Monday, January 23, 2017

Some Thoughts on Scribes and Smelters

Lehi reading (left), Nephi smelting (middle), and Jacob writing (right),
with plates front and center.  Image by Book of Mormon Central
I will apologize up front for the general lack of documentation in the this post. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on scribes, writing, and literacy in ancient Israel (and its ancient Near Eastern context) and wanted to hammer out some thoughts that have been jumbling around in my head. Something more refined (with sources cited) will be coming later as part of a larger work.

If there is one thing we know about Lehi and Nephi, it’s that they could read and write. Nephi, we know, could write very well. 1 and 2 Nephi is an impressively crafted text which accomplishes various narrative goals whilst employing a variety of literary conventions and all kinds of subtle allusions. It is, in a word, brilliant. Whether Lehi was such a skilled writer, we don’t know. We lack any samples of his direct writing, but we know he read and wrote because Nephi tells us about it. And Nephi’s own learning came from Lehi, but did his own skill and learning exceed Lehi’s? We don’t know (but as assumed below, I think it did…).

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Was the Mayan Tun a “Year”?

One type of Mayan Calendar. Photo by Jasmin Gimenez
LDS Mesoamerican scholars John L. Sorenson, John E. Clark, Brant A. Gardner, and Mark Alan Wright have all discussed various ways Nephite years might actually be 360-day tuns of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.[1] In his article on dating the death of Jesus Christ, ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Jeffrey R. Chadwick disputed this suggestion. Chadwick asserted, “There is no indication that the Maya thought of their tun count as a ‘year,’” and that “[Michael D.] Coe does not refer to the tun as a ‘year’ anywhere in his discussion of the Mayan calendar system.”[2]

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Designation, Demonstration, and Confirmation: Nephi and the Three-Stage Process of Gaining Power in Israel

Nephi about to slay wicked King Laban, by Jody Livingston
While reading in Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox Press, 2003) last night, I came across some interesting remarks about the process by which Saul came to power. According to Long, et al. (Long is the primary author of the chapter on the early monarchy), “the process by which leaders in early Israel came to power seems to have entailed three stages: designation, demonstration, and confirmation” (p. 210). Long, et al. are drawing the work of Baruch Halpern here, which I have not read (though I have read other things by Halpern, and I find him to be a rather good scholar).

Long, et al. further explained, “First, an individual would be designated by some means for a particular role. Next, the new designee would be expected to demonstrate his status and his prowess by engaging in some feat of arms or military action. Finally, having thus distinguished himself and come to public attention, the designee would be confirmed in his leadership role” (p. 210). My understanding, based on Long, et al.’s discussion of this (pp. 210–214), is that the designation comes through divine means (anointed by the prophet, or chosen through a medium believed to reveal divine will, like casting lots), demonstration is, as pointed out in the quote, usually of militaristic nature, and confirmation comes through the people via public ceremony.

With all that in mind, I got to wondering about whether anything like this might show up in the Book of Mormon. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything like this Mormon’s abridgment (and wouldn’t necessarily expect it, since he lived in pre-Columbian America, and his ancestors had also for the last 1000 years). But it was pretty easy to come up with examples, in the proper order, for Nephi—who was probably schooled in Israelite scribal practices, and whose record has been seen as something of a royal apology (that is, a defense of his right to rule).


Nephi is designated a ruler by the Lord via revelation in 1 Nephi 2:22, and then again by an angel to his brothers in 1 Nephi 3:29. Interestingly, in between these two is the casting of lots, which selects not Nephi, but Laman (1 Nephi 3:11). I would suggest this could be read as a counter designation, which plays a specific and somewhat polemic role in the narrative.


I would propose at least 2 demonstrations in 1 Nephi. The first demonstration is when Nephi obtains the brass plates. The slaying of Laban has long been recognized as one of the most politically charged narratives in 1 Nephi. It plays a major role in Nephi’s argument for his right to rule. It is full of militaristic elements, from his speech in 1 Nephi 4:1–2 to his actual beheading of Laman and donning his armor, Nephi’s obtaining the plates easily qualifies as “a feat of arms.”

What is interesting here is that as part of the narrative you have the counter-designation of Laman in between, followed up with Laman’s failure to accomplish his charge. This is followed Nephi’s own failure, in which Laman then beating Nephi with a rod (1 Nephi 3:22–28). Laman’s beating Nephi with a rod (a symbol of authority/rule in the ancient Near East) could be seen as an attempted demonstration on Laman’s part, which is interrupted by the angel who redesignates Nephi.

The second demonstration comes in the broken bow narrative in 1 Nephi 16. The bow is another symbol of authority in ancient Near Eastern perspectives, and so Nephi’s fashioning bow (while his brothers bows have lost their spring’s), and then successfully killing prey and returning victoriously with food could be seen as another demonstration of Nephi’s right to rule (1 Nephi 16:18–32).

Both of these demonstrations are interesting because, I as I mentioned above, there seems to be some polemical implications in them. They are not just demonstrating that Nephi is fit to rule, but also that Laman is not—he fails to obtain the plates, his attempted demonstration of authority over Nephi is stopped by Nephi’s own divine redesignation, and his bow is defective and he fails to obtain food for the family.


This is vaguest of the three in Nephi’s record, but I believe it is there. It does not come until 2 Nephi 5:18, where Nephi is chosen as king by the people. Granted, Nephi himself expresses reluctance to accept, but Jacob 1:9–11 tells us that Nephi appointed a king as his successor, filled the functions of a king, and his name became a royal title. So it would seem that Nephi did, in fact, become a king for the people. Many scholars have even suggested that 2 Nephi 6–10 was a speech given at Nephi’s coronation, as it has many themes coronation themes in it.

Final Thoughts

It should go without saying that this is extremely preliminary. More reading on this three-stage process is needed, along with greater analysis of the Book of Mormon, particularly 1 and 2 Nephi. But I think this sketch sufficiently illustrates that there is some potential here and that such a framework might have some interesting interpretive possibilities for how we read 1 and 2 Nephi. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

King Noah and Maya Kingship

Tikal, Temple V. During the Classic Era, some
of the most powerful Maya kings reigned at Tikal
I’ve recently enjoyed reading about the expeditions and adventures of John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood in the recently published Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (William Morrow, 2016), by William Carlson. The narrative of their travels in Central America is interrupted three times; first, for a brief biography of Stephens; second, for a brief biography of Catherwood; and finally, for an overview what is now known about the Maya. It is during this third excursus that Carlson describes Maya Kingship as follows:
For the ruling classes, especially the kings, a great deal is known because of the record left in Maya art and hieroglyphs. We know the holy lords lived polygamous lives surrounded by wives and courtiers in royal palaces. They sat on thrones covered with jaguar pelts, commanding their subjects, dispensing justice, greeting emissaries, royal allies, and foreign merchants. In scenes chiseled into limestone and standstone, on painted murals and polychrome pottery, they were finely dyed textiles with geometric designs and flamboyant headdresses heavy with the long iridescent feathers of the quetzal and other tropical birds. They drink frothy brew made from the cacao bean (and gave the world chocolate). They prized exotic goods brought from the coasts and the mountains in trade or tribute: marine shells, stingray spines, coral, finely cut chert, obsidian, pyrite, polished into mosaic scepters and mirrors—and, most of all, jade …. Control and display of these prized goods reinforced their status and power. 
But nothing demonstrated their supremacy like their ability to mobilize mass labor forces, corps of engineers, artisans, and artists, to build and embellish monumental centers devoted to their reigns and dynasties. (pp. 382–383)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Warfare and the Book of Mormon: A Bibliography

Battle at the Sidon River, by James Fullmer
For most Latter-day Saints attending Gospel Doctrine, the infamous “war chapters” are approaching (or some have perhaps already begun to cover them in Sunday School). There is, unfortunately, only two lessons dealing with the war chapters, and those do not even cover all of the war chapters.

So, if you are interested in spending more than just two weeks on the topic and taking an in-depth look at warfare in the Book of Mormon, I’ve put together the following bibliography. This is not a comprehensive bibliography, but represents some of the major resources me and my colleagues at Book of Mormon Central drew upon while writing KnoWhys on the war chapters, which will be coming out in the coming weeks. Some additional resources I found after we finished those KnoWhys are also included in this list.

I have included more than just books specifically on warfare in the Book of Mormon, but also books on warfare in the ancient Near East and pre-Columbian America (mostly Mesoamerica), so those interested can pursue such resources in their own efforts to study the Book of Mormon warfare in ancient historical and cultural contexts.