Monday, January 17, 2011

The Nephite-Kenite Hypothesis: Nephi as Scribe

“It is to writings that you must set your mind ... I do not see an office comparable with [the scribe's] ... I shall make you love books more than [you love] your mother, and I shall place their excellence before you.”
-- From the Egyptian text The Satire on the Trades: The Instruction of Dua-Khety

Literacy in the ancient world was restricted to a very elite group, and the Near East was no exception.[1] Over ninety percent of the populace lived on farms and were almost completely illiterate, although some could write their name or recognize it on a seal. A small group of urban dwellers comprising around five percent of the population would have had some functional literacy.[2] But even many among this group, including scribes, were merely capable of copying simple documents and signing their names.[3] Those who could create extensive literary texts were extremely rare:
It seems prudent, therefore, when speaking of literacy, to make a distinction between the ability to write something and the ability to produce literature. Put differently, we might distinguish between rudimentary writing and refined writing. Rudimentary writing would include the ability to write one's own name, to record basic receipts of goods received, and perhaps even to engrave words on a seal or other object. Refined writing, by contrast, would be restricted to a particular social group and wold result in the production of highly complex texts demonstrating great learning and skill in the artful use of repetition, direct discourse, rhetorical patterning and the like.[4]
This limited group of individuals was influential: “Egyptian scribes could attain great wealth, prestige and position. The most highly regarded were priestly scribes, a station reserved for a select few.”[5] These scribes were usually connected to the temple[6] and functioned as a hereditary guild:
On the whole, the scribal profession was hereditary. “The son takes the profession of his father,” according to a Sumerian school text. In the first millennium, knowledge was also passed on from father to son, especially when the son was at a more advanced phase of his studies. Colophons show that junior scribes would often copy tablets for their fathers’ collections—collections that they would eventually inherit. In the different cities of southern Mesopotamia, scribes were organized according to families. Many of them traced their ancestry back to the late second millennium b.c.e.[7]
The biblical record also details families of scribes (cf. 1 Chron 2:55), and Nephi speaks of learning the things of his father and handing down records within his own family clan. It is in this context that we must examine the scope of Nephi's texts, for his output is not rudimentary in any sense but rather highly sophisticated literature. He has been taught in scribal languages, he creates record divisions that mirror scribal techniques of his day, he uses literary formulas prevalent in scribal training texts, he copies biblical texts, he creates commentaries (or pesherim) to apply them to his own situation, and he deliberately crafts his narratives to mirror those of key biblical events. So when we look at indicators of professions for Nephi and Lehi, we must first start with that of scribe.

Nephi appears to know at least Hebrew and Egyptian fluently. He tells us that he makes his record in the language of his father, “which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2), later called “reformed Egyptian” by Moroni (Moroni 9:32). The “learning of the Jews” likely refers to Hebrew, as the record keepers knew this language as well (Moroni 9:33-34). And their fluency in Egyptian likely aided Lehi and Nephi to read the records on the Brass Plates (Mosoiah 1:3-4), Nephi having been taught in the learning of his father (1 Nephi 1:1). While a merchant might have some training in the languages among whose cultures he moved, an extensive literary fluency in those languages indicates the world of scribes, who were trained in Egyptian from the tenth century B.C.[8]

The very fact that Lehi and Nephi are adapting and combining languages is another scribal indicator. Tvedtnes and Ricks have compiled examples of Israelite scribes doing just this, including
an ostracon uncovered at Arad in 1967. Dating “toward the end of the seventh century B.C.,” it reflects usage from shortly before 600 B.C., the time of Lehi. The text on the ostracon is written in a combination of Egyptian hieratic and Hebrew characters, but can be read entirely as Egyptian.[9]
Egyptian Hieratic and Demotic are themselves examples of languages modified by scribes and priests for different purposes and different surfaces.[10] Frank Moore Cross addressed why this class in particular would frequently adapt the languages with which they worked:
A Canaanite scribe who was bilingual or trilingual, who could write in more than one writing system, evidently was freer to let his imagination range, to contemplate the possibility of other, simpler alternates to the writing systems he knew.[11]
Aside from that fact that knowing Egyptian and adapting Egyptian are both indicative of scribal training, Nephi specifically uses literary formulas from Egyptian texts used to train scribes. Among other markers, Nibley points to the phrase “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents” as mimicking the opening lines of hundreds of Egyptian literary autobiographies,[12] and he compares Nephi's narrative to the Egyptian epic story of Sinuhe. Yet these autobiographies and stories are the very texts used for training scribes in the Egyptian system.[13] Referring specifically to the Sinuhe narrative, William Simpson tells us that “master scribes and their students copied the text in school on limestone flakes (ostraca)” and that “with the exception of religious texts and various standard formulas, few other compositions are represented in as many copies or partial copies.”[14]

Another indicator of Nephi's scribal training is apparent in the way he references additional records that contain parallel information, such as Lehi's record:
And now I, Nephi, do not give the genealogy of my fathers in this part of my record; neither at any time shall I give it after upon these plates which I am writing; for it is given in the record which has been kept by my father; wherefore, I do not write it in this work. (1 Nephi 6:1; see also 1:17; 19:2.)
He also refers to information on a prior set of records he has made:
And I knew not at the time when I made them that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these plates; wherefore, the record of my father, and the genealogy of his fathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken; wherefore, the things which transpired before I made these plates are, of a truth, more particularly made mention upon the first plates. (1 Nephi 19:2.)
This technique of referencing information in other records is common to the scribes of his time and place. Charles David Isbell, among others, refers to a formula used by the scribes who edited 1 and 2 Kings:
Beginning with Solomon, numerous times following the notice of a king's death, the biblical text offers the following disclaimer: “Now the rest of the activities of ________, are they not written in the Book of the _________?” The only change in this formula is the name of the king and the exact name of the book.[15]
Walter Dietrich refers to it as a “regular concluding formula,”[16] while Marvin Sweeney calls it a “concluding regnal formula.”[17] Yet this is a recognized scribal technique that Nephi uses frequently in his own narrative. He even seems to realize that basic devices such as a genealogy list would normally occur in particular areas of a text of his genre, which is why he points out that the data that would usually be expected in a certain location is really found in another record.

Nephi not only copies large blocks of scriptures (mostly Isaiah), the province and practice of scribes, but he also provides a commentary on these verses to apply them particularly to his time and place. Isaiah's words become relevant because, adapted for his purposes, they refer to his people as a branch of Israel, they prophecy the very record that he creates, and they speak of judgment and mercy for his descendants. He adapts Isaiah's words to his community and the politics of his community. To be sure, his commentary (pesher) will be different than others', but this type of interpretation and rereading is the common practice of priestly scribes throughout Jewish literature,[18] and it particularly resembles the pesherim of the Qumran community:
These Qumran writings contain one unusual type of annotation: "They are not commentaries in the modern sense of the term. Their keyword is, in Hebrew, pesher, and pesher means properly the interpretation of a dream or the unravelling of a puzzle." Thus they apply the hidden meaning of the scriptures to the Qumran group by means of long quotations handled verse by verse: "The pesharim are a group of sectarian writings that present, section by section, continuous commentaries on biblical books." The Old Testament books are written out but regularly interrupted with comments on fulfillment, typically introduced by the ritual phrase, "the interpretation concerns." In other words, the community looked to its spiritual leaders to teach the sense and application of the prophets. Most comments follow prophet extracts, though sometimes they introduce them—a pattern similar to that found in Book of Mormon commentaries. Both Qumran and Nephite literatures are similar not only in treasuring their own prophecies and psalms, but also in devoting a large block of writing to biblical quotation and explanation. In neither culture are their leaders free to speak without reviewing their scriptural heritage in detail . . . [19]
Perhaps the best indicator of Nephi's extensive training is his ability to craft his narratives in a way that shows he is deliberately mirroring the structure of other biblical narratives. For example, a number of LDS scholars have noted Nephi's extensive use of the Exodus pattern to illustrate his family's voyage out of Jerusalem to their own promised land.[20] Terrence L. Szink tells us that “quite probably, Nephi, the author of this section, consciously wrote his account of the wilderness journey in a way that would remind the reader of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt.”[21] He follows this with an extensive list of textual points of contact.[22] He concludes with the following:
There are a number of parallels between the stories of these two groups of people, both led by God's hand through trials in a desert wilderness to a new land. Some are general, and others are specific and very clear. It seems to me that such a large body of parallels cannot be accounted for by coincidence. It appears that Nephi purposefully wrote his account in a way that would reflect the Exodus. His intention was to prove that God loved and cared for the Nephites just as he did the children of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt.

Certainly this connection could not have been a product of Joseph Smith's writing. The parallels to Exodus occur at dozens of places throughout the Book of Mormon record. No hasty copying of the Bible could have produced such complex similarities, not to mention the differences that remain. In fact, because they are so quiet and underlying, no Latter-day Saint until our day has even noticed these comparisons. Nephi clearly composed a masterpiece full of subtle literary touches that we are only now beginning to appreciate.[23]
Other scholars are just as convinced. Mark Johnson tells us that “We cannot conclude whether the Lehites were aware of the parallels to the Exodus as they were reenacting them, although it appears that Nephi did at least thirty years later,”[24] and “We find that the parallels between the two instances of exodus are numerous.”[25]

Another example of biblical intertextuality appears as Nephi crafts his narrative about the slaying of Laban in a way that alludes to the story of David and Goliath. After Ben McGuire examines the evidence, he concludes that the “allusion seems to be intended to convince its readers that Nephi is a legitimate king and that there was a dynastic shift from the Davidic line of kings.”[26] These types of deliberate, subtle allusions are the product of someone with extensive training in literature and language. As we narrow our search to locate Nephi and Lehi in the world of 600 B.C., we must first acknowledge that they are trained scribes. Knowing this also tells us that we will soon be forced to consider the world of priests and temples.


1. Cf. Piotr Bienkowski and Alan Millard (eds.), Dictionary of the Ancient Near East (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) 182; Phillip R. Davies, Scribes and Schools: the Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 77; William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Isreal (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005) 28; David W. Jamieson-Drake, Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah: A Socio-Archeological Approach (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991) 154-157; Eric A. Seibert, Subversive Scribes and the Solomonic Narrative: A Reading of 1 Kings 1-11 (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2006) 46; Daniel C. Snell, A Companion to the Ancient Near East (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 196, 245, 330.

2. Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007) 10; Others have argued that this estimate is too high. In “Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society” J. Baines argues that literacy in Egypt couldn't have been more than one percent (Man n.s. [London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1983) 572-99, as cited in Rivkah Harris, “The Female Sage in Mesopotamian Literature (with an Appendix on Egypt)” published in John G. Gammie and Leo Perdue (eds.), The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East [Eisenbrauns, 1990] 15.

3. Bart D. Ehrman, Whose Word is It? (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing, 2006) 38-39.

4. Seibert, 49.

5. Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Writing (London: St Edmundsbury Press, 2001) 45.

6. Cf., Snell, 196; Van der Toorn, 2-4, 56;

7. Van der Toorn, 62.

8. Robert F. Smith, “Epistolary Form in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review: 22/2 (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2010), accessed on January 15, 2011.

9. John A. Tvedtnes and Stephen D. Ricks, “Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” JBMS 5/2 (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1996) 161.

Hugh Nibley (Teachings of the Book of Mormon, vol. 1 [electronic edition] 44) emphasizes the role of exiled priestly scribes (like Lehi) in developing and adapting languages:
Incidentally, at that very time (the generation that Lehi was living) was the time that Reformed Egyptian (Demotic) became the official government language. In the twenty-sixth dynasty, the time of Semiticus II and of Lehi, it became the official way of writing. It was this new reformed type of Egyptian known as Demotic. And at the very same time, the priests who used to be in the former royal court at Napata fled farther to Meroƫ. There they produced a new type of Egyptian at this time which was Meroitic (I've got a picture of it here).
11. Frank Moore Cross, "Frank Moore Cross—An Interview, Part III: How the Alphabet Democratized Civilization," Bible Review 8/6 (December 1992): 21 as cited in Robert F. Smith, “Epistolary Form in the Book of Mormon.”

12. Nibley, 41.

13. William Kelly Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry (Yale University Press, 2003) 438.

14. Ibid., 54.

15. Charles David Isbell, “History and Writing”, accessed on January 17, 2011.

16. Walter Dietrich, “1 and 2 Kings” in John Barton and John Muddiman (eds.), The Oxford Biblical Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) 232.

17. Marvin A. Sweeney, I and II Kings (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2007) 161.

18. Cf., J. Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), passim.

19. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Imitation Gospels and Christ's Book of Mormon Ministry” in C. Wilfred Griggs (ed.), Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1986), accessed on January 17, 2011.

20. Cf., George S. Tate, "The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon," in Neal E. Lambert (ed.), Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experiences (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 245–62; Terrence L. Szink, "To a Land of Promise (1 Nephi 16–18)," in Kent P. Jackson (ed.), Studies in Scripture: Volume Seven, 1 Nephi to Alma 29 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 60–72; S. Kent Brown, "The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30 (Summer 1990): 112–26; and Bruce J. Boehm, "Wanderers in the Promised Land: A Study of the Exodus Motif in the Book of Mormon and Holy Bible," JBMS 3/1 (Spring 1944): 187–203.

21. Terrence L. Szink, “Nephi and the Exodus” in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (eds.), Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Shadow Mountain, 1991), accessed on January 15, 2011.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Mark J. Johnson, “The Exodus of Lehi Revisited” JBMS 3/2 (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1994)   125.

25. Ibid., 126.

26. Ben McGuire, “Nephi and Goliath: A Case Study of Literary Allusion in the Book of Mormon,Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture: 18/1 (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2009), accessed on January 15, 2011.


Rachel Sherman said...

Hey, great blog! Very interesting content...and it helped me with a Book of Mormon paper;)

KR said...

Masterful article. Well articulated and very compelling. I fear that any comments I make will sound sophmoric in comparison. Some things that I thought would go nicely with this: Holzapfel wrote a book on the exodus pattern that covers much of the items that you mention. The similarities between Lehi's exodus and The Exodus are not lost on him, but are mentioned as more of a further consideration to his thesis and not the main thrust. What other texts are you aware of that go into more detail on the comparisons? Additionally, if talking about Nephi having scribe training, I think seeing many of the rabbinic methods used (you're really going to want to read Roots of the Bible by Friedrich Weinreb for this) by Nephi and those who follow as some rather conclusive proof of your thesis here. One other thing, that I thought I'd ask, do you believe that Nephi and Lehi were scribes by profession, or do you think they had scribe training and still participated in another trade/trades? Nibley makes some rather interesting points that suggest at least a strong familiarity with being merchants. As I said, I hope my comments and questions don't sound too sophmoric.

Joey Green said...

Sorry for the delayed responses, Rachel and KR--it's been a pretty long stretch at work with little extra time to spare. (Of course, you know all about that, KR!)

Rachel, thanks for the feedback.

KR, stop already with the "sophomoric" shtick. For more on the Exodus pattern, go over to the Maxwell Institute site and search on "Nephi" and "Exodus." You'll get a long list of articles from John Sorensen to Terrence Szink. Good stuff.

Many scribes in the acient near east also had other trades, so it's very likely Lehi and Nephi had additional training as well. But I'm not as persuaded by the merchant theory. I'll continue to lay out my case in the next few months (time permitting), but I believe the answer lies among a subdivision of the Kenites/Rechabites where Lehi and Nephi would have been trained as scribes, priests, and metalworkers.