Evans argues that aspects of 2 Nephi align with the structure of ancient legal documents—with allusions to witnesses, judgment, statements, rhetoric, and appeals to authority—and that Nephi, in the context of his engagement in the common ancient practice of actively shaping his source texts, built an argument designed to prove the reality of God’s prophecies and promises.
In this article, Martin Oman Evans compares 2 Nephi with ancient legal texts, arguing that the book can be profitably read as a legal document. Though others have found ways to interpret the book in a legal and covenantal context, he suggests that these legal threads run deeper than previously supposed. Outlining ancient legal conventions and documentary practices that sound unintuitive to our modern ears (e.g., allowing objects to stand as witnesses and act as a guarantor), Evans highlights how near-east legal and scribal traditions suggest that Nephi may be framing the text as a kind of deposition, systematically gathering sworn evidence from witnesses to prove the reality of Christ. This includes:
- The way in which Nephi introduces the words of his brother Jacob, noting both the speaker and the audience (or witnesses) to whom he spoke.
- Nephi’s explicit use of Jacob’s and Isaiah’s words as witnesses, in alignment with the law of witnesses as understood in Nephi’s day.
- Nephi’s reference of authenticating entities (i.e., “the spirit”; the Lord) when making oaths and claims.
- The inclusion of a plaintiff statement outlining the words of the witness and demanding a decision from the audience, alongside the promise of additional proof.
- Straightforward references to the “judgment bar”, clearly indicating that his text is framed as a court proceeding.
- Framing the reader as both defendant and judge, as well as the delegation of judgment to Christ and his word.
- Similarities in rhetorical style, including colorful and repetitive language, unusual legal situations, and resonance with contracts, among others.
- Similar emphasis on “conjecture and transference” (i.e., establishing the course of events and assigning fault) rather than other factors like degree of guilt or the meaning of the law, which leads to a rather “black or white” view of guilt within Nephi’s rhetoric.
- The inclusion of a copied and sealed version of the text, similar to the ancient practice of sealing a copy of legal records for safekeeping.
In addition to these similarities, Evans also notes ways in which Nephi’s record contrasts with legal texts. These include Nephi writing a verbatim rather than a periphrastic record, Nephi’s omission of a list of persons present, and referencing a seal without actually including the words of the seal inscription.
Turning to the structure and purpose of various parts of 2 Nephi, Evans suggests this purpose is to rejoice, be persuaded of the reality of God, and know God’s intent toward his children, as evidenced by fulfilled prophecy and the revelation of hidden knowledge. Nephi cites witnesses in support of that purpose. For instance, Nephi’s pattern of Isaiah quotation changes in 2 Nephi 12-24, which Evans suggests is Nephi’s direct use of Isaiah’s words as a high-fidelity witness of Christ. That Nephi references Jacob’s words alongside those of Isaiah as proof of his words suggests that he sees Jacob as a similar witness of the divine. He also argues that Nephi’s psalm in 2 Nephi 4-5 represents Nephi’s reaction to the covenantal renewal (and rejection) that takes place in the previous chapters.
As Evans concludes:
Nephi’s allusions to sealing the record and to a bar of judgement, his discussion of the law of witnesses, his reference to Isaiah and Jacob as witnesses, formatting and verbiage consistent with Neo-Babylonian depositions and plaintiff statements, practices used in Neo-Babylonian legal procedures…and finally the inclusion of lengthy non-exegetical text together are idiosyncrasies of 2 Nephi. … The unique formatting of 2 Nephi argues strongly that it should be viewed as a witness on its own merits based on legal convention.
I’ve always been enamored with Jack Welch’s analysis of the Book of Mormon as a legal text, and Evans successfully blends that work with additional insights to provide an interesting view of the purpose of 2 Nephi. But I especially appreciated Evans’ discussion of how Nephi may have engaged in creative scribal transmission in his quotations of Isaiah, more so in 1 Nephi and in 2 Nephi 30, and substantially less so in 2 Nephi 12-24. He even uses this to explain the inclusion of Deutero-Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon text. As he states:
The notion of texual adaptation may run counter to our modern preconceptions of the way a sacred text should be transmitted. But as we have discussed throughout this paper, adaptation of the source text was a common and expected scribal activity.
The Isaiah portions of 2 Nephi would then represent a modern harmonized text–a work based on authentic ancient writings that were both adapted by Nephi and harmonized with the modern King James text by its English translator(s). This process would not have seemed strange to ancient Israelite scribes, who often made extensive exegetical revisions and had to work to harmonize multiple oral and written sources. To say that I’m sympathetic to this perspective is to put it lightly—in my view it helps explain a number of potential issues with the inclusion and alteration of King James language. Evans’ work here helps put a bit of meat on those rhetorical bones, grounding this idea in ancient practice, and applying it to help frame his legal understanding of Nephi’s remarkable text.