Nephi, Columbus, Prophecy, and Translation: Insights from Columbus’s Libro de las profecías


This week for Come Follow Me, we are studying Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11–15. As part of his sweeping prophetic vision, Nephi sees a series of events leading up to the publication of the Book of Mormon and Restoration of the Gospel, including “a man among the Gentiles” who sails to the promised land (1 Nephi 13:12). The Come Follow Me manual says that this man is Christopher Columbus, and that is consistent with how prophets and Church leaders have interpreted this passage since the 19th century.[1]

I am willing to bet that had Columbus known about Nephi’s words, he would have thought it referred to himself too. The reason I suspect that is because even without knowledge of Nephi’s words, Columbus believed he was fulfilling prophecy, and even kept of a book of passages from ancient writings—mostly from the Old and New Testaments, but including other writings as well—that he believed referred to him, his life mission, or things that he thought he was playing some role in bringing to pass. The collection is referred to as Libro de las profecías, or the “book of prophecies,” and was translated and published in 1991 by Delno C. West and August Kling, in preparation of the quincentennial of Columbus’s first voyage.

Seneca’s Prophecy

For the most part, none of these passages rival 1 Nephi 13:12 in specificity and clear applicability to Columbus. But there is one that I find quite striking. It’s from Seneca’s Tragedy of Medea (ca. 50 AD), and it reads:
In the latter years of the world will come certain times in which the Ocean Sea will relax the bonds of things, and a great land will open up, and a new mariner like the one who was the guide of Jason, whose name was Typhis, will discover a new world, and then will the island of Thule no longer be the farthest.[2]
Note that Jason is a main character in Seneca’s Medea, Typhis (more commonly Tiphys) was the great helmsman of the mythical Argonauts (and thus a sort of archtype for great mariners), and Thule referred to Iceland. Also, it is worth noting that in the context of the play these words are indeed presented as a prophecy.

And it’s hard not to see them as genuinely prophetic. It is referring to a future day when the sea will be unlocked by “a new mariner” who will discover a “great land” and a “new world” that is further west than Iceland—the farthest westward point from Europe then known. Sounds a lot like Columbus, no?

In fact, if you are thinking it seems almost too much like Columbus, you are right—the quote I provided is not actually from Seneca’s play. Rather, it’s Columbus’s interpretive Spanish rewording—or dare I say, his Spanish “translation”?—of the actual passage from Seneca, which he also records (in Latin) as:

The time will come
In a number of years, when Oceanus
Will unfasten the bounds, and a huge
Land will stretch out, and Typhis the pilot
Will discover new worlds, so
The remotest land will no longer be Thule.[3]

There is an important text critical issue with this reading—it should most likely read Tethys, a parallel to Ocean in Greco-Roman mythology, rather than Typhis, the archetypal mariner—but other than that, this is an essentially correct rendering of the Latin passage.[4] Even like this, however, the passage could still pass as a genuinely prophetic pronouncement of Columbus’s voyage. It’s certainly not hard to see why Columbus believed it referred to him, in any case.

If we switch out Typhis for Tethys, to get a more accurate translation of the original, we end up with something like this: “There will come an age in the far-off years when Ocean shall unloose the bonds of things, when the whole broad earth shall be revealed, when Tethys shall disclose new worlds and Thule not be the limit of the lands.”

Rendered this way, the passage seems less clearly directed at Columbus or any specific individual, but I would argue that it still quite accurately (though, probably accidently) predicts the era of European discovery and exploration of the New World that mariners like Columbus (1492), John Cabot (1497), and Amerigo Vespucci (1499) set in motion (parenthetical dates refer to first voyage to the New World by each).

As a believer in both God and prophecy, I am not adverse to the possibility that Seneca was genuinely inspired as he wrote those prophetic words into his tragedy, but that is not the point I want to make here (and I generally doubt it’s anything more than mere coincidence). I find all of this rather significant, however, for two reasons:

1. Prophecies written in ancient texts can have an uncanny resemblance to real history that unfolds long—and we are talking centuries or even more than a millennium—after the fact. In my opinion, although it’s likely mere coincidence, there is no doubting that the “prophecy” as it is originally worded also makes for a reasonable description of the late fifteenth century when Europeans were first learning of the lands to the west beyond “Thule” (i.e., Iceland). It also indisputably predates those events by some 1450 years.[5] Thus, the fact that a text looks like an accurate predictive prophecy is not evidence that the text postdates the predicted events. It’s not even evidence that the text was written close in time to those events.

2. After the fact translation and interpretation of ancient prophecies can retrofit those texts to past events believed to fulfill said prophecies and remain reasonably faithful to the original text. Most scholars would probably refer to the Spanish version of the Medea passage in Libro de las profecías as a rewriting or paraphrase. Carol Delaney said he “reword[ed] the verses and insert[ed] himself into the prophecy.”[6] While is a fair description of what Columbus did, I think it is also accurate to call it a translation. Columbus first wrote the passage, unedited, in Latin. Then right below the unedited Latin text, he rendered what he thought it meant in Spanish. That’s literally a translation, even if it’s not translated literally.

And while his translation does rework the passage to make it more clearly refer to himself, it’s also a reasonable approximation of what the passage in Seneca actually says, as understood by Columbus.[7] At least, any person reading the two side-by-side can tell the one is based on the other.

There is another interesting example of this from Henry Scadding in 1897. He argued that the Seneca passage referred not to Columbus but rather John Cabot. And so writing in the quarto-centennial of Cabot’s voyage to North America, he rendered the passage “into English with a little expansion”:
Late in time eras will arrive when Oceanus himself may undo the bands which confine human enterprises, and a vast land may be laid open to the general view, and Tethys, spouse of Oceanus and mother by him of countless Oceanids, guardians of islands in the sea, may disclose new spheres, and Thule may no more be styled earth’s utmost limit.[8]
Once again, although the text, by the translator’s own admission, “expands” on the actual Latin of the passage, we see it’s a reasonably faithful translation—you can tell it’s based off of Seneca’s passage in Medea—that approximates the meaning of Seneca’s words, as understood by Scadding.

I want to stress that while the renderings of Columbus and Scadding clearly “expand” upon the actual words of Seneca, I don’t think it is entirely accurate to them as “expansions”—even though Scadding himself does just that. The reason is that I don’t think either understood themselves as expanding on the meaning of the passage. Instead, both believed they were faithfully rendering the meaning of the passage from its original Latin into either Spanish (Columbus) or English (Scadding). That’s translation. “Loose” translation, perhaps, but translation nonetheless.

(And note that I am not saying that either one correctly and faithfully expressed the original meaning of the passage—though I think Scadding is reasonably close on that score—only that they were sincere in how they were interpreting it. They believed their rendering was true to the original.)

Application to the Book of Mormon, esp. 1 Nephi 11–15

Ok, now after that elaborate detour about Seneca’s Medea, let’s get back to the Book of Mormon. I think this example from Seneca, and these two modern-era translations of it, is instructive for us in trying to understand the nature of prophecy and translation as it applies to the Book of Mormon, and especially here in this week’s reading (1 Nephi 11–15).

Nephi’s vision includes highly specific details of more than just Columbus. He provides a sweeping prophecy of the life of Christ and the early persecutions of the Christian Church (1 Nephi 11), the wars and eventual destruction of his own posterity (1 Nephi 12), the future restoration (1 Nephi 13) and the end times (1 Nephi 14). Skeptics may claim that these prophecies are too detailed and too specific to be based on an authentically ancient text. And they may be partially right—but not because Nephi did not genuinely prophesy of these future events, but rather because all we have to read is a translation made after many of the events had already transpired.

As illustrated above with regard to the prophecy from Seneca’s Medea—dated some 1450 years before Columbus and the other European explorers—a translation of prophecy can be both reasonably faithful to the original text, and retrofitted to apply clearly and explicitly to events which are in the translator’s past. Thus, the detailed prophecies of 1 Nephi 11–13 need not be purely modern compositions, created by Joseph Smith from whole cloth. Instead, they could be interpretive translations along the lines of those translations of Seneca provided by Columbus and Scadding—reasonably faithful to the original text, but also adapting it to make its meaning more clear for its English speaking audience.

In contrast to the scenario with Seneca, however, I want to be clear that I do believe that Nephi truly had prophetic knowledge of the future events described in 1 Nephi 11–14. And though I suspect both Columbus and Scadding misinterpreted Seneca’s prophecy in their translations, I believe that Joseph Smith—translating as he was “by the gift and power of God”—properly interpreted the events Nephi’s prophecy referred. Indeed, I would even argue that the Lord deliberately inspired Joseph to translate in a way that would make the series of events sufficiently clear so that there would be no dispute that all of Nephi’s prophecies leading up to the restoration of gospel had truly been fulfilled.

I also want to be clear that I am not saying that all of the translation of the Book of Mormon was this “loose” (for lack of a better word). In fact, there are portions I suspect are fairly literal translations. But I would also suggest that this kind of interpretive model for translation may be useful when considering things like the New Testament language or 19th century phrases found throughout the Book of Mormon. In those cases as well, I would argue that if we had the original text, we’d be able to compare these instances and see that these passages are reasonably faithful to the original text, even though they may be somewhat more loose, interpretive, or even paraphrastic. In all instances, however, I trust that as a divinely inspired translation, the interpretations made by Joseph as translator were accurate, and that the translation faithfully and correctly conveys the teachings of its ancient prophetic authors.

Closing Thoughts

In closing, I’d like to stress that I propose all this merely as a possibility. Obviously, with no access to the golden plates, I do not know what the original text said or its exact relationship to the English translation of the Book of Mormon as we have it. Lacking that sure knowledge, however, I think it is wise to avoid dogmatism and remain flexible in our understanding of the translation. Regardless of the exact details, I do trust that the translation we have is the one the Lord wanted us to have, and that by reading, studying, and following its teachings in our lives, we will come closer to Jesus Christ—irrespective of all the other interesting questions we may sometimes wish we had answers to.



[1] I’ve seen some people challenge this interpretation, but I’ve never seen any good exegetical reasons for considering anybody else. In fact, the reasons tend not to be exegetical at all, but are instead motivated by the fact that Columbus’s treatment of the natives he came into contact with makes us uncomfortable today. I am not going to dwell on this controversy in this post, but I didn’t want to completely ignore it either. For now, it suffices me to say that: (a) you’d be hard pressed not to find a prominent person from the 1400s–1500s who didn’t do some downright terrible things or hold some downright disgusting views by today’s standards, and (b) nothing in Nephi’s vision requires Columbus to be a righteous or upstanding figure. In fact, scripture is chockful of wicked people that God used to bring about his purposes—especially when God’s “wrath” was involved (as is the case here—see 1 Nephi 13:11, 14). Still, I will grant that the association with Columbus is just an interpretation. In the absence of a better interpretation, however, I’m going to roll with it.
[2] Delno C. West and August Kling, trans., The Libro de las profecías of Christopher Columbus: An en face edition (Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1991), 227.
[3] West and Kling, Libro de las profecías, 225.
[4] See Diskin Clay, “Columbus’s Senecan Prophecy,” American Journal of Philology 113, no. 4 (1992): 617–620.
[5] I confess to not being an expert on the manuscripts and textual history of Medea, but from what I can tell there is no dispute as to the authenticity of this passage. The earliest attestation of the play is in a fifth century fragment known as Ambrosian Palimpsest, while the earliest full manuscript is from the 11th century. See R. H. Philip, “The Manuscript Tradition of Seneca’s Tragedies,” Classical Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1968): 151–153. So at a minimum, the prophecy was known centuries before the events of the fifteenth century unfolded.
[6] Carol Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (Duckworth, 2012), 57.
[7] As noted, the actual passage in Medea refers to Tethys, not Typhis, but this is not a reading Columbus invented. Again, I am not an expert on the textual history and manuscript traditions here, but from what I can tell the Typhis reading is attested at least a couple hundred years before Columbus. See Philip, “Manuscript Tradition,” 162. So when I say his Spanish rendering of the passage is a reasonable translation, I mean that it is a reasonable translation of the text as he had it and as he understood it.
[8] Henry Scadding, Seneca’s Prophecy and its Fulfilment (Toronto: Clopp and Clark Co., 1897), 3.

Comments

  1. In the same vein, we gringos always interpret 1 Nephi 13.15-18 in terms of Puritans, the English and the American Revolution; it's our single frame of reference, and the tradition goes back far and long, as in the Columbus case you outlined. But I think there is enough wiggle room in this vision to allow for a broader interpretation. There's enough latitude to acknowledge that for ~300 years, Spain was the dominant power of the Western Hemisphere, for the Gentile to be another explorer as you discussed (or simply a symbol to represent the whole of European exploration), for the events of the conquista of Spanish America, and the subsequent early 19th century Latin American wars of independence, from Mexico to Argentina (and in Brazil/Portugal, as well). It's a very narrow view (and a fallacious one) to see the Book of Mormon as a book all about 'Murica!'.

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