wolfram’s definition, the process of ethnogenesis that forms the core ideology of a group often comprises three characteristic features: (1) a story or stories of a primordial deep, which can include the crossing of a sea or river, an impressive victory against all odds over an enemy, or combinations of similar “miraculous” stores (e.g., the exodus); (2) a group that undergoes a religious experience or change in cult as a result of the primordial deed (e.g. reception of the Ten Commandments and worship of Yahweh); and (3) the existence of an ancestral enemy or enemies that cement group cohesion (e.g., most notably the Canaanites and Philistines). These basic elements form the key themes in the biblical narrative about the emergence of early Israel.3

In addition to providing the foundational text that defines his people, Nephi also constructs a text that underscores his claim as the ruler of this new people.4 The examination of how he created his text should reveal the way he wove both of those intentions into his narrative.

  1. For the details of the argument, see Brant A. Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” FARMS Review vol. 23, no. 12 (2011): 45-55, online here

  2. Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture, 101–2: “The secondary phase of the scribal program was devoted to the study of the classics. . . . To find out which classics had the greatest place in the scribal curriculum, we may look at the library of Qumran. About 25 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls are scriptural. Except for the book of Esther, all books of the Hebrew Bible are represented by at least one copy. The three books represented by the most manuscripts are Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah.” 

  3. Ann E. Killebrew, Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel, 1300–1100 B.C.E., 149 

  4. Noel B. Reynolds, “The Political Dimension in Nephi’s Small Plates,” BYU Studies, vol., 27, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 15 suggests: “Every people needs to know that its laws and rulers are legitimate and authoritative. This is why stories of national origins and city foundings are so important to human societies throughout the world. Such stories provide explanations of the legitimate origins of their laws and their rulers. Not untypically, such traditions also deal with ambiguous elements of the founding, explaining away possibly competing accounts. When Nephi undertook late in his life to write a third account of the founding events of the Lehite colony, it appears that he wanted to provide his descendants with a document that would serve this function.” 

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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: Preliminary: Nephi as Author

    • Current guess (subject to revision as I learn more) is that Nephi referenced Lehi’s record early, and then stopped using it as a source. I see no indication that there was an abridgment in any typical sense. For that matter, I think we mischaracterize Mormon’s work as an abridgment as well.

    • At 1 Ne. 1:17, Nephi divides his writing into two major parts: “After I have abridged the record of my father, then will I make an account of mine own life.” One of my hypotheses is that he is referring to the division between 1 Nephi (“the record of my father”) and 2 Nephi (“an account of mine own life”).

      The attractiveness of this hypothesis is that it would explain the odd boundary between the two books—right in the middle of a conversation with Laman and Lemuel (referred to in 2 Ne. 1:1). It would mean that perhaps Lehi’s personal record went all the way up to and including the first part of that conversation, but then he passed away before he had recorded his own contribution to it (his final words found in 2 Nephi 1–4).

      I think you’re right, though, that if Nephi is using Lehi’s record as any sort of guide, it’s only very loosely, especially after 2 Nephi 10.

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