This post is a summary of the article “Lehi and Nephi as Trained Manassite Scribes” by Noel B. Reynolds in Volume 50 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
The full article can be read at https://interpreterfoundation.org/lehi-and-nephi-as-trained-manassite-scribes/.
An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Reynolds provides an ambitious review of ancient scribal practices in the Ancient Near East (ANE), proposing that Nephi and Lehi received scribal training in a hypothesized Manassite scribal tradition potentially tracing back to the time of Abraham.
Acknowledging the previous contributions of Brant Gardner, Noel Reynolds uses this article to advance the argument that both Nephi and Lehi received scribal training, including training in Egyptian writing and in the use of Hebrew rhetoric. This argument has its most straightforward basis in Nephi’s description of his education in “the learning of the Jews” and “the language of Egyptians”, which may refer to the specific training associated with seventh-century Jerusalem’s scribal schools, training that Nephi puts on full display in the course of his record-keeping. In considering these possibilities, Reynolds states that, “for Nephi to claim these two skills in the culture of 600 BCE Jerusalem would be taken by his contemporaries as a straightforward confession of scribal training at the highest level”.
Reynolds’ specific claims about Nephi and Lehi are paired with a broader proposal for a hypothesized scribal tradition stemming specifically from the tribe of Manasseh, with its roots in the traditions of the patriarchs and surviving in Jerusalem following the scattering of the ten tribes. This Manassite tradition may have survived even after the destruction of Jerusalem, with Reynolds presenting the tantalizing story of Kerala Jews in southeast India. As recorded by a 17th century sea captain, these Jews maintained that they were descended from Manasseh, and had been carried to the east end of the Babylonian empire by Nebuchadnezzar, having kept their history on ancient brass plates. It’s a compelling narrative, though its memory hasn’t survived among the few Kerala Jews living in the twenty-first century.
Reynolds situates his proposal in the context of ancient Mesopotamian, Syrian and Egyptian scribal schools. Literacy in these ancient societies depended on such schools, with individuals in important social and religious roles often being trained scribal elites. Though scribal schools were often based in temples and royal bureaucracies, Reynolds explains that scribal training had a basis in family relationships and domestic training environments, with educated fathers teaching their sons. Proverbs 4:1-4 may refer directly to that father-son training relationship.
Though starting much later than other ANE traditions, the scribal school of ancient Israel may have exceeded those other models. Though most similar in structure to the Mesopotamian scribal tradition, there is notable evidence for Egyptian influence as well, with Egyptian being the most likely candidate for Israelite record-keeping in the centuries before 800 BCE. Reynolds identifies a key characteristic of Egyptian scribal schools, where certain scribes served part-time annual rotations, using the remaining months to make their living as businessmen. This practice has an implicit link to Joseph of Egypt, and has implications for Lehi, who the Book of Mormon implies may have also been both a merchant and a metal-worker, which would have been possible if he had been part of the scribal elite.
In addition to describing ANE scribal practices, Reynolds lays the breadcrumbs for a millenia-long scribal tradition that could have provided the foundation for Nephi’s eventual production of scripture. That trail includes:
- Abraham, who, though inhabiting the generally illiterate oral cultures of his time, is portrayed by the Bible and other traditions as having scribal skills. These skills are suggested by his association with royal elites in Egypt, Chaldea, and Canaan, and may have been learned at an early age.
- Isaac and Jacob who, though not generally portrayed as literate, would have likely inherited Abraham’s collection of records, and would have plausibly chosen to receive linguistic training in Egyptian and other languages in order to understand and continue those records.
- Joseph, whose “meteoric rise” in Egyptian bureaucracy and whose history as a teacher of wisdom would’ve required high-level scribal skills. Those skills would have allowed him to record and transmit the traditions of the patriarchs.
- Joseph’s posterity, who would have naturally received the best available Egyptian education, alongside potential training in Abrahamic scribal traditions.
- The tribe of Manasseh, headquartered in Manassite or Ephramite centers, that may have been determined to maintain its Abrahamic religious traditions.
- The exile of this scribal tradition to Jerusalem following the destruction of northern Israel by Assyria. Reynolds suggests that this scribal tradition may have been partially altered after a century within Jerusalem’s sphere of influence, which would explain why the Brass Plates were under the influence of Jerusalem’s elders, why Lehi wasn’t granted his expected access to the Brass Plates, and why Lehi and others had been threatened with execution and banishment.
- The detailed transmission of scribal records and skills in the generations separating Nephi from Moroni, representing a Nephite extension of the Manassite scribal school, which Reynolds promises to flesh out in a future paper.
Reynolds is repeatedly open about the current lack of archaeological support for his hypotheses. Mainstream scholars maintain that there was no meaningful writing in Israel prior to 800 BCE, and that the traditions of the patriarchs were transmitted purely through oral traditions. In addition to assuming that evidence of earlier scribal traditions could have been lost, Reynolds hints at evidence that fails to fit this mainstream narrative. This includes the clear and decisive development of Hebrew while in close proximity to other similar languages, and that a substantial proportion of the Old Testament maintains northern dialects of Hebrew, the latter implying the faithful transmission of ancient texts from northern sources rather than a Judaic compilation of otherwise oral traditions.
In reading this article, I had to admire the bold and thorough nature of Reynolds’ vision for Israelite scribal practices. I also like how it gives us plenty of options to work with. Even if Reynolds’ hypothesized trail of scribal transmission didn’t occur precisely as he predicts, he forges enough plausible links that the idea of an Egyptian-based Manassite scribal school can be rendered any number of ways, whether from Abraham, from Joseph, or from general Egyptian influence in the centuries prior to Lehi.
And for me it very much aligns with common sense. Why would the nation of Israel, so often exposed to, interacting with, and living among advanced, literature cultures, fail to see the value in writing down their own traditions? Here the conservative nature of mainstream archaeology, relying, as it must, on what has survived to be pulled out of the ground, has arrived at what I see as a misleading conclusion.
Though critics would see the disconnect with mainstream thought as reason to reject the Book of Mormon narrative, what it can represent instead is a testable hypothesis. Just as careful scholars might have used the Book of Mormon to predict the eventual discovery of Hebrew temples outside of Jerusalem or Israelite scribes writing in Egyptian script, Reynolds presents us with a concrete prediction—that evidence may someday be found for the Manassite scribal tradition he envisions. If the Hebrew scribal tradition as we know it today doesn’t adequately explain the creation or the implied content of the Brass Plates or the complex artistry evident in Nephi’s rhetoric, maybe it’s our vision of the former that should change. And in the meantime, we can better appreciate Lehi and Nephi for what they were likely to have been—highly educated recipients of generations-worth of scribal tradition, who upheld the sacred task of preserving that tradition for their descendants.