This post is a summary of the article “A Backstory for the Brass Plates” by Noel B. Reynolds in Volume 53 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Reynolds provides detailed background for scholarly views of ancient Israelite scribal practices, showing how these practices can inform our perspective on the Brass Plates, and arguing that a Josephite scribal tradition could have both furnished the content of those plates and provided the impetus for their creation.
In this article, Noel B. Reynolds presents the seventh in a series of explorations of ancient Near East scribal practices and their connections to Book of Mormon. For those who haven’t been following along, the series includes:
- Reynolds initial hypothesis regarding a Manassite scribal tradition that helps make sense of both the Brass Plates and the evident literary skills of Lehi and Nephi.
- A review of the ancient practice of writing on metals, with implications for what that practice would have meant for those writing the Book of Mormon.
- A rhetorical analysis of Nephi’s Small Plates, demonstrating the various ways in which Nephi applied ancient rhetoric in his writing.
- An essay arguing for Lehi’s dream as the foundation for Nephi’s scribal project, and the centerpiece of his explication of Christ’s identity and mission.
- A profile of scribal figures throughout the Book of Mormon and their roles in maintaining and applying Nephite scribal traditions.
- An argument for how the sometimes-inconvenient archaeology of Palestine can be reconciled with and framed to support the Brass Plates narrative.
This seventh effort focuses on how mainstream scholars have viewed scribal practices in ancient Israel and in the transmission and production of the biblical record, with particular emphasis on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH; the idea that first five books of the Bible were a compilation of multiple scribal and oral traditions and sources, including potential influence from a northern Josephite tradition) and Deuteronomistic reforms. Reynolds argues that the first of these theories allows for and may represent evidence supporting a Manassite scribal tradition, while the latter theory provides motivation for the preservation of that tradition via the creation of the brass plates.
That tradition, primarily based on Egyptian, may have incorporated many of the items thought to have been present on the Brass Plates, including a more detailed genealogy of Joseph’s lineage, an alternate creation account (potentially including the Books of Moses and Abraham), a Josephite perspective on the history of Israel, and additional prophetic writings. That the Brass Plates contains material contemporary to Lehi (i.e., Jeremiah) suggests that it was a recent production, and one that Lehi and Nephi may have been personally involved in as part of their scribal duties, with Laban’s treasury potentially serving as a secure library for the Manassite scribal school that had produced it.
Included in this Josephite perspective is the idea of “the remnant” of Joseph—the faithful survivors of a great catastrophe, which Jehovah would have a hand in preserving and restoring. This idea was of particular significance to the Nephites, though only bare traces of it remain in the biblical narrative, with the Book of Mormon itself serving as the means of the remnant’s deliverance. Reynolds notes that this would eventually lead to the merger of the Josephite and Judahite scribal traditions, combining the sticks of Joseph and Judah.
The links between the Brass Plates and other restoration scripture appear hard to overstate. Reynolds references work with Jeff Lindsay that identified almost 100 distinctive, non-biblical phrasings that connect the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses, with these and the Book of Abraham reinforcing their mutual themes of the plan of salvation, sacred recordkeeping, and the prophetic role. This suggests that the Brass Plates may have served as a key resource for Lehi, Nephi, and their posterity in terms of access to this prophetic material. This may have been particularly the case for their understanding of the priesthood, given the correspondence between the sermon in Alma 12–13 and Hebrews 7. Though some see this correspondence as proof of biblical borrowing by Joseph Smith, Reynolds suggests that Abrahamic material preserved by a Manassite scribal tradition may have served as a common source for both the Brass Plates and Hebrews, which would resolve the potential anachronism.
Reynolds anticipates the question of how, if there was indeed a rival scribal school in the Manassite tradition, the only Hebrew scriptural records we have come from the Hebrew bible? His implied answer is that the Judahite scribal schools engaged in several harmonization efforts, that took various oral (and potentially written) sources and combined them, harmonizing them linguistically and aligning them with a Judahite political and theological perspective. This includes the aforementioned Documentary Hypothesis. Though criticisms have been levied against the details of the hypothesis, its core claim—that the modern Pentateuch is a blend of various scribal traditions—is not generally disputed. One scholar has proposed that these traditions stem from an original source that is no longer extant, perhaps one that the Manassite tradition was attempting to preserve. LDS scholars have previously used the hypothesis to argue that the Brass Plates included the Pentateuch’s northern sources, and though “no documents have been found that correspond to these hypothesized DH sources”, details arising since then are generally consistent with the idea of multiple biblical sources, a process that becomes evident when comparing the Hebrew Bible with other biblical texts, such as the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch.
Despite the connotation, these “harmonizing” efforts were unlikely to be peaceful—scholars have described them as a culture war, one dominated by the Deuteronomistic reformers who advanced their religious agenda through intentional revision of the biblical text, both before and after the Babylonian exile. Though these redactions have potentially unsettling implications for those who assume the infallibility of scripture, they help provide a rationale for the production of the Brass Plates. Just as other biblical books (i.e., the books of Chronicles were produced with a desire to preserve them against an imminent threat, so too may the Brass Plates have been an effort to preserve the Josephite tradition from redaction. The Manassite line may have considered themselves custodians of the traditions of Abraham and other prophetic writings not included by the Judahite scribes, and preserving those records may have been best done via writing on metal plates. That the Brass Plates appear to have accomplished that objective–not among those in Jerusalem but among the descendants of Nephi and Lehi—may lend some strength to Reynolds’ proposal.
Though much of Reynolds argument here has been advanced in previous papers (and perhaps again in future ones—I’d certainly welcome a part 8, if one emerges), this article adds a substantial proportion of flesh to the bones of his hypothesis. The proposed content of the Brass Plates does appear to fit well into his proposed Manassite scribal tradition, and, from my view, may have been his reason for proposing that tradition in the first place. And if what we know of ancient scribal practices provides a compelling reason for why we have the Brass Plates in the first place, that would go a long way toward attaching some explanatory power to Reynolds’ proposal.
What I’m curious about at this point is if there’s a viable alternative hypothesis that we could entertain (beyond “Joseph Smith wrote it”—though it seems unlikely to me that someone in the 19th century could have placed so many subtle clues pointing consistently toward Josephite influence in the book). Could there be some other source for Nephi’s scribal ability besides a Manassite scribal school? What other explanation could exist for the Brass Plates and its apparent features? How likely could those things have been if a Manassite school didn’t exist? Because it seems to me that Reynold’s hypothesis, subsuming as it does much of the other scholarly work in this area, stands alone in its ability to explain what we observe in the Book of Mormon. Though Reynolds is careful not to present his proposal as “true”, the lack of an alternative would leave it as the most true account available to us, and the best way to situate Nephi, Lehi, and the Brass Plates in the real world.