Reynolds identifies seven passages in 1 and 2 Nephi where the book’s authors provide their own explanations for the nature and purpose of that record. These passages appear to have been intricately and intentionally crafted using the techniques of Hebrew poetry and rhetoric, suggesting that the Small Plates are the result of an extensive and careful process of composition that occurred prior to being etched on metal plates.
In this paper, Noel Reynolds provides a thorough accounting of the explanations that Nephi himself provides for why he has kept the records contained in the Large and Small Plates. In doing so, Reynolds goes beyond the straightforward explanation many of us have been long familiar with (i.e., as the Small Plates containing “the things of [Nephi’s] soul”), arguing that 1 and 2 Nephi were intentionally crafted to frame and expand upon Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life, using techniques common to Hebrew rhetoric. Reynolds suggests that the Small Plates are Nephi’s mature scriptural capstone, one drawing off his scribal education, his experience as ruler, and a wealth of other spiritual and historical records, including the Brass Plates, original accounts of his father’s revelatory experiences, and Nephi’s own Large Plates.
Reynolds notes a total of seven explanations outlining the differences between the Large and Small Plates. Nearly all of these explanations are themselves rhetorically structured, with a variety of chiastic and parallelistic forms that mark them off from the rest of the text. Key features of these seven explanations are summarized in a convenient table at the end of the article.
Reynolds points to:
- 1 Nephi 1:1-3, where Reynolds sees a chiastic description of Nephi’s qualifications for writing the record: his learning, and being favored of the Lord. Discussing Nephi’s additional skills in working with ore and creating metal plates, Reynolds notes: “As several new studies of Ancient Near Eastern literacy have shown, this rare combination of intellectual and material skills could be obtained only through years of training in a scribal school and its workshop.”
- 1 Nephi 1:16-17, another chiastic passage that prepares us for the distinction between the summary of Lehi’s record and Nephi’s own record in the Small Plates. Reynolds notes that the reason that this second explanation doesn’t follow immediately after 1 Nephi 1:1-3 (where it would make the most sense) may be because the first twenty verses of 1 Nephi are themselves structured chiastically, with verses 16 and 17 standing parallel to aspects of that first explanation (in verses 2-4), and with the centre of that chiasm focused on the description of Christ in verse 9.
- 1 Nephi 6:1-6, which follows Lehi’s description of the just-acquired Brass Plates, and that Reynolds frames within two chiasms where Nephi explains why the Small Plates do not contain his genealogy and describes the mission of the Small Plates (i.e., “that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham”).
- 1 Nephi 9:1-6, which marks the transition between the summary of Lehi’s and Nephi’s own accounts, and includes a chiasm and series of parallel couplets that explain the purpose of the Large Plates (i.e., “a full account of the history of my people”), and the Lord’s purposes for the Small Plates (i.e., “for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not”). This explanation can be seen as linked to the first explanation in a conceptual chiasm, centered on the account of obtaining the brass plates.
- 1 Nephi 19:1-6, which Reynolds frames as a set of parallel triplets that outline the series of commandments Nephi received to create his various records.
- 2 Nephi 5:28-34, Nephi’s final explanation, which Reynolds sees as providing the historical context for creating the Small Plates, with a chiasm that centres on the concept of obedience to God’s commandments.
- Jacob’s own explanation in Jacob 1:1-8, which is bounded on both ends by the idea of commandments from God, and that centered on the concepts of revelation and prophecy, prophecies that he makes clear are focused on Christ. Reynolds also notes potential echoes to Jacob’s explanation in Jarom, Omni, and Words of Mormon.
Seeing the types of rhetorical structures outlined above has led to a shift in Reynolds own thinking on the nature of Nephi’s record. Early on in the article he says:
“Like most others that have written about the Small Plates, I used to assume that the form and content evolved over the decade or more that Nephi spent writing First and Second Nephi. But as is obvious in my recent writings, I now see strong evidence that these two books were carefully designed and polished as a finished whole before being committed to their final form on metal plates.”
Reading this article, it’s hard not to gain further respect for Nephi as an author, as a poet, and as a prophet. The degree to which Nephi thinks about and writes about the purpose of his own record shows me just how sacred the task of record-keeping was to him, and how dedicated he was to that task. That generates obvious implications for the book’s authenticity, but more important are its implications for how we should be treating the book. If Nephi cared that much about keeping that record, and God saw fit to deliver that record to us, then we should take similar care in reading it.
Reynolds is one who clearly takes that care. That care means that he needs to, at times, walk a fine line in his analysis. Reynolds recognizes the possibility of straying over the line and alerts the reader (i.e., the proposed chiastic structure for Jacob 1:1-8; the explanations in 1 Nephi 9 and 19 being “in parallel position” in Nephi’s summary of Lehi’s and his own accounts, when they aren’t actually parallel). The potential danger, of course, is that presenting structures with limited support has the potential to create undue skepticism about the poetic structures that have more full-bodied support. Such would be all the more a pity, as there is strong evidence for the reality of the structures.
For me, seeing the dozens or even hundreds of proposed chiasms and parallelisms in 1 Nephi and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon initially prompted some hard questions: could Nephi really have intentionally formed each of those hundreds of examples and interwove them with such care throughout the text? Reynolds work should leave us fully open to the idea that, yes, Nephi really did put in that effort, that those structures are not just an illusion, and that they are there to communicate important insights about the text of the Book of Mormon, about Nephi, and about the God through whom that text has come.