Noel Reynolds presents a detailed description of scribal activities in the Book of Mormon, arguing that the scribal tradition of Lehi and Nephi, potentially similar to the traditions of the ancient Near East, can be traced step-by-step all the way to Mormon and Moroni.
In this article, Noel B. Reynolds continues to build on his previous work in Interpreter, showing how his hypothesized Manassite scribal tradition may have been passed down in each generation from Nephi to Moroni. He outlines the path of this tradition, situating it in (and contrasting it with) the context of documented scribal traditions in the ancient Near East, as well as in Mesoamerica. The course of that path is often hereditary, and works its way through the hands of military, political, and prophetic elites as those roles shifted over the centuries. The result is a detailed timeline of scribal activity as it is documented, without gaps, in the Book of Mormon, as mastery of Hebrew and Egyptian was maintained even as the use of those languages shifted over time.
After detailing the broad characteristics of literacy in the ancient world (i.e., with such literacy never widespread, and advanced scribal training rare), Reynolds reminds readers of his hypothesis for a Josephite scribal tradition, one that would have predated the formation of Hebrew script, would have largely relied on Egyptian language training and which, at the time of Lehi, would have been operating in exile within Jerusalem. That tradition, potentially responsible for the development of the Brass Plates, would soon disappear following the Babylonian conquest, only to survive in the New World. For Reynolds, the evidence for this tradition’s survival in the Book of Mormon is on display in the very act of Mormon’s abridgement, which would have involved the preservation of extensive Nephite records across several centuries. This suggests a higher degree of literacy among the Nephites than may have been enjoyed in other ancient societies, with several literate groups (e.g., the priests of Noah, the lawyers of Ammonihah) and interlopers (e.g., Sherem, Abinadi) detailed in the text.
These details suggest that there may have been local scribal schools, associated mostly with priestly roles, that were responsible for educating these other groups in scribal practices and in maintaining knowledge of scripture and religious law. Scribal responsibilities would have involved more than writing on and caring for sets of metal plates. It would also have included keeping track of the calendar (similar to their Mayan contemporaries), as well as developing paper copies of the familiar metallic originals. The focus, in this case, would have been likely been on the Brass Plates, which are often referenced in the Book of Mormon as “the holy scriptures”, and less on the Small Plates, which Reynolds suggests may have been less well known, and for which the target audience was primarily those who would read it in the modern day.
Much of Reynolds’ focus is on the people who fill the role of scribe and recordkeeper, and on the other roles they play Nephite society. Being “tiny in comparison to the great empires of Assyria, Hatti, Egypt, and Babylon”, the elites in that society may have worn several different hats, governing military, religious, and political affairs simultaneously. The same could have been true of scribal duties and traditions. Major points in Reynolds’ trail of scribal activity include:
- Lehi and Nephi, who, in an ancient context, would have been very clearly understood as having received scribal training, with the latter producing both the Large and Small Plates that bear his name.
- Jacob and his descendants, who transmitted the Small Plates, most of whom caring for them but having little themselves to add prior to Amaleki’s deliverance of those plates to King Benjamin. By that point, Amaleki may have allowed the scribal tradition in his family to deteriorate, saying that he “would speak” his words rather than writing them.
- The Nephite kings that received and transmitted the Large Plates, and from whom we hear little until the time of King Benjamin and his son Mosiah, who then confers them on the first in his established system of chief judges.
- Alma, both Elder and Younger, the latter of whom gave up the position of chief judge in favor of his priestly responsibilities. Though he intended to maintain the scribal function with that governing role, Nephihah’s refusal meant that the role continued with Alma the Younger and his sons. It is here that the scribal tradition appears to be come more systematized, with recordkeeping taking the form of annual reports, with transitions between them marked and emphasized in the text.
- Helaman, whose instructions for caring for the plates are recorded in “unparalleled detail”. Upon his death, the sacred records are inherited briefly by Shiblon before being passed to the next generation.
- Helaman, son of Helaman, who again combines the role of priest and chief Judge after the murder of his predecessor, though those roles are again separated when his son Nephi delivers the judgement seat to Cezoram, himself retaining responsibility for the plates.
- Nephi, son of Nephi, who keeps the records in the years surrounding the birth and visitation of Christ, with that responsibility later passing through his son and grandson (both named Amos), during the subsequent period of peace.
- Ammaron, who took up the mantle of scribal duties before hiding up the accumulated records.
- Mormon, who balanced his responsibilities as a military leader with the tasks of abridging the Nephite record and to extend the plates of Nephi with his own observations.
- Moroni, who, in several spurts, finishes the record of his father and abridges the Jaredite record before delivering the gold plates to their final resting place.
With this article, Reynolds presents the final piece of a now-completed puzzle detailing his view of a Manassite scribal tradition, one stretching thousands of years from Abraham, Joseph, and Moses through to Lehi, Nephi, Alma, Mormon, and Moroni, as well as touching the minds and hands of numerous others along the way. Though there’s likely to be more details filled in along the way, this overarching picture is a compelling one that provides interesting texture to the lives of familiar figures in our scriptural narratives.
That we have limited evidence for it outside the text of the Book of Mormon should give us some pause, but perhaps not unduly so. Both the strength and curse of archaeological science is being limited to what we can pull out of the ground. That we know some things haven’t survived for us to pull them out means that we know the current mainstream view is incorrect—it’s just a matter of where and to what degree. Going a few steps beyond the evidence has, ironically, a greater chance of being correct than does the mainstream view. As long as we’re clear about what Reynolds proposal is—a hypothesis, and a useful one, with concrete predictions attached to it—I see no problem with letting it inform our view both of the ancient Near East and the Book of Mormon.