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Lehi's 600 Year Prophecy: Some Notes on a Question of Book of Mormon Chronology

After recounting his tree of life dream, Lehi continues to prophesy, recounting the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem, and then the subsequent return of the Jews (see 1 Nephi 10:3). Lehi then gives a rather precise prophecy—that the Messiah would come 600 years after the time he had left Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 10:4; cf. 1 Nephi 19:8; 2 Nephi 25:19).[1] This prophecy runs into some chronological problems, a point critics have by no means been shy to make. King Zedekiah’s reign did not begin until the year 597 BC.[2] The problem is more than three years, however, because Herod the Great—who plays a prominent role in the nativity narrative—very likely died in 4 BC, pushing the birth date of Christ to most likely between 6 and 4 BC.[3] This would allow, at most, 593 years between Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem and the birth of Christ (assuming Lehi left within a year of Zedekiah’s ascendancy to the throne and his own prophetic call). This is more than a matter of rounding off to the nearest hundred, because the Book of Mormon carefully chronicles the years, counting precisely 600 between the time Lehi leaves and the sign of Christ’s birth.[4]

This discrepancy can be dealt with in three different ways: (a) Using the Jewish lunar calendar, which consisted of approximately 354 days per year, a precise 600 lunar years can be counted from between 588/587 BC to 5 BC.[5] This would presume that Lehi stayed and prophesied in Jerusalem for about a decade before the Lord instructed him to leave. (b) Using a Mesoamerican long-count calendar, which rounded the year off at 360 days for convenience, a precise count of 600 tuns (360-day “years”) can be counted from 597/596 BC to 5/4 BC.[6] This suggests that Lehi left Jerusalem shortly after his prophetic call, early in the reign of Zedekiah. (c) Using the standard solar calendar, one scholar has hypothesized that Lehi actually left in 605 BC, and that the “reign of Zedekiah” spoken of is actually the year 609 BC, suggesting that Lehi’s ministry lasted about four years.[7] Either of these suggestions could be possible.[8]




[1] For a very careful and thorough analysis of the three passages that state this prophecy, see Randall P. Spackman, “Lehi’s 600-Year Prophecy,” in A Source Book for Book of Mormon Chronology, 2010–2012, online at http://www.bookofmormonchronology.net/ (accessed December 12, 2012). This specific paper is at http://www.bookofmormonchronology.net/uploads/3/7/7/6/3776503/part_1._lehis_600-year_prophecy.4.pdf (accessed December 12, 2012).
[2] See See David Rolph Seely, “Chronology, Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, 197–198. For an in-depth discussion in this dating for King Zedekiah’s first year, see Randall P. Spackman, “When Was the First Year of the Reign of Zedekiah, King of Judah?” in A Source Book for Book of Mormon Chronology, 2010–2012, online at http://www.bookofmormonchronology.net/ (accessed December 12, 2012). This specific paper is at http://www.bookofmormonchronology.net/uploads/3/7/7/6/3776503/part_2._when_was_the_first_year.1.pdf (accessed December 12, 2012).
[3] For a more thorough discussion of when Christ was born in a Latter-day Saint context, see Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Christ,” BYU Studies 49/4 (2010): 5–38 and the response, Lincoln H. Blumell and Thomas A. Wayment, “When Was Jesus Born? A Response to a Recent Proposal,” BYU Studies Quarterly 51/3 (2012): 53–81. Also, most recently, John A. Tvedtnes, “When was Christ Born?” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014): 1–33.
[4] While this tends to be viewed as a “problem” for the text, this precise accuracy also serves as a point for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. Given the rapid manner of dictation, with no chance to look back or revise, how could Joseph Smith have made sure that exactly 600 years had been accounted for, assuring the accuracy of the initial prophecy?
[5] See Randall P. Spackman, “The Jewish/Nephite Lunar Calendar,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7/1 (1998): 48–59. A key point to Spackman’s argument is the awareness of Jeremiah’s imprisonment as seen in 1 Nephi 7:14. While Spackman makes a good argument, this may not be air tight. S. Kent Brown and David Rolph Seely, “Jeremiah’s Imprisonment and the Date of Lehi’s Departure,” Religious Educator 2/1 (2001): 15–32 respond to Spackman’s arguments and suggest an earlier date (i.e., ca. 597 BC) for Lehi’s departure. For a response to Brown and Seely, see Randall P. Spackman, “Lehi’s Escape,” parts 1, 3–10, and 12 in A Source Book for Book of Mormon Chronology, online at http://www.bookofmormonchronology.net/lehis-escape.html (accessed December 13, 2012). Although Spackman is careful and very thorough and makes several very good counter-points, I find some of his arguments problematic and unsatisfactory for reasons that are too involved to even briefly discuss here. John L. Sorenson’s observation in 1993 remains true today: “Spackman’s complex analysis still needs serious criticism by experts in the several subjects he treats, including the Jewish calendar, other Near Eastern calendars, astronomy, and Mesoamerican calendars” (John L. Sorenson, “Notes and Communications—Comments on Nephite Chronology,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 [1993]: 208). Spackman’s continued and sustained work notwithstanding, he remains the only one dedicated to this field of study. The efforts of multiple persons analyzing the problems, coming up with solutions, and critiquing each other’s work is needed to more fully flesh out the issues involved. In spite of that, Spackman’s position, perhaps because his is the most thoroughly developed, argued for, and defended, seems to be the most persuasive of the competing proposals.
[6] See John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 270–276. While Sorenson’s argument is clever, and very much possible, it suffers from the fact that when Lehi uttered his prophecy he was in the Old World, and would not have been aware of Mesoamerican practices. On p. 276, Sorenson hints at the possibility of some Old World precedents to the Mesoamerican system. It is possible that Nephi, writing some thirty years later, and well-adjusted to the New World culture, may have adopted the Mesoamerican method of time-keeping, and thus “edited” Lehi’s prophecy to reflect an even 600 tuns. Note that I am not suggesting that Nephi changed the prophecy, but rather that he noticed that using this new reckoning of time, it rounded out more evenly. He may have done it as a “translation” of sorts, knowing that his descendants would likely be using tuns to track the long-count of time; this way, they would not “miss it” or be confused by its timing. It should be noted that Sorenson himself has since deferred to Spackman on the subject of chronology: “I find Spackman’s arguments generally persuasive. They should be considered to supersede any statements on the Nephite calendar I have made.” (Sorenson, “Comments on Nephite Chronology,” 208.)
[7] See Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Has the Seal of Mulek Been Found?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/2 (2003): 117–118 n. 24; Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “An Archaeologist’s View,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006): 123 n. 7. Chadwick suggests that the Jews viewed Zedekiah as the rightful heir in 609 BC, rather than his half-brother Jehoiakim, who was appointed as a vassal king by the Egyptians. Of the three approaches, Chadwick’s is the most problematic. Not only does it require that we theorize, based on virtually no evidence at all, that the Jews saw Zedekiah as the true king in 609 BC, it is problematic because in 609 BC he would have been known as Mattaniah, not Zedekiah (though this could presumably be explained as a translator’s anachronism). A similar, but somewhat different and even more problematic approach, was taken by Joseph L. Allen and Blake J. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, Revised Edition (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2011), 69–72. The Allens propose that “Zedekiah” is a royal title imposed by the Babylonians, that the first “Zedekiah” was Jehoiakim, and that 1 Nephi 1:4 therefore refers to 609 BC (see p. 70). There is not a shred of evidence for this claim, and it is riddled with problems, not the least of which is the fact that Jehoiakim was appointed as the vassal king by the Egyptians, not the Babylonians. See Randall P. Spackman, “Jehoiakim was Not Nephi’s Zedekiah,” in A Source Book for Book of Mormon Chronology, online at http://www.bookofmormonchronology.net/uploads/3/7/7/6/3776503/appendix_i._part_3._zedekiah.pdf (accessed December 16, 2012) for a thorough response to this very problematic suggestion (although Spackman is responding to an older form of the argument, his criticisms still apply). The majority position among scholars is that Lehi left in or after the year 597 BC, with the 600 year prophecy referring either to a different type of “year” (e.g., the lunar year or Mayan tun) or that it is a rounding off of the years (which has its own set of problems, as noted).
[8] See David Rolph Seely, “Chronology, Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, 196–204; John P. Pratt, “Chronology,” in To All the World: The Book of Mormon Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, S. Kent Brown, and John W. Welch, eds. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 65–68; Spackman, A Source Book for Book of Mormon Chronology, for additional analysis of this issue and the Nephite calendar system.

Comments

  1. Could it be that Lehi was simply rounding off? This could be similar to the ancient use of "ten thousand" to mean "a whole bunch of people."

    Also, if non-Mormon Christians are concerned about chronological problems in the Book of Mormon, let's hope they don't find out about Jeremiah's 70 years prophecy. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Mike,

      I personally don't find that possibility very persuasive. In 3 Nephi 1:1, they had counted down 600 years. I know there is a passage where Mormon implies that the chronology might be off, but I have a hard time believing that they were 7-9 years off and that they were off the exact number needed make it so that the birth of Christ coincided with 600 years from the time Lehi left.

      I suppose it could be attributed to Mormon's editorial handy work, or perhaps they didn't really keep track of their chronology until later, centuries after Christ, and someone close to Mormon's own time constructed a chronology and naturally used the 600 year prophecy as a guide. But any such possibility is pure speculation. I think we are better off assuming that the chronology is generally accurate, and that therefore some other type of "year" is at work here.

      Delete
  2. Great comments, Neal. Thanks for your reply!

    ReplyDelete

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