The most often read passage in the Book of Mormon is almost certainly its very first verse—what Latter-day Saint is not familiar with the opening line, “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents”? Although read most often, it is doubtful that it and the following verses are the ones people tend to read the closest. A close reading of Nephi’s opening statement, however, reveals more than what most people might expect. ((This paper is an excerpt from a full-length commentary on 1 Nephi in preparation by the author. It has been adapted and expanded as necessary to make it a free-standing piece.))
The following is a commentary on 1 Nephi 1:1–3 which seeks to show how much can be gleaned from these short verses. I don’t profess to offer any kind of privileged or unique insights myself. Rather, my main objective is to blend together many tidbits about “Nephi the Good” from various sources into a synthesized commentary. Though this blending does prove to yield a few new insights, my primary aim is to summarize the work of more qualified scholars.
The very first thing the author does is introduce himself, “I, Nephi.” A number of etymological proposals have been made for the name Nephi. Hugh Nibley was one of the first to make any suggestions, proposing an Egyptian origin related to the names Nehi/Nehri, a name Nibley says belonged to “famous Egyptian Noble men,” or Nfy, “the name of an Egyptian captain,” or Nihpi, the “original name of the god Pa-nepi.” ((Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 27.)) John A. Tvedtnes further pushed for Nfy, which he defined as “wind, sail, ship’s captain.” ((John A. Tvedtnes, “Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 39. John Gee, “Four Suggestions on the Origin of the Name Nephi,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 1, 3 n.3 clarifies that nfy is simply “wind,” while nfw is “captain.” Tvedtnes seems to be conflating the two words.))
Semitic proposals have also been made. Again, Hugh Nibley leads the way, this time suggesting a connection to the name Nfy of Arabic origins. ((Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 290, 500 n.28.)) In search for other Semitic possibilities, Paul Y. Hoskisson has turned to the Ugaritic words npy and np‘, which mean, respectively, “to expel, to drive away,” and “to flourish.” ((Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?—Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 64–65.)) Neither of these possibilities is actually attested as a personal name.
John Gee has proposed that Nephi is the Egyptian name Nfr (Nefer), in its Semitic form Npy. ((See John Gee, “Notes and Communications—A Note on the Name Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 189–91. Gee, “Four Suggestions,” 1–5, expands Gee’s original article to analyze four suggested etymologies for Nephi, ultimately concluding that nfr is most likely, though nfw remains a possibility. Also see Stephen D. Ricks, “Lehi and Local Color,” FARMS Review 21/2 (2009): 171.)) The final /r/ in the Egyptian form was not pronounced in Lehi’s day, the pronunciation instead ending with an /i/ or /y/ sound. ((See Gee, “A Note,” 190; Gee, “Four Suggestions,” 1–2; Ricks, “Lehi and Local Color,” 171.)) This seems to be reflected in the Semitic version of the name as Npy. Both John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks indicate that the Semitic /p/ is phonetically equivalent to the /f/ sound, much like our English /ph/, ((See Gee, “A Note,” 190; Ricks, “Lehi and Local Color,” 171.)) hence, “Nephi” would be a brilliant translation of the name that retains both the middle consonant /p/ and its phonetic value. Given what we know about Nephi’s language (see 1 Nephi 1:2, and commentary below), this strikes me as the most plausible proposal. ((See “Nephi,” in Book of Mormon Onomasticon, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Online Publication: The Laura F. Willies Center of Book of Mormon Research, 2013), see here (accessed June 6, 2013). Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?—Nephi,” reasons that this doesn’t seem “as plausible as the other suggestions” (p. 65), yet admits in a footnote, “Not being an Egyptologist, I am not in a position to evaluate the Egyptian suggestions” (p. 83 n.5). Yet, Gee, who is an Egyptologist, in “Four Suggestions” (see note 6 above), concludes that Nfr is the most likely of the Egyptian possibilities. There is also good reason for favoring Nfr over the Ugaritic possibilities put forward by Hoskisson. As noted in the body of the text, neither of those suggestions are actually attested as a name, and Ugaritic pre-dates Nephi by several centuries (both weaknesses admitted by Hoskisson). The Egyptian nfr, however, is attested to as a name, and at the right time for the beginning of the Book of Mormon narrative, as pointed out by Gee, “Four Suggestions,” 2. That it also crossed over into Semitic usage and its pronunciation was close to “Nephi” are also factors Hoskisson does not seem to consider. The appropriate meaning of nfr as “good” (see body of the text for more details) also strengthens this possibility. Furthermore, I reject Hoskisson’s methodological assumption that non-Hebraic Semitic names are to be favored in the absence of Hebrew options, and that “only after these sources have been exhausted should the researcher turn to… non-Semitic, particularly Egyptian, sources.” (Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?—Nephi,” 64.) Given that Nephi states explicitly that he knows and uses Egyptian, which is part of his linguistic heritage (see 1 Nephi 1:2), it seems to me that the approach should be the other way around. First Hebrew and Egyptian possibilities should be considered, then, only after those possibilities have been exhausted, should other Near Eastern languages be turned to, starting with Semitic languages most closely related to Hebrew. ))
Matthew L. Bowen points out that the Egyptian meaning of the word nfr was “good,” “fine” or “goodly” as an adjective, and “kindness” or “goodness” as a noun. ((Matthew L. Bowen, “Internal Textual Evidence for the Egyptian Origin of Nephi’s Name,” Insights 22/11 (2002): 2.)) Thus, when Nephi says that he was “born of goodly parents” and that he knows the “goodness… of God” (1 Nephi 1:1), he is possibly utilizing a wordplay on his own name, a common technique in both Hebrew and Egyptian writing. ((See Bowen, “Internal Textual Evidence,” 2. For wordplay in the ancient Near East, see Scott B. Noegel, ed., Puns and Pundits: Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2000). For further reading on the topic, consult Scott B. Noegel, “Bibliography on ‘Wordplay’ in the Hebrew Bible and Other Ancient Near Eastern Texts,” 42-pages, online at this site (accessed November 10, 2013).)) This enhances the meaning of the passage, as Matthew L. Bowen has commented, “The wordplay perhaps suggests why the name Nephi so befits its bearer: he is nfr, or ‘goodly,’ because he was born of ‘goodly parents’ and is one endowed with ‘knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God.’” ((Bowen, “Internal Textual Evidence,” 2. Compare this quote from Bowen to a statement from Plato, reflective of the cultural understanding of the ancient Mediterranean: “They were good because they sprang from good fathers.” Quoted in Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2007-2008), 1:59.))
Nephi’s Goodly Parents
Of course, Nephi does not simply call his parents “goodly” for the sake of a clever wordplay. His parents clearly deserve the title. Ed J. Pinegar and Richard J. Allen describe the example that Lehi sets:
Lehi is a model of many admirable qualities: worthiness to commune with the Lord and receive through revelation a prophetic view of the divine plan of happiness for mankind, a solemn witness of the divinity of the Messiah, a powerful teacher of gospel principles, a devoted father and patriarch in his family circle, a proponent and herald of the covenant of the Lord concerning the promised land, and an exemplar of personal repentance. ((Ed J. Pinegar and Richard J. Allen, Commentaries and Insights on the Book of Mormon, 2 vols. (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2007), 1:9.))
Elder Russell M. Nelson wrote, “it is highly significant that his first scriptural statement compliments his parents, Lehi and Sariah. A sign of greatness then and now is the expression of deferential honor to parents.”(( Russell M. Nelson, “Nephi, Son of Lehi,” in Heroes from the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1995), 3. Parenthetical reference to 1 Nephi 1:1 silently omitted.)) This is certainly true in the culture in which Nephi was raised. Drawing on the work of Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, Brant A. Gardner points out that in ancient Near Eastern cultures, “a person was defined by his family.” ((Gardner, Second Witness, 1:59.)) Hence, as Gardner goes on to explain, “when Nephi says he is born of ‘goodly parents’ he is defining himself.” ((Gardner, Second Witness, 1:59.)) Nibley has pointed out the same kind of self-definition in The Autobiography of Kai, an Egyptian text which Nibley explains is from “a short time before Nephi.” ((Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988–1990, 4 vols. (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications and FARMS, 2004), 1:11. )) Nibley translates Kai’s opening statement as, “I, Kai, was the son of a man who was worthy and wise.” ((Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, 1:11. In the actual text, Nibley leaves “worthy” (neḫet) and “wise” (sʿḥ) untranslated, adding his translation in brackets. Interestingly, Kai also refers to himself as nfr bi·t, which Nibley renders as “excellent of character.” Notice the use of nefer in his self description, proposed above as the origin of the name Nephi and possibly underlying “goodly” and “goodness” in the text.)) Hence when Kai introduces himself, he first establishes the greatness of his father, just as Nephi seeks to establish his own credentials through his “goodly parents.”
Hugh Nibley proposed another way of interpreting the appellation of “goodly” for Nephi’s parents. “The opening verse of the Book of Mormon explains the expression ‘goodly parents’ not so much in a moral sense as in a social one,” Nibley suggests. “Nephi tells us he came of a good family and ‘therefore’ received a good traditional education.” ((Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 47.)) As such, “goodly” may be an expression of the family’s wealth and social status, something that is attested to in the fact that Lehi leaves behind a substantial amount of riches (see 1 Nephi 2:4), enough that Nephi thought it might be able to persuade Laban to part with the brass plates (see 1 Nephi 3:22–24). Lehi likely accumulated his wealth working as a smith of fine jewelry, and by collection of rent on his “land of inheritance” (1 Nephi 3:22). ((A number of professions have been suggested for Lehi, with the most likely being that he was a craftsman with skill in working metals. See John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Springville, Utah: Horizon, 2003), 78–97 for an evaluation of various proposed professions, with metalworking suggested as the most likely. Also see Jeffery R. Chadwick, “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of his Inheritance,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 113–17, which expands on the argument for metalworking, and also argues that Lehi collected rent on his inherited land.))
The Plan of Salvation in Nephi’s Record and Personal Experience
Latter-day Saint theologian Joseph M. Spencer suggests that Nephi’s record (comprising all of 1 and 2 Nephi) can be broken down into a basic four-fold structure:
These structural divisions order Nephi’s record as a four-part progression, from (1) the journey to the New World (1 Nephi 1–18) through (2) a series of theological sermons (1 Nephi 19–2 Nephi 5) to (3) the culminating, commanding heart of Nephi’s record (2 Nephi 6–30) and (4) a brief conclusion (2 Nephi 31–33). ((Joseph M. Spencer, An Other Testament: On Typology (Salem, Oregon: Salt Press, 2012), 36. See pp. 34–36 for Spencer’s supporting analysis of this four-part structure.))
Having identified the four-part progression, Spencer then identifies the theological pattern embedded within this structure.
The basic theological pattern at work is relatively straightforward: (1) 1 Nephi 1–18 recounts the founding of the Lehite colony in the New World; (2) 1 Nephi 19–2 Nephi 5 relates the breaking up of this colony into two rival factions, one of which is cut off from the presence of the Lord; (3) 2 Nephi 6–30 consists of prophecies and sermons focused on the eventual return of that cut-off faction to the Lord’s favor; and (4) 2 Nephi 31–33 offers summary reflections on baptism as a crossing of a limit. ((Spencer, An Other Testament, 41–42.))
From here, Spencer categorizes the four sections as Foundation (1 Nephi 1–18); Division (1 Nephi 19–2 Nephi 5); Redemption (2 Nephi 6–30); and Conclusion (2 Nephi 31–33). ((Spencer, An Other Testament, 42.)) Using only a little imagination, Spencer quickly recasts these categories into a pattern more readily familiar with readers of the Book of Mormon:
- Creation (1 Nephi 1–18)
- Fall (1 Nephi 19–2 Nephi 5)
- Atonement (2 Nephi 6–30)
- Veil (2 Nephi 31–33) ((Spencer, An Other Testament, 42. See pp. 43–63 for an elaboration on these identifications, yielding the evidence justifying the “plan of salvation” model. ))
Hence, Nephi’s record seems to follow the same pattern as the “plan of salvation,” namely the creation, the fall, the atonement, and then passing through the veil and into the presence of God. There is also a strong association with these themes and the ancient Israelite temple, ((See Spencer’s analysis in Spencer, An Other Testament, 46–63 for the temple associations.)) a fact which seems significant in light Nephi’s report that he started his record after establishing a temple in the New World (see 2 Nephi 5:16, 28–30). ((See John W. Welch, “When Did Nephi Write the Small Plates?”; “Why Nephi Wrote the Small Plates: Serving Practical Needs,” and “Why Nephi Wrote the Small Plates: The Political Dimension,” all three in Pressing Forward, 75–83. These suggest that Nephi’s record ought to be read in light of the timing in which he wrote it.))
Returning to the task at hand, Spencer has suggested that 1 Nephi 1:1 displays the same four-fold structure, off-setting each stage with the repetition of having:
[Creation:] having been born of goodly parents,
therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and
[Fall:] having seen many afflictions in the course of my days,
[Atonement:] having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea,
[Veil:] having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. (1 Nephi 1:1) ((See Spencer, An Other Testament, 42.))
Nephi recounts his noble birth (creation), suffering of afflictions in a fallen world (fall), but receiving favor of the Lord (atonement), and being granted knowledge of the mysteries (veil).
The connection to the fourth category (the veil) is most interesting. Drawing on the work of Avraham Gileadi, Alan C. Miner explains that “goodness” is a “synonym of covenant blessing and covenant keeping.” ((Alan C. Minor, Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Collection of Cultural Commentary, 7 vols. (online publication, 1996-2002), Volume 1: The Lord Leads His Covenant Children Through the Wilderness to the Promised Land, online at this site (accessed May 23, 2013).)) In light of Spencer’s designation that this is the “veil” part of Nephi’s experience, I note that it is by the making and keeping of covenants one is enabled to pass through the veil and enter into the presence of God. Covenants, of course, are made through ordinances, often in the temple. The mysteries, from the Greek μύστηριον (mystērion), are commonly understood to be related to the Hebrew סוד (sôd), ((See John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Council Vision and the Mysteries of God,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, John W. Welch, ed. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 24–25; LeGrand L. Baker and Stephen D. Ricks, Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord? The Psalms in Israel’s Temple Worship in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Eborn Books, 2010), 463 n.734. Both of these sources are drawing on the work of Raymond E. Brown.)) which designated the mysterious divine council, into which true prophets were initiated—a passing through the veil, so to speak. ((See William J. Hamblin, “The Sôd of Yhwh and the Endowment,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 147–154; Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend, 139–47.)) The meeting place of this council (sôd) is the heavenly temple, of which the earthly temple is meant to imitate. ((See David E. Bokovoy, “‘Thou Knowest That I Believe’: Invoking the Spirit of the Lord as Council Witness in 1 Nephi 11,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 3–9.)) Thus, in a temple context the mysteries (sôd) usually refer to acts of ritual initiation, ((See Andrew Miller, “The Ante-Nicene Mysteries and their New Testament Sources,” unpublished paper, presented at 2008 Students of the Ancient Near East Symposium, held at Brigham Young University, 1–2, copy in my possession. Note especially Miller’s statement on p. 2: “These mysteries are clearly given in the context of sacred space—the temple.” This is in light of the statement in an early Christian source that “the mysteries are for me [Christ] and the sons of my house,”––“my house” being an evident allusion to the temple.)) imitating the prophetic participation in the heavenly council. ((See Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend, 139 for the ceremonial enactment of the sôd as part of the temple drama. Hamblin, “The Sôd of Yhwh and the Endowment,” 151 proposes that the LDS endowment should be understood in this same light.)) Consequently, Nephi speaks of both the covenants (“goodness”) of God and the rites (“mysteries”) by which those covenants were entered into.
Nephi indicates that he first had a desire to “know of the mysteries of God” after Lehi had led the family out of Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 2:16). Upon seeking the mysteries, Nephi alludes to a visit from the Lord and indicates that he now “did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father” (1 Nephi 2:16). Lehi’s words, in turn, had come from his own initiation into the divine council, or sôd. ((See Blake T. Ostler, “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form-Critical Analysis,” BYU Studies 26/4 (Fall 1986): 67–95; Stephen D. Ricks, “Heavenly Visions and Prophetic Calls in Isaiah 6 (2 Nephi 16), the Book of Mormon, and the Revelation of John,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 171–90; John W. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of Jerusalem,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 421–48; David E. Bokovoy, “On Christ and Covenants: An LDS Reading of Isaiah’s Prophetic Call,” Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 3 (2011): 29–49, esp. 36–42. Also see Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend, 464; Welch, “Lehi’s Council Vision and the Mysteries of God,” 24–25; Brent E. McNeely, “The Book of Mormon and the Heavenly Book Motif,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 26–28.)) Hence, John W. Welch concludes, “it is remarkable yet understandable that when Nephi described his desire to receive a personal confirmation of the truth of his father’s words, he said that he wanted to ‘know of the mysteries of God.’ Those ‘mysteries’ (sod) were apparently synonymous, in Nephi’s inquiring mind, with the decrees and knowledge that Lehi had received in the council (also sod).” ((Welch, “Lehi’s Council Vision and the Mysteries of God,” 24–25.))
After all of that, Nephi says, “therefore [i.e., because of the above] I make a record of my proceedings in my days.” Nephi seems to be taking his knowledge of the mysteries of God as justification for his making a record. In that light, Hugh Nibley has commented that some ancient cults, after going through the initiation (i.e., “the mysteries”) the initiate was required to record his/her experiences. “At the end of the mysteries, you were required to record this before you could leave the cave, or the temple or whatever it was. You would leave a record of your experiences in the mysteries—whatever visions it was you had.” ((Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, 1:13.)) Thus, Nephi starts out by giving the proper justification for his record: because he had experienced the mysteries, he was making a record of his experiences. ((Spencer, An Other Testament, 64 n.11 raises the possibility that “Nephi—given his Egyptian connections—makes an allusion with the last line of 1 Nephi 1:1 to the temple text of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the title of which—rhw nw prt m hrw—can be translated as “the book (or record) of going forth (proceeding) by day.” As noted, Nephi’s record includes a recounting of his father’s sôd experience (see note 34). In addition to the allusion made in 1 Nephi 2:16, 1 Nephi 11 recounts Nephi’s own sôd experience (see Bokovoy, “Thou Knowest I Believe,” 1–23).))
Nephi’s Chiastic Colophon
The good author continues his self-introduction through 1 Nephi 1:1–3. Nibley was the first to notice that “the first three verses of 1 Nephi, sharply set off from the rest of the text, are a typical colophon, a literary device that is highly characteristic of Egyptian compositions.” Nibley continues:
Typical is the famous Bremer-Rhind Papyrus, which opens with a colophon containing (1) the date, (2) the titles of Nasim, the author, (3) the names of his parents and a word in praise of their virtues, with special mention of his father’s prophetic calling, (4) a curse against anyone who might “take the book away,” probably “due to fear lest a sacred book should get into impure hands.” Compare this with Nephi’s colophon: (1) his name, (2) the merits of his parents, with special attention to the learning of his father, (3) a solemn avowal (corresponding to Nasim’s curse) that the record is true, and the assertion, “I make it with mine own hand” (1 Nephi 1:3)—an indispensable condition of every true colophon, since the purpose of a colophon is to establish the identity of the actual writer-down (not merely the ultimate author) of the text. ((Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 17; cf. Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 151–152. John A. Tvedtnes, “Colophons in the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights you May Have Missed Before, John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1991), 32–37 discusses other colophon-like features in the Book of Mormon, though he seems to have a slightly different use of the word in mind, referring to editorial prefaces and summaries at the beginning and end of various portions of the text. Regarding Tvedtnes’s work, Brant A. Gardner explains, “these introductions are not the same type of colophon as we find in 1 Nephi, nor should they be, because Mormon is the redactor (or writer/abridger) of all those texts.” Gardner, Second Witness, 1:60.))
Not only does Nephi skillfully introduce himself in a well written colophon, but he also incorporates a chiasm into the colophon:
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;
(a) yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the 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. (1 Nephi 1:1–3) ((Chiasm taken from Donald W. Parry, Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text Reformatted (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2007), 1. Parry also identifies my days and I make as examples of another form of parallelism called random repetition. The same chiasm also appears in Minor, Step by Step, vol. 1, at this site (accessed May 23, 2013). Miner takes his commentary on this chiastic structure in an entirely different direction than I do, asserting that this chiasm “is telling us the ‘the learning of the Jews’ is an important key to understanding the Book of Mormon.” ))
Nephi indicates that he was taught “somewhat” in everything from his father, and this no doubt included the family trade of metalworking, but Nephi makes explicit mention of his linguistic training, which is further emphasized by this chiasm—notice that the central elements c-d-c’ deal with his knowledge of language.
This emphasis on Nephi’s linguistic training supports Brant A. Gardner’s thesis that Nephi, as a youngest son in a wealthy family, was being trained to serve as a scribe. ((See Brant A. Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 45–55.)) Gardner explains,
It is no surprise that Nephi would have learned something from his father’s trade, but that may not be the most important defining aspect of his personal education. Nephi was a fourth son, not a first son. The family business was destined for Laman, the eldest. Although Nephi may have learned metalsmithing from his father, I suggest that he formally trained for a different profession. ((Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” 46.))
Gardner then explains that the position of scribe was one of those high end professions available in Jerusalem for which a young son in wealthy family could train. “Indirect evidence confirms the presence of scribal education in Israel and Judah. Only the higher social classes were acceptable sources of scribes. Nephi’s social status would have allowed him the opportunity to be trained as a scribe.” ((Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” 47.))
Not just Nephi’s social status, but also his heritage (he does call it the “language of my father”) may have been important to his opportunities for scribal training. Aaron P. Schade points out, “In an early period of Israel’s history, a tradition of writing began within the tribe of Joseph.” ((Aaron P. Schade, “The Kingdom of Judah: Politics, Prophets, and Scribes in the Late Preexilic Period,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 320. See pp. 319–20 for the evidence supporting this claim.)) The reader later learns that Lehi, and thus also his son Nephi, is a descendant of Joseph (see 1 Nephi 5:14). Thus, the fact that scribal activity started early in the tribe of Joseph may provide further support for Gardner’s thesis.
The ultimate evidence that Nephi was being trained as a scribe is the very existence of his writings, as literacy was quite low in the ancient world. ((See Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” 46.)) “Both the very presence and the nature of the two books we have from Nephi point to his formal training as a scribe prior to his family’s departure from Jerusalem.” ((Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” 54–55.)) It is not just that Nephi can write, it is that Nephi can write well. Elder Nelson explains, “Nephi displayed literary competence in the way he organized his writings and employed a diversity of literary devices. He used narrative, rhetoric, and poetic forms, including a psalm.” ((Nelson, “Nephi, Son of Lehi,” 6.)) It is clear from just these first few verses—which include a wordplay, structural word repetition (“having”), colophon, and chiasm—that Nephi was a skilled writer, a talent further on display throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Nephi.
The Language of Nephi’s Record
The exact nature of Nephi’s “language of my father” (1 Nephi 1:2) is somewhat ambiguous. Nephi mentions two elements: first, the “learning of the Jews,” and second, “the language of the Egyptians.” ((Nephi’s being able to write in Egyptian is further evidence of his training as a scribe. See Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” 48–49.))
Hebrew scholar John A. Tvedtnes explains a few of the possible meanings of this indefinite phrasing. “This might mean that they used Egyptian symbols to represent Egyptian words, or that they used Egyptian symbols as a shorthand to represent Hebrew words, or even that they used both Egyptian and Hebrew symbols to represent Hebrew words.” ((John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 77.))
Most scholars believe this indicates that Nephi wrote in Hebrew (“the learning of the Jews”) using an Egyptian script (“the language of the Egyptians”), a phenomena that is attested to in ancient times. ((See Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, “Notes and Communications––Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 156–63, reprinted as “Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” in Pressing Forward, 237–43. Also see William J. Hamblin, “Reformed Egyptian,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 31–35. )) Numerous examples of this kind of mixing between Egyptian and Hebrew could be cited here, but I’ll simply stick to the one Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, both experts in Semitic languages, said was “most significant” to Nephi’s writing: “an ostracon uncovered at Arad in 1967.”
Dating “toward the end of the seventh century BC,” it reflects usage from shortly before 600 bc, the time of Lehi. The text on the ostracon is written in a combination of Egyptian hieratic and Hebrew characters, but can be read entirely as Egyptian. Of the seventeen words in the text, ten are written in hieratic and seven in Hebrew. ((Ricks and Tvedtnes, “Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” 161.))
Tvedtnes thus concludes, “This discovery suggests that when Lehi’s son Nephi spoke of writing in a language consisting of ‘learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians,’ he may have used such a combination script.” ((Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book, 32–33.))
Some scholars have argued that Nephi’s “learning of the Jews,” extended beyond merely language, though still including it, but referred to culture as a whole. For instance, John L. Sorenson writes, “The ‘learning’ Nephi referred to must be essentially Jewish culture prior to Babylonian captivity (586 BC).” ((John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 74.)) Sorenson goes on to reason that, in order to fully convey this culture Nephi must have written in Hebrew. ((Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 75.)) Hence, Sorenson concludes, “Nephi’s statement tells us that… at least his portion [of the Book of Mormon] was phrased in the Hebrew tongue, connoted much of Jewish culture, and written in a system of modified Egyptian script.” ((Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 76, brackets mine.))
Another possibility is that Nephi was writing Egyptian (language and script), but following the Jewish, rather than Egyptian, scribal traditions (“the learning of the Jews”). Hugh Nibley has argued, for instance, that Nephi’s record was Egyptian in both language and script because cursive Egyptian scripts could be used to save space only when writing in Egyptian. “Now Egyptian could be written in less space than Hebrew because in Lehi’s day demotic was actually a shorthand, extremely cramped and abbreviated… It could be used very economically for writing Egyptian, but not for any other language.” ((Nibley, Lehi and the Desert, 15. Although Nibley’s argument uses demotic, more or less the same thing could have been said about hieratic, a cursive script which was less compact than demotic, but still would save space over, at least, the traditional Hieroglyphic writings.)) Lehi and his sons “had no other reason for learning Egyptian characters than to read and write Egyptian.” ((Nibley, Lehi and the Desert, 16.)) Nibley goes on to state that Lehi would have learned Egyptian not in Egypt, but “in Palestine, of course, before he ever thought of himself as a record-keeper,” ((Nibley, Lehi and the Desert, 15–16.)) thus hinting at the idea that Lehi (and subsequently, Nephi) would have learned Egyptian from an Israelite scribal tradition, something Nibley says “had been in progress long before Lehi’s day.” ((Nibley, Lehi and the Desert, 14.))
John S. Thompson explains the evidence for an independent Egyptian scribal tradition existing in Israel around the time of Lehi, but notes that, contra Nibley, it involved the hieratic, not the demotic Egyptian script.
The kind of Egyptian script being employed on those artifacts dating around the time of Lehi is hieratic, but since Demotic was the script of the day in northern Egypt and “abnormal hieratic” was predominant in southern Egypt, the normal hieratic tradition in Canaan must have been adopted from an earlier time—possibly… during the reigns of David and Solomon or even earlier in the tenth century BC—and was in continued use in Israel. ((John S. Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 266. Also see Robert F. Smith, “Epistolary Form in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 133–35; Schade, “The Kingdom of Judah,” 315–19.))
Thus, to Thompson the evidence “suggests the possibility that by Lehi’s day, scribes having a knowledge of Egyptian had existed in the area for quite some time and had maintained a tradition of writing Egyptian.” ((Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” 267.)) Thompson postulates that this Israelite scribal tradition of writing in Egyptian could have implications for Nephi’s language.
It has generally been assumed that Demotic was the script of choice for Lehi and Nephi, for it is the most compact of the Egyptian characters and was the most predominant in Egypt at this time; however, the archaeological record to date reveals that hieratic was the more commonly used Egyptian script in Israel. ((Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” 266–67.))
Consistent with this possibility is the evidence discussed by John L. Sorenson, which suggests the Nephites wrote in hieratic. First, Sorenson points out that the Anthon transcript, a set of “caractors” purporting to be the copy of the script from the plates taken by Martin Harris to Charles Anthon, “look more like signs of hieratic Egyptian.” ((John L. Sorenson, “Mormon’s Sources,” Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20/2 (2011): 7. An important, though often neglected study of the characters on the Anthon transcript is Ariel L. Crowley, “The Anthon Transcript: An Evidence for the Truth of the Prophet’s account of the Origin of the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era (February 1942): 76–80, 124–25. Crowley’s study is just preliminary, but he does compare every major “caractor” of the Anthon transcript with that of verified Egyptian characters, though Crowley focuses mostly on demotic rather than hieratic.)) Perhaps more significantly, however, Sorenson points out that Lehi’s ability to read the Egyptian on the brass plates (see Mosiah 1:4), which he has argued is a record started by Joseph of Egypt, would suggest a knowledge of hieratic, since that was the script in use around the time of Joseph, ((Sorenson, “Mormon’s Sources,” 7. For his full argument on the origins of the brass plates, see John L. Sorenson, “The ‘Brass Plates’ and Biblical Scholarship,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10/4 (Autumn 1977): 31–39, reprinted in John L. Sorenson, Nephite Culture and Society: Selected Papers (Salt Lake City, Utah: New Sage Books, 1997), 25–41.)) a possibility perhaps strengthened by the evidence of early scribal activity in the tribe of Joseph already mentioned. Sorenson thus concludes, “The Nephite system of writing with Egyptian characters seems to have been derived from a version of the hieratic script that came into use… no later than the time of the original Joseph.” ((Sorenson, “Mormon’s Sources,” 7. As already pointed out, Sorenson himself supports the idea that Nephi is writing in Hebrew with Egyptian (specifically hieratic) script, and also including Jewish culture somehow. My point in using Sorenson here is not to suggest he supports this theory on Nephi’s language, but to show that his arguments support the idea that the script was hieratic, and thus likely learned in Palestine where hieratic remained the popular Egyptian script. Indeed, the portion omitted by the ellipses in the above quote is “to write the Hebrew tongue,” which I omitted because the above discussion focuses on script, not language.))
Another way of reading Nephi’s statement is that he is using a language system unique to Lehi, the “language of my father.” John S. Thompson explains this option without necessarily endorsing it. “It is also possible that Nephi is here informing the reader that he is making a record using his father’s system of writing (‘the language of my father’) and that this system, as he goes on to tell us, consists of Jewish learning and Egyptian language.” ((Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” 267–68.)) Thompson elaborates on this possibility in a footnote:
It is wholly possible to interpret “the language of my father” as a unique language system that Lehi used when writing—a sort of personal shorthand. If Lehi as a scribe used or developed a modified language system that employed both Jewish learning and Egyptian language, then it can be said that he was using a “language” to write his records, even though it is not a language that he spoke or typically wrote. This does not mean that the characters, grammar, syntax, or vocabulary that Lehi employed in his writing system were unique to him but simply that he used aspects of the Egyptian language in a unique way with the learning of the Jews. ((Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” 274.))
Brant A. Gardner has rejected this proposal, noting, “While the idea is intriguing, there is no available support for it, and the textual uses of ‘language’… suggest a more generalized usage rather than this highly specific one.” ((Gardner, Second Witness, 1:62 n.14.))
LeGrand L. Baker and Stephen D. Ricks propose yet another possibility while discussing Nephi’s writings in light of the ancient Israelite temple drama.
He did not write that his father’s language was a combination of the languages of the Jews and the Egyptians, but rather that it consisted of the learning of the Jews (the concepts expressed in the code of Jewish sacral language) and the language of the Egyptians (the non-sacral script or language of the world). ((Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend, 466.))
Although this option is intriguing, especially given the temple connections discussed above, the idea that “learning” refers to the coded concepts of sacral language is unpersuasive, and Baker and Ricks make no argument beyond mere assertion.
Much more could be said to try and tease out the meaning of Nephi’s enigmatic comment on language. ((I would encourage those serious about understanding Nephi’s language to supplement the above discussion with Gardner, Second Witness, 1:61–65, which explores several avenues while maintaining that the information is ultimately too indeterminate to be sure.)) To sum up the above discussion, five potential readings of Nephi’s statement were explained: (1) Nephi was writing in Hebrew with an Egyptian script; (2) Nephi’s writings were not just in Hebrew, but reflected Jewish culture while using an Egyptian script; (3) Nephi wrote in both Egyptian language and script, but after a manner of learning taught in Israelite scribal schools; (4) Nephi was using a writing system unique to his father Lehi, which somehow combined Jewish learning with Egyptian language; (5) Nephi was conveying the sacred concepts of the Jewish sacral language in Egyptian (presumably both script and language).
Obviously, the issue is far from settled, although the first option enjoys the widest scholarly support. Nonetheless, I feel that amidst these possibilities, the third seems most likely, even if the phrasing is far too vague to come to a certain conclusion. ((In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I have no training in the requisite languages. What follows in the body of the text is simply my best effort to sort out what I read in the text, and what others have explained about the Hebrew and Egyptian languages. Due to my lack of expertise, I would advise readers to take these views with the appropriate caution. I would also invite the comments and feedback of those who have a firm grasp of the relevant languages.)) The most natural reading of the “learning of the Jews” is that Nephi’s knowledge of writing was distinctly Jewish, something that fits with the explanation that he learned Egyptian through an Israelite scribal school with an independent tradition of hieratic writing. ((It should be pointed out that the possibilities are not all mutually exclusive. The second obviously encompasses the first, for example. One could also reasonably argue, for instance, that Nephi learned a distinctly Jewish tradition of hieratic, and then used that script to write in Hebrew (1 and 3). Or that Nephi did learn hieratic at an Israelite scribal school, and was writing with Jewish sacral language (3 and 5). Or that Nephi was using his father’s distinct writing system, which used Egyptian script to write Hebrew (1 and 4). Or that Nephi’s training in Egyptian writing at an Israelite scribal school naturally infused his linguistic knowledge with Jewish culture (2 and 3). The reader is free to think of other ways the different explanations could be combined.))
Scholars who have predominantly preferred the first (Hebrew language with Egyptian script) have often pointed to the abundant Hebraisms in the text as evidence that the underlying language is Hebrew. ((See, for example, Sydney B. Sperry, “Hebrew Idioms in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 218–225; Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background,” 77–91; Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), 155–89.)) But, as Brian D. Stubbs has pointed out, “several [of the Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon] are also characteristic of other Near Eastern languages,” ((Brain D. Stubbs, “Language,” in To All the World: The Book of Mormon Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, S. Kent Brown, and John W. Welch, comps. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 164, brackets mine.)) which would include Egyptian. John Gee, an Egyptologist, has specifically noted that “many of the Hebraisms deduced for the Book of Mormon were true of Egyptian as well.” ((John Gee, “La Trahison des Clercs: On the Language and Translation of the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 81 n.99. Also see John Gee, “Review of The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5 (1993): 179–80 n.7. Gee ultimately argues that the underlying language is Hebrew, but his reasons for doing so could probably be accommodated by the argument (in the body of the text) that Israelite scribes would adopt some Hebraic tendencies even while writing Egyptian.)) Hugh Nibley also expressed the same sentiment:
It would be a very difficult and perhaps a useless task to separate possible Egyptian elements in the Book of Mormon from the Hebrew elements. For one thing, Egyptian influence is now known to have been far stronger in Hebrew itself than we hitherto supposed, so that when we think we are dealing with a Hebraism, it might well be an Egyptianism as well, and who is to say whether the Egyptian flavor of the text is not actually stronger than the Hebrew? ((Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Desert Book and FARMS, 1989), 96.))
Melvin Deloy Pack, emeritus professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University, points out that Hebraisms would be present in “a document not written in Hebrew but influenced by the Hebrew of a native speaker,” ((Melvin Deloy Pack, “Hebraisms,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, Dennis L. Largey, gen. ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2003), 321.)) such as Nephi. This is all consistent with Sydney B. Sperry’s suggestion that Nephite “writing would more likely be a Hebraized Egyptian.” ((Sydney B. Sperry, “The Book of Mormon as Translation English,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 209.)) Therefore, other more distinctly Hebrew features (which are not typical of Egyptian writing ((For some examples of features more distinctive of Hebrew and not Egyptian, see Gee, “La Trahison,” 95; Kerry Muhlestein, “Insights Available as We Approach the Original Text,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/1 (2006): 63. I think that all the examples cited by Gee and Muhlestein could reasonably be examples of a native Hebrew speaker Hebraizing the written Egyptian language.)) ) may simply be an indication that Israelite scribes—or, at the very least, Nephite scribes—incorporated certain Hebraic tendencies when writing in Egyptian. ((It should be pointed out that some scholars are of the opinion that none of the peculiar linguistic features are actual relics of translation, but rather they reflect the heavy reliance on King James style English and/or the ungrammatical characteristics of Joseph Smith’s back woods dialect. See, for example, Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 163–81. If that is correct, then alleged Hebraisms would tell us nothing about the underlying text. Though I disagree that all such features of the text are from the KJV mimicking language or just poor grammar, I suspect some are just that.))
Another argument made to support reading “learning of the Jews” as an indication that the underlying language is Hebrew is to point out that Moroni only said he was writing “in the characters which are called among us reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32) while indicating that their Hebrew writing system could have more accurately captured their words (see Mormon 9:33). But Brant A. Gardner rightfully warns against such reasoning.
The thousand-year gap between Nephi and Moroni should caution us against assuming that any meaning of “reformed Egyptian” in Moroni’s time must be relevant to Nephi’s writings. A thousand years is a long time—roughly the difference between modern English and the Anglo-Saxon spoken by the residents of England subdued by the Norman William the Conqueror. According to Moroni, the normal process of change has altered the language or the writing system or both. ((Gardner, Second Witness, 1:63–64.))
Language can undergo a lot of changes in a thousand years, and there is no need to assume the scribal practices started by Nephi remained constant and unchanged. To the contrary, those practices would have to adapt—as Moroni says they did—to the linguistic shifts which Moroni assures us have occurred. Thus, it does not seem prudent to assume that Moroni’s scribal practices are the same as Nephi’s, or that Moroni’s statement can shed light on Nephi’s words.
The Veracity of Nephi’s Record
Nephi closes out his self-introduction emphasizing that he knows the record he makes is true. “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 1:3).
As Nibley pointed out, this is a key element to any colophon. “This complacent advertising of one’s own virtues, in particular one’s reliability, is a correct and indeed required fixture of any properly composed Egyptian autobiography of Nephi’s time.” ((Nibley, Since Cumorah, 151.)) Nibley also pointed out that Nephi’s statement “I make it with mine own hand,” is “simply the Egyptian ‘written with my own fingers,’” an idiomatic expression meant to convey authorship. ((Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 18.)) Baker and Ricks suggest that this phrase indicates that Nephi’s record is a legal witness:
One does not make a record true with one’s “hand” simply by writing the words. Something more is required. For example, in our courts of law, even though one’s testimony may already be written, it is made “true” by a hand gesture—raising the arm to the square while swearing that the information is correct according to one’s own firsthand knowledge. It is likely that Nephi may be referring to such a hand gesture. ((Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend, 466–67.))
If they are correct, Nephi could be seen as legalistically sealing his testimony with his “hand.” This is consistent with other lines of evidence that suggest Nephi was following distinctive legal practices meant to “seal up” his record and ensure the veracity and accuracy of his witness. ((See John W. Welch, “Doubled, Sealed, Witnessed Documents: From the Ancient World to the Book of Mormon,” in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, Davis Bitton, ed. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 391–444. Or, for the cliff notes version, see John W. Welch, “FARMS Update—Doubled, Sealed, and Witnessed Documents,” Insights 21/6 (2001): 2–3; cf. John W. Welch, “A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences, 374–79.))
The chiasm noted earlier links the knowledge by which Nephi makes his record (v. 3) with the knowledge about the “goodness and mysteries of God” (v. 1). Thus, Nephi is making a record according to his knowledge of the mysteries. This again associates the making of Nephi’s record with the temple mysteries and ties Nephi’s record keeping to his personal sôd experience. As discussed earlier, it is the obligation of those who have been through the initiation to record their experience—that is, to “make [a record] according to [their] knowledge.”
It should be evident, at this point, that these three introductory verses of the Book of Mormon can yield a variety of fascinating insights. Careful study of the whole rest of the Book of Mormon can be equally rewarding. Nonetheless, the extent of insight to be gained from Nephi’s personal introduction may come as a surprise to some readers who have generally read these opening verses more habitually than thoughtfully. I hope this paper encourages others to think carefully about Nephi’s opening statement, along with the rest of the Book of Mormon.