Monday, May 11, 2015

Lehi, Mosiah, and The Writings In Between

The introductory superscription to 1 Nephi provides a synopsis of the events which are to be narrated in the subsequent text. Included in this brief outline is mention of Lehi and his family, their departure from Jerusalem, their journeys and travels across "large waters," and their arrival in a promised land. This synopsis is conspicuously limited in that it only progresses to the point of arrival in the promised land and continues no further. Before coming to this chronological point in the actual saga (1 Nephi 18), however, Nephi interrupts his historical narrative three times to provide editorial clarifications. First, in 1 Nephi 1:16-17, he explains that he is providing an abridgment of his father Lehi's records, which will be followed with an account of his own ministry. Second, in 1 Nephi 6:3 he informs the reader that his abridgment is intentionally selective as to his inclusion of Lehi's writings. Third, in 1 Nephi 9, he adds that he has created two sets of plates: one for historical purposes and one for recording the ministry of his people.

The text division in 1 Nephi 9 is significant for point of reference because it causes the reader to suspend their focus from the narrative while Nephi inserts a parenthetical commentary on the plates. After clarifying the purpose of the respective content accompanying each set of plates, Nephi then explains that the subsequent text will be an account of his ministry (1 Nephi 10:1), thus, providing noticeable resolution to his previously promised assertion in 1 Nephi 1:17. Based on Nephi's comments we are to understand, implicitly, that the abridgment of Lehi's record begins in approximately 1 Nephi 1:4-5 and ends in 1 Nephi 9:1. Although his editorial hand has been apparent from previous interjections throughout the abridgment, and while he shifts the verb tense at several points along the way causing minor disruptions to the narrative flow, the continuation of narrative in 1 Nephi 10:1a stands out for its notable shift to the present tense, as though the reader is now situated in Nephi's current timeframe. This mistaken notion, however, is quickly corrected in 10:1b where Nephi reverts back to the historical events leading up to his own ministry.

As the saga continues and the small group finally arrives in the promised land, Nephi subsequently finds ore to forge plates: "And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper. And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people" (1 Nephi 18:25-19:1). Thus, Nephi's commentary in Chapter 9 seems somewhat premature since his previous discussion regarding separate records was inserted into the narrative at a chronological point that long preceded his obtaining of raw materials to forge plates after arriving in the promised land. Although Nephi previously mentioned two sets of plates, he specifically explains in Chapter 19 that the plates forged at this point were, as Jacob would later term them, the "larger plates" (Jacob 3:13), upon which he copied the Book of Lehi in its entirety as well as engraving the history of his people.

Finally, in 2 Nephi 5:29-33, Nephi receives a commandment to create the "small plates" (a designation also coined by Jacob; see Jacob 1:1), which is the record available to the latter-day reader. He explicitly comments regarding the purpose of each set of plates, and while the historical, or "larger plates," were apparently passed down from one king to another (1 Nephi 9:4; Jacob 1:9-15; Jarom 1:14; Omni 1:11; Words of Mormon 1:10), the ministerial plates of Nephi were passed to Jacob, and then to his posterity from one generation to the next. Although Nephi intended them to be given from "one prophet to another" (1 Nephi 19:4), this direction seems to have been lost in subsequent generations since they were kept lineally by Jacob's posterity regardless of prophetic affinity. Nevertheless, the two sets of records were kept separately following Nephi's death.

Since Nephi's editorial style includes historical summaries and prolepses, the reader doesn't receive clarity regarding the written timeframe of events until resolution is apparently provided in 2 Nephi 5. All of this editorial distraction, however, preserves the fact that a silent editor has included the small plates as part of a larger corpus. Fast forward several hundred years to the end of Amaleki's narrative at the close of the small plates and Mormon discloses his editorial presence in an unanticipated interjection with the Words of Mormon. This short book diachronically bridges the end of the small plates to the continuance of the large plates. Before bridging this chasm, however, Mormon's commentary confronts the reader with a dramatic prolepsis asserting the destruction of the Nephite civilization (which had just developed in 2 Nephi 5) several hundred years "after the coming of Christ." Mormon then confesses that after he had abridged the large plates of Nephi down to the history of King Benjamin, he discovered these small plates among the records which he had received, and decided to include them among his abridgment of the large plates of Nephi.

When the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon translation were lost through Martin Harris' negligence, after sincere penitence, the Lord revealed to Joseph that he would again be able to translate. He was instructed that the small plates of Nephi contained "greater views" of the gospel and "that an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands, is engraven upon the plates of Nephi," which provided a "more particular account" of that which the Lord desired to bring forth (D&C 10:45,38-39). Interestingly, upon commencing translation, Joseph was instructed that he should translate the engravings, "even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained" (D&C 10:41). In other words, more than 116 pages had been translated by Joseph Smith and transcribed by Martin Harris, but only 116 pages were taken back to Palmyra and subsequently disappeared. Since Joseph retained some of what was translated, including material on the reign of King Benjamin, it has been observed by scholars that the Book of Mosiah is likely missing its first two chapters.

For example, Royal Skousen observed that Mosiah chapter I was originally labeled as chapter III in the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the title "the Book of Mosiah" was an insertion above what is now Mosiah 1:1. Additionally, this verse begins in the middle of things rather than providing any type of introduction as other Book of Mormon books do. The other Book of Mormon books are named for the author who begins their record; however, if such were the case for the Book of Mosiah it would have been named the Book of Benjamin, since Mosiah 1:1 begins with discussion about King Benjamin. It is believed that Mosiah I material covered the first chapter or two of this book, hece the appropriate naming of the book.1

Thus, the original translation apparently had the Book of Lehi, and then jumped straight to the Book of Mosiah (with two chapters missing from our current edition). It would seem that this apparent jump in history does not make any logical sense. Why would the large plates of Nephi go straight from Lehi to Mosiah? Why wouldn't they include Nephi's writings since Nephi created the large plates?

The answer to this question is actually much easier than it seems. I occasionally hear a reference to the small plates and large plates as comprising the text of the Book of Mormon; however, this is not true. Nephi forged the large plates (1 Nephi 19) and the small plates (2 Nephi 5), and upon the large plates he copied the Book of Lehi in its entirety, but the rest of his record was generally more historical in nature (1 Nephi 19:1). It would seem that the original Book of Lehi was probably written on perishable material and Nephi copied this content to preserve the record. Thus the "plates of Lehi" and the "Book of Lehi" would appropriately be considered synonymous. But Joseph Smith did not have the large plates that Nephi forged, as he made clear in his preface to the 1830 Book of Mormon:
I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from  the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon
Thus, the Book of Mormon comprises Mormon's abridgement of the large plates of Nephi, with an insertion of the small plates of Nephi:
And now, I speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.
Accordingly, it would seem that Mormon abridged the plates/Book of Lehi and probably like the Words of Mormon, included some narrative (as is typical of Mormon's editorial style)2 to bridge the gap between Lehi and Benjamin. Since Nephi's large plates included more history than it did the 'ministerial' writings of Nephi (1 Nephi 19:1-3), it would seem fitting, again considering Mormon's editorial style, that the content provided by Mormon was framed to illustrate certain redemptive principles illustrated by stories such as are currently included in our Book of Mormon. Perhaps there was inclusion of some of Nephi's writings and prophecies (again see 1 Nephi 19:1), but the greater saga provided by Lehi may have more fully served Mormon's editorial purposes. At any rate, the large plates were passed through Nephi's progeny, who were apparently not affiliated with a prophetic and priestly line, as was intended to be the case with Jacob and his posterity. Accordingly, Mormon's heavy focus on the Book of Lehi (why call the text the Book of Lehi if the 116 pages were not primarily comprised of Lehi's writings?) and on Mosiah, makes most sense if the hundreds of years between the two were simply an analogue of kings and historical data (since the small plates preserved the ministerial portion of history). Mormon's focus would have potentially been a framework of creation (the Lehite civilization and progeny), fall (the wars and contentions between Nephites and Lamanites) and atonement (Christ's ministry in 3 Nephi), and again a fall (illustrating the reality of apostasy, but also of the tremendous impact of Alma's words:

And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things. (Alma 24:30)
At any rate, the gulf between Lehi's writings and Mosiah's writings only makes sense in terms of the large plates being abridged by Mormon, which is precisely what the text actually indicates.

1 Royal Skousen, "History of the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon," in Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon: History and Findings of the Critical Text Project [published in lieu of Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11/2 (2002)], ed. M. Gerald Bradford and Alison V.P. Coutts (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2002), 20-21
2 Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

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