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. ((S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 30, no. 3 (Summer 1990).))
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. ((Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 100.))
- 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.